Fasting is an important part of Lent, as well as a useful tool for growing in virtue in general. Before we look into how fasting helps us on our Christian journey, let’s first reflect on how the Catholic Church understands and deals with human suffering.
In Catholicism we have a concept called “redemptive suffering.” What this means is that, in actively and willfully joining our sufferings to the Cross, we cooperate with Jesus in our own (and others’) redemption, effectively making us co-redeemers. Non-Catholics tend to have a problem with this concept, citing 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human.” The argument here is that since Jesus is the “one” mediator, there can be no others and certainly not our imperfect selves. However, Catholics understand this differently and it begins with language. In Latin, the prefix co– means “with,” not “equal to.” Therefore, when we say we are co-redeemers and that we co-operate in our redemption, we mean that we are participating with Jesus’ saving work, but in a subordinate way. With this understanding, we clearly do not take away from Jesus’ position as the one mediator between God and man, yet still enable ourselves to actually participate in the saving work required to get us to heaven.
So how does redemptive suffering work? As fallen beings, we humans cannot escape suffering because it is an effect of sin. Since suffering is inevitable, we can, and should, use it to our advantage. We can take our suffering and yoke it to the cross and offer it up as reparation for our sins. Since we are all connected members of the Body of Christ, we can also offer up our sufferings for our loved ones, or for anyone else we may be called to help. This sacrificial offering of our suffering is elevated through Jesus’ perfect suffering on Calvary which was the ultimate reparation for sin. By subordinately cooperating with Jesus in suffering, we are acknowledging His sacrifice for us and expressing our gratitude by agreeing to carry some of the burden ourselves alongside of Him. The result of reparation helps to cleanse our souls from the stain of our sin, making us clean so that we may one day enter heaven. That is how our suffering becomes redemptive. (CCC #306, 1993, 2001)
Let’s return to fasting. Unlike some forms of suffering that just happen to us due to life’s circumstances, fasting is a self-created suffering when done correctly. It is uncomfortable to be hungry! In actively choosing and participating in certain forms of suffering, we offer a small token of gratitude back to Jesus who actively chose to suffer greatly for us.
The practice of fasting has a twofold benefit. In the first place, we can use our suffering to be redemptive for us and our loved ones. When our stomach growls and we are tempted to seek out relief, we can pray, join it to the Cross and offer it for our salvation. Rather than focusing on our own discomfort in the moment, we should focus on the extreme discomfort Jesus went through for our own sake. If He can be crucified for us, we can suffer a little hunger as reparation for our sins. This redemptive aspect of fasting is a great gift as God allows us to actually participate in our own salvation. Man certainly, willingly chose what resulted in his own downfall, so it is only right that he can willingly choose to participate in his own redemption. (CCC #1434)
Secondly, with regard to growing in virtue in general, fasting is a practice in the discipline of self-mastery. By fasting, we exercise our will and learn to control our passions, appetites, and desires of the flesh. We choose to not give into earthly temptation and thus exercise dominance over those temptations. Regardless of the particular sins with which you most struggle — whether they are pride, lust, envy, or sloth, etc.— it is almost certain that the practice of regular fasting will help you. As a result, if you are fasting you should see a growth in virtue. For example, if you are hungry and you resist the temptation to eat a cracker, you are practicing perseverance and patience. You are also growing in charity if you are focusing on the fact that you are doing it for love of God. The more we can control ourselves through fasting, the more virtue branches out into other areas of our lives because we are training our will. From there, our virtuous attitudes and behaviors continue to multiply like the loaves and fishes. (CCC #2043)
As you grow in your abilities of self-mastery, it is important to not fall into the sin of pride and think you are doing it by your own brute strength. We must acknowledge that this cannot be done but by the grace of God and His helping hand as we work to squash those temptations. Temptations come from the Evil One and we are no match for him without our God and his outpouring of grace over us. We should remain humble and stay close to God in prayer throughout the practice of fasting. (More on prayer next week!)
In addition to standard fasting from food, there are other ways we can make sacrifices that make us uncomfortable and hence serve as a means of both redemptive suffering and self-mastery. Think outside the box and stretch yourself for greater holiness. For example, you can take a cold shower once a week and offer it up, or you can choose to not take medication if you have a headache. Perhaps you could change your thermostat by a couple of degrees in either direction or give up your favorite television show. You can fast from social media or the news and use that time to praise God. Think of where you struggle with seeking comfort and relief or find yourself dependent on certain things and try to detach yourself from them, if even just a bit. In doing so, you will reap great fruit as you think less about the satisfactions you receive from the world and more about the satisfaction you will receive eternally in heaven while cooperating to get yourself there.