In Orthodoxy, we continue the Jewish traditions of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as doing these things in accordance with a Liturgical calendar. Protestants have good reason to be doubtful of Orthodoxy’s extraneous rules and such. There are not only obvious proof-texts that appear to teach against the Orthodox practice, such as Galatians 3 and Colossians 2, but there is also basic human-experience.
We, as men, tend towards legalism and not the spirit of a law or practice. Furthermore, this legalism is of no value in combating the desires of the flesh (i.e. “passions.” See Col 2:23.)
Let me speak of my own experience, though perhaps not everything I am writing is about me personally.
For one, we will “fast,” but how often do we actually eat less or not at all.
When we do “fast,” do we take an “ignorance is bliss” position? Do we just presume marshmallows are “just sugar” (they are made with pork bones) or Doritos do not really have milk (they do)?
I for one am adept at reading labels and anticipating what is in the ingredients of things more than the average person. This is because I have a very bad food allergy to a common ingredient. So, I myself am extremely guilty following the letter of the rule (avoid dairy, meat, oil, and etcetera) but still doing the Burger King thing and having it my own way.
Vegetarian Mayo, natural peanut butter with no added oil (it’s natural oils rise to the top when its a new package), tons of cheap shrimp from Walmart (as a protein replacement when I cannot have meat), fat free tomato sauce so I can give flavor to my macaroni, pesto sauce made with cashews (it is super creamy and tasty), and forget about all the Asian tricks. They essentially follow the Orthodox fast rules by default, so I can have all sorts of meals, including creams (they use coconuts instead of dairy), and not break a sweat.
It also “helps” that crystalized sugar was invented in the fifth century AD, which means that none of the fasting rules forbade it as they all come from preceding centuries.
The spirit of the law is that when we fast, we are supposed to be eating (less) food eating what we like less. All of this should cost less too. Today, Orthodox fasting is pretty much imbibing in the Mediterranean diet. I find it more expensive to buy soy milk and lentil macaroni than to buy $1.99 a pound chop meat and $1.50 gallons of milk from Aldis.
As we see, such legalism is of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
So, in pursuit of taming such passions, I even add my own additional rules. I will not read the news, post on Facebook, post on message boards, and follow the Yankees for the sake of cutting out entertainment on fast days. The idea is that, ideally, I will spend more time with God in prayer and reading. But, the Pharisee that I am, I just figure out “educational” forms of entertainment and lesser distractions (but distractions nonetheless) to work around my own rules.
This is why Christ was flippant in his treatment of the Pharisees and their washing of hands before meals. Sure, it washed away any potential contamination that microscopically might have made what they ate unclean. Nevertheless, it did not address the far more pertinent issue–they were still Lawbreakers all the same. Following rules and even making new ones to avoid breaking those rules does not actually address the real problem: we are constantly acting in defiance of God.
I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire (Rom 7:7-8).
Indeed, our piety is false and it is usually something we do to feel better about ourselves. It has nothing to do with actually desiring God (to borrow a phrase from John Piper)–a hunger for drawing closer to Him and delighting in Him. If our desire was for God, our piety would be inward and not merely outward. We would fulfill our obligations in the spirit and not merely the letter.
The fact we satisfy our hunger for food and frivolities, and do not hunger for God more, speaks volumes about where our hearts are. We are not hungering for God more than all else.
Lord have mercy on us, because after death, that’s all we will have. God–and a whole lot of Him. Are we ready for Him? No.
What do we do? I am not entirely sure. But I think it is important not to stop fasting.
Clearly, the early Christians concurred (1 Cor 7, Didache 8; see also Acts 21:24 which shows Saint Paul also kept following the Law and all the Jewish precepts, typical of Jewish Christians). It is indisputable. Apostolic Christians fasted, in the Orthodox manner no less!
Yet, I am sure they were no different than us when it comes to tendencies towards false piety. In fact, Paul’s warnings in Col 2 and 1 Tim 4 would seem to heavily mitigate against the possibility.
I think we need to remind ourselves that when we fast we should not act as the hypocrites do (Matt 6:16). First and foremost, we want to avoid the approval of men. Further, we must avoid our own approval. We must constantly examine ourselves to see if we are being faithful to the spirit of the fast. If we are not, we are to repent and redouble our efforts, taking our own hypocrisy as a reminder of our own falleness and laziness.
Fasting only tames passions if its refocusing us on God and not ourselves.
This focus on God is incredibly important. God came to this world to save us. That is the whole point of Christmas and in fact, it is the etymology of the name “Jesus.” Our sins are as far as the east is from the west. He is not keeping a record of wrongs, though we fall daily. But, He does not leave us where we are as He is transforming us into His likeness.
We must reflect on our hypocrisy and use it as an opportunity to look to Christ, who is without hypocrisy and failure. He is righteous and faithful when we are not. And when we fail, look to Christ for mercy and call upon His name, we are saved. This continual repentance and trusting in Christ alone is what saves us.
In sum, we are not saved by our fasting. Rather, it is through fasting and prayer that Jesus Christ works miracles (Matt 17:21) in us–the chief of which is our salvation.
The following did not quite “make it” into the article, but one thing I have noticed in Orthodoxy is that because we “fast” from meat and such, we go out of our way to eat it on the days we are allowed to.
For example, the meal I used to always make for guests to my home was shrimp scampi. It was my go-to meal for impressing guests. However, what used to be a kind offer is now found wanting on a non-fast day! I find this ironic, because my shrimp scampi tastes the same as it always did and everyone always considered it good!
A similar example to this is last Lent I asked my wife what she was looking forward to eating. I was thinking of something simple, like chicken tikka masala (which is easy to make with the Aldi’s sauce.) I was surprised that my wife said, “Steak.” She never liked plain beef throughout all the years I knew her. I told her this and she thought about it and realized that this was strange. She said that simply because she felt deprived, she wanted to have unadulterated meat!