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Releasing the Grip of Addiction
by Much Prayer and Fasting
The season of Lent always brings with it questions about fasting and why "Catholics" have to fast. It's not so much that Catholics "have to fast" as some kind of meaningless obedience to the laws of the Church, but in fact we are commanded by God Himself to fast and deny our very selves in response to the fleshly ways of the world and the grip of sin in our lives.
Making a Gift of Yourself
There are seventy-four biblical references to fasting, and Jesus Himself said when you fast and not if you fast, so fasting must be very important for our spiritual growth. In our modern self-centered, self-indulgent, all-about-me world, this concept of fasting is very foreign and many Christians resist it. But according to Scripture and many historic Christian writings, fasting is supposed to be a normal part of our spiritual life here on earth, and the benefits that come from it are wonderful.
In the first few hundred years of the Church, Christians fasted regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays as evidenced in the Didache - essentially the first Catechism of the Catholic Church - written between 50 and 90AD. This was a carrying on of the Jewish tradition of fasting. However, the Christians of the first century took to fasting on Wednesday and Friday to set themselves apart from the Pharisees who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays.
The kind of fast that the first Christians practiced was a strict fast of bread and water only. Fasting is so important because it helps cleanse our souls and bring our fleshly appetites under control. Indeed, if we find it easy to indulge ourselves in food, then it is much easier for us to indulge ourselves in other "fleshly" appetites as well. By denying ourselves food, we help strengthen our wills - which is so important in conquering sinful addictions - and we facilitate self-mastery. We gain control over our flesh, or carnal nature, which all too often opposes God's Spirit and seeks to rebel against His Truth. We can not find our true spirituality unless we bring the flesh under submission. Saint Paul tells us in Romans 8:7-8: "For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God." Saint Paul continues by saying that we must allow the Spirit of God to dwell within us. Only then can we be freed from slavery to sin.
Through fasting we can gain that freedom and a deeper spirituality, a greater hunger for God. It is a tool that helps us obtain a closer walk with God. Through God's grace it has the power to break the effect of concupiscence - the tendency to sin - and brings our flesh under submission. Prayer and fasting are largely overlooked as weapons to conquer addictions. But if you are struggling with persistent sins such as lust or gluttony, fasting is an effective way to help you rid these sins from your life.
Fasting has stopped wars, healed the terminally ill and has even brought about conversions. If you have a loved one who is mired in a powerful sin, praying and fasting can be the means to bring about God's saving power in his or her life. By doing this, you are indeed, in one sense, living out the meaning of love as our late Holy Father John Paul II said, by "giving the gift of self."
Fasting in humility is a powerful means of conquering selfishness and pride in your life, and both are at the root of all addiction. In addition to the many gifts that our Lord has given us through His Church to grow in holiness, primarily through Confession and the Eucharist, fasting loosens the grip of sinful addictions and thus freedom can be achieved.
Getting beyond the Minimum
True biblical fasting is, in essence, more than what the guidelines of the Church prescribe for a Lenten fast. What the Church gives us is a minimal guideline to serve as an introduction to fasting, or as a reminder of the place that fasting has in the Christian life - and the Lenten fasts are something we do as a community. By giving us this guideline, the Church is not telling us that this is the only time we should fast.
Fasting means to abstain from food either partially or completely. We starve our flesh, so that we may feed our spirit. The Bible promises that when we deny ourselves, whether by fasting or other acts of sacrifice, then God will feed us with something far superior to our earthly food. Jesus calls us to deny our flesh so that we may take up our crosses, follow Him, and thus be united with Him.
To fast you must voluntarily abstain from food, either partially or completely for a period of time. You may fast for 24 hours or fast for a few days. However, I encourage you pray to find out what kind of fast the Lord is calling you to. Please check with your doctor and spiritual advisor (if you have one) before fasting for more than a few days. Some have found that to break the grip of sin in their lives, fasting every Wednesday and Friday on bread and water is effective. This imitates the practice of the early Christians. Most importantly, approach your fasting with "JOY" - Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. If you approach fasting as a chore or with apprehension, you will not succeed and will become discouraged. This is exactly what the devil wants to happen! Remain faithful and persevere until you can faithfully fast.
Combating the temptation to give up fasting, even before you start, takes prayer, constant prayer. Prayer must always be a part of fasting. Pray for the grace to fast. Pray that your fast will be effective. Pray that your fast will move mountains in your life and the lives of others. Perhaps praying the Rosary and mediating on the Sorrowful Mysteries would be helpful to you. Some people who have made a successful practice of fasting recommend 30 minutes every day of prayer with the fasting. That can seem like a lot of time, but getting used to praying and fasting takes time and practice. Maybe that is why they call it a spiritual practice - because you get better at it over time. You begin to desire to spend more time in prayer. You begin to look forward to fasting, especially as you begin to see the grip of sin being loosened.
