The Biblical Basis for the Catholic Practice of Fast and Abstinence

"Christ in the Desert" by Kramskoy

“Christ in the Desert” by Kramskoy

Last week, I asked the question, Are you looking for the secret to a better, deeper, more joyful life in Christ?and responded by exploring the reasons for the Catholic practice of self-denial. We saw that “fasting and other forms of self-denial, as spiritual practices of materially subduing and controlling the physical appetites of the body, helps us, by God’s grace, to enable the soul to more perfectly and freely pray.  This leads to a deeper union with God and thus we become better stewards of the gifts God has given to us, freeing us to more effectively care for our neighbor, especially those in greater need than we.”

Today, I want to provide the biblical teaching on why such practices are not just a good idea, but a necessary one.

The Biblical Basis for Fast and Abstinence

1. The Example of the Lord

There is no better place to start than to follow the example of the True God-True man — Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Traditionally we mark the Sign he worked at the Wedding Feast at Cana as the beginning of his public ministry. But before that day, however, Jesus submitted himself to John’s baptism in order to “fulfill all righteousness” and the heavens were opened and the Trinity manifested! St. Matthew’s Gospel records what occurred.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (and) coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”  Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.  (Matthew 3:13-4:11 NAB)

Nothing, I mean nothing at all that was recorded in Sacred Scripture that Jesus did was unimportant. To prepare for his public ministry, Jesus submitted to be baptized, even though he had no need to do so. We begin our life in Christ through the Christian sacrament of Baptism, the work of God by which we receive Sanctifying Grace and become justified. Unlike Christ, we are in need of baptism which cleanses us from all sin, original and actual. We read that the Spirit then led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  In overcoming these temptations, Jesus recapitulated the life of Israel and accomplished what God’s Chosen People had failed to do.  The grace of Jesus Christ makes it possible for Christians to do the same.

2. Denying the Body Strenthens the Soul

But what I want you to see is that before Jesus was tempted, he fasted for 40 days. To prepare for these temptations of the will, Jesus weakened the desires of the body.  The bible tells us that after fasting, Jesus was hungry — then he was tempted. What he shows us is that the hunger that we experience after denying the body its “wants” no longer has the same power over our appetites that it did before. Although Jesus was incapable of sin, we are, but our following his example equips us, by his grace, to resist temptations. So we too should fast in order to prepare for our public ministry, our Christian life.

3. The Teaching of the Lord on the Necessity of Self-Denial

Many of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters will agree that fasting and abstaining are good things to do; that doing so follows Christ’s example and equips us for the Christian life.  But they will argue that it is not necessary for one’s salvation. Strictly speaking, that would be correct since salvation is a free gift that can not be earned through our own initiative. But Christ expects the Christian, once he is justified, to cooperate with his grace in order to grow in holiness so as not to lose the grace of justification. Jesus teaches that such cooperation must include self-denial.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct. (Matthew 16:24-27 NAB)

The sin of pride is the gateway to the other deadly sins. The justified person must humble himself and control his disordered wants and desires to grow more secure in the Lord. We must decrease so that He can increase in us. What form did Jesus show us that it takes to subdue our disordered appetites?  Fasting (in the wilderness of this life). Our Lord used many parables to teach us the Way. One powerful example is recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel:

Whoever does not carry his own cross and after me cannot be my disciple. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. “Salt is good, but if salt itself loses its taste, with what can its flavor be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” (Luke 14:27-35 NAB)

Jesus does not tell us that it is a good idea to take up one’s cross, he says we cannot avoid it if we hope to be successful in our journey.

4. Fasting as a Form of Prayer

Our prayer should be humble and our humility prayerful. All that we do should be prayerful and that includes our penance.  Fasting and other acts of self-denial should be joined to prayer and so become prayer.

Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit. Wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so.” He said to them in reply, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.” They brought the boy to him. And when he saw him, the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions. As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around and foam at the mouth. Then he questioned his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” He replied, “Since childhood. It has often thrown him into fire and into water to kill him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, ” ‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering, rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!” Shouting and throwing the boy into convulsions, it came out. He became like a corpse, which caused many to say, “He is dead!” But Jesus took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up. When he entered the house, his disciples asked him in private, “Why could we not drive it out?” He said to them, “This kind can only come out through prayer (and fasting).” (Mark 9:17-29 NAB)

While the words “and fasting” are not in all manuscripts, they are in many, including the Protestant King James Version. Prayer is strengthened by fasting. St. Paul speaks to this in regards to both prayer of intercession (for others) and prayer of petition (for oneself).

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church… (Colossians 1:24 NAB)

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NAB)

Joined to his prayer, St. Paul’s sufferings and bodily mortifications aid both his own salvation and that of the whole church. Our suffering is necessary — it is redemptive when joined interiorly, out of love for Christ, to the sufferings of Christ for our spiritual well-being and the spiritual well-being of others. Read his powerful witness to the Romans:

Consequently, brothers, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:12-17 NAB)

5. Our Fasting is Necessary After Christ’s Redemptive Passion, Death and Resurrection

And finally, should one argue, even in the light of St. Paul’s teaching, that such acts of self-denial are not necessary after the Cross, listen to what Jesus answered when asked why his disciples did not fast:

The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. (Mark 2:18-20 NAB)

Did the New Testament Church practice fasting? You bet it did.  Let’s look at just one, final biblical example:

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Symeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who was a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3 NAB)

Do you really want to supercharge your faith life?  Follow the example of Jesus and the New Testament Church. Follow the example of the Saints.  Follow the teaching of the Church and adhere to the doctrine of the New Testament Gospel.  Rejoice in your sufferings for Christ — empty yourself so that you may be filled with Christ.

Into the deep…

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on the Catholic practice of fast and abstinence. Part One – Why do Catholics Practice Fast and Abstinence? – appeared on Sunday, March 2, 2014.


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Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and usually appears on Sundays.

Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization. He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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4 Comments

  1. Nice article.however I came accross One strange statement under §2 where it says: Jesus was incapable of sin. How could that be a tempted life? How could that be called an accomplishment? I would say He chose not to sin.

  2. Jesus also says ‘when you fast, do not look somber..’ as if he takes for granted that we would fast. It’s never a question of IF we fast, but WHEN. (Mt 6:16)

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