The Great Fast: I’m Doing It Wrong

Orthodox Christians are preparing for Lent, sometimes called the Great Fast. Our Catholic brethren are already there. And our Protestant cousins are still a ways out from celebrating Easter.

The upcoming Lent will be the second one I’ve been through, but my first as an Orthodox Christian. Last time I was fearful heading into it. This time I am hopeful.

The Great Fast is a time of increased prayerfulness, fasting, and giving. Most rookies like myself focus on the fasting, for good or ill. I’ve already been guilty of looking at my Orthodox Prayer Book app to study what I can and cannot eat on certain days.

During my first-ever Lenten season, I kicked things off by going two straight days with no food or water. I was determined to show off my new-found piety. By the end of the second day I was having trouble focusing my attention, and I was physically weak. I finished the day by gobbling up a couple of slices of veggie pizza with a side of guilt and shame.

I was doing it all wrong.

Newbies to Orthodoxy like me always focus on the food. We figure out ways to substitute tofu for meat, or eat twice as much salad to make up for the lack of dairy. Our fasting ironically points out the attachment we have to food, and the very need we have to practice more self-control.

A friend of mine has decided to quit smoking. She told me about 18 hours into it that she was so afraid she was going to fail. This is the attitude I had – and know that I still have in my heart – about fasting.

But fasting – like foregoing any passion – should not be a test of willpower. It shouldn’t be some self-flagellating denial of our favorite desserts, or some pious display of our ability to make vegan food that tastes like meat. It should not be a pass or fail proposition at all.

Fasting is about denying the things of the world the power they have over us. It is about recognizing that we allow our passions to have their way, to the point that they become compulsions.

When we let a substance like food or tobacco – or an activity like lust or sloth – have its way with us, our brain develops neural pathways that smooth the process of giving in to that behavior. We have to retrain our brain to choose new pathways in order to successfully overcome our passions.

In scripture, the word ‘repent’ is the Greek word μετανοέω (met-an-o-eh’-o). It means ‘to change my mind.’ Changing your mind is not just making a choice, it is taking a course of action that will lead to actual change.

If you are fasting, or even quitting smoking, remember that it is not a pass-fail situation. It is about denying your passions. It is making conscious choices so your mind can form new neural pathways that lead to control over the things that once controlled us.

Above all, fasting is about restoring a right relationship with all the things God provides us. Through the increased discipline of prayer we develop good pathways. This helps us control our passions for the things of the world.

Let’s all pray that this Lenten season is one where the things that control us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, come under our control.

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