The use of caffeine beverages is widespread in our culture. If you often drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks, you might experience some discomfort, possibly headaches or even nausea when you first begin to fast if you have decided to fast on bread and water. This can be caused by what is known as caffeine withdrawal and is normal. If that is the fast that you have chosen, then pray through this and unite the pain with Christ and His Passion. I have personally experienced this and from my experience I have found when the pain comes I need to pray right then and there for God to provide the grace to endure the pain. When I do, the pain subsides. In any event it is temporary, and if that is the fast you are offering, then God will give you all the grace you need to embrace whatever suffering comes with it. Look at it as an opportunity to offer reparation for the times you turned your back on God and said "yes" to the devil.
Note: If you are pregnant, nursing or suffer from illness, do not attempt a full fast. Instead, consider fasting in other ways. You can fast from sweets, snacking or television (perhaps permanently) or some other "non-essential." Realize there are many different types of "fasts" you can do. However, bread-and-water fasts are the most sacrificial and advisable if your health is good. If for some reason you feel too weak to carry out your daily duties or you work at a job were you must stay alert, add what you need to carry out your duties - perhaps juice or maybe peanut butter on bread to add some protein to your fast. Please check with your doctor if you have any questions about your health and the effect fasting may have on it.
Fasting "Supercharges" Our Prayer
What are some of the reasons given for fasting in the Bible? Esther fasted for protection and divine favor. Ezra fasted for direction and protection. Elijah fasted to combat spiritual enemies. Daniel fasted to overcome the flesh and for spiritual breakthrough. The disciples fasted for a powerful ministry. Even Jesus Himself "fasted forty days and forty nights" (Mt 4:1-2). By doing this, our Lord was preparing Himself for the great demand His public ministry would make on His life. He knew He would face temptation and persecution, and by denying Himself He showed us that we too must rely on God for all we do. This is where the Church derives the forty days for Lent, and indeed, this is the purpose of Lent: to help us deny ourselves and draw us to a greater dependence on God in our own lives.
There are many biblical reasons to fast. In fact, our Lord showed the disciples that it was the only way to overcome certain, more powerful demons in our lives. You know the story from Mark 9: Jesus saw the disciples return from a mission. They had been healing the sick, crippled, and blind, all by God's grace, and they were very pleased to be doing His work. But one day they came upon a man whose son was tormented by a demon, and they were not able to cast the demon out. Jesus rebuked the disciples and cast the demon out. The astonished disciples asked, "Why could we not cast him out?" (Mk 9:27b), to which Jesus replies "This kind can only come out by much prayer and fasting" (Mk 9:29). In that same passage (as well as the same story related in Matthew 17), Jesus emphasizes the necessity of faith, a faith that can move mountains. When complete faith and trust in God is combined with prayer and fasting from the heart, the devil is rendered powerless. St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests, once was explaining to a young priest the secret of his success in healing and spiritual warfare. He said prayer and fasting was the key. He also said that when we deny ourselves food and drink the devil can be beaten. This is what helped him to save many people from the power of sin.
It's important to note that fasting does not "add" anything to God's power; nothing we can do will "add" to the power of God. But fasting, joined together with fervent prayer from the heart, demonstrates just how serious our prayer is. When a Christian practices the sacrifice of self-denial, he is joining himself to the sacrifice of the Cross, and by joining our prayer to the sacrifice of the Cross, the power for good is unleashed and miracles are allowed to happen where half-hearted prayer alone could not succeed.
Spiritual fasting is undoubtedly powerful. Through spiritual fasting, we can receive healing, gain spiritual protection, combat spiritual enemies, and overcome the sinful desires of the flesh. It helps when we intercede for our loved ones and can gain for us spiritual breakthroughs and clarity in prayer. To sum it up, fasting is a way for us to "work" with God's grace received through prayer in faith. This dispels the notion that we are "saved" by "faith alone" or "works alone," but as the Catholic Church has plainly taught for 2000 years, we are saved by God's grace with faith that works through love as we read in Galatians 5:6. In these very wise words, Saint Ignatius of Loyola sums up the attitude in which we should always approach fasting: "Work as if everything depends on you, and pray as if everything depends on God."
When you undertake your fast prayerfully and fervently you will notice miracles and breakthroughs in your life where before you may have experienced all kinds of road blocks to spiritual progress. Be amazed as miracles unfold and God blesses your life.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Kenneth Henderson is the founder of the True Knights, an apostolate with the special mission of helping men and all people become free of addiction to pornography. He has appeared on EWTN's Life on the Rock and is available to speak on many topics concerning authentic Catholic family life. For more information visit www.trueknights.org, send an email to Info@TrueKnights.org, or call 512-684-0767.