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Lent: Why the Christian Must Deny Himself | Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B. | Part Two | Part One

Obstacles To Grace

So, it is not wrong, in itself, to seek tasty, enjoyable food: but still a person should not do so. For when a person seeks the enjoyment of eating, his action is tainted with inclinations to sloth, complacency, and self-love. [10] That is, his motives are mixed. For when he seeks the joys of food, selfish inclinations are at work in his heart along with whatever good motives there might be. Now, if a person only looks at the external act of eating or the objective value of enjoying food, he will not see this. But, if he honestly looks into the heart, he will see that sloth, complacency, and self-love are present in the desire for the joys of eating. Having such mixed motives is simply part of our imperfect condition in this world.

These selfish inclinations in a person's heart, which are present when he seeks the enjoyment of eating, are the sort of things that hinder a person's growth in holiness and virtue. To grow in holiness and virtue every person needs God's help–we know that a person cannot do it on his own. As Christ says, "Apart from me you can do nothing." [11] Hence, the help of God's grace is needed to grow in virtue and to live a life of continual conversion. Yet the presence of these inclinations to sloth, complacency, and self-love get in the way of a person's reception of God's grace. They are obstacles to receiving more grace.

Therefore, the Christian, who is dedicated to conversion, must remove these obstacles from his heart, so that he may receive more grace and become a better follower of Christ. A person should not expect God to force his grace on him without his consent. As we know, God chooses to work with a person's cooperation. And, so, he is obliged to work with God to remove these inclinations from his heart as much as possible.

This is done by fasting. For fasting, by checking a person's desires for what is not necessary, teaches him to seek what is sufficient when he eats. When he fasts, he does not seek the enjoyment of food, but is simply seeking what he needs to eat and drink. And since he is no longer pursuing the joys of food, the self-centered inclinations that accompany this pursuit are not allowed a chance to spring up in his heart. A person gives up things he enjoys because in so doing he denies inclinations such as sloth, complacency, and self-love a chance to be active in his heart.

Purifying The Heart

This is why it is better to fast. Fasting removes these obstacles so that being more receptive to God's grace, a person will grow in holiness and virtue. The self-centered inclinations that accompany pleasure-seeking are not directed towards God–therefore, they do not lead the heart to God but away from him. Their presence in the heart creates a divided heart–a heart, which does not completely look to God for its needs. As St. Augustine teaches, a divided heart is an impure heart. [12]

Purifying the heart, then, will involve denying oneself the pursuits of pleasures in things like food and drink. For thus a person protects his heart from the self-centered inclinations that are bound to coexist with these pursuits.

 This provides one answer to the question, "Why must we fast?" (and, by extension, to the question, "Why should one practice self-denial?"). Since, by fasting, a person no longer seeks after the joys of food and drink, the heart is set free to focus more completely on God. By turning away from his concerns for the pleasures of eating, he can turn more wholeheartedly to God. And this, we know is what continual conversion is all about.

By fasting, then, a person turns to God more intently. This is reflected in God's words spoken through the Prophet Joel: "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." [13] Naturally, a person is reluctant to give up through fasting things he enjoys–but by doing so he turns his attention to God and waits for him. He places his trust in him that he will give him the joy he needs–joys "greater than when grain and wine abound." [14] But he has to trust and be willing to persevere through the dry times that will accompany fasting. If he puts his hope in God, however, the Scriptures assure him that he will not be disappointed. [15]

For the sake of his ongoing conversion, then, the Christian must fast. But we might add another, better reason for fasting. Not only does fasting benefit a person's own individual spiritual progress, it also benefits his neighbor.

It is commonly pointed out that fasting can help others by allowing those who fast to increase their almsgiving with the money saved from eating less. But the benefit referred to here is of a different sort. It is due to our being connected with each other through prayer, so that a person's offering of prayer can help others. Now, prayers for others are more effective the more united the person praying is to Christ, since Christ is the source of the benefits gained through prayer. So the more converted a person becomes to the Lord, the more effective his prayers for others: "The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects." [16] And since fasting aids a person's continual conversion, it strengthens his prayers so that they benefit others more. In this way, he can help his neighbor through fasting.

Moreover, this service to his neighbor through fasting is an imitation of Christ. He offered himself on the Cross for others. A person too, in union with Christ, offers himself through the sacrifice of fasting. In fasting, he has the opportunity to join Christ in offering himself for the sake of others. Thus, even if a person's heart were pure and always free from selfish inclinations–as was Christ's–he should still fast–as did Christ. Through Christ he has the chance of helping others through voluntary acts of self-denial. Christian love is, indeed, eager for such chances to serve others.

So, in a very real way that is clearly visible to the eyes of faith, the Christian must fast out of love of neighbor. He is commanded by Jesus to live in his love. [17] This love is the love that compels a person "to lay down his life for his friends." [18] That is, it is the love that compels him to sacrifice his own preferences and desires on behalf of others. And this is what each person is invited to do through fasting– to give up things he enjoys for the benefit of others. And, as we are told, "there is no greater love than this." [19]

There are good reasons then, why a person must practice fasting and develop disciplined eating habits. Fasting and, by extension, self-denial are important for a person's continual conversion as well as for others who need our prayers. So, the Christian should regularly ask himself, "What do I really need? What can I do without?" and consider the advantages of denying himself even things that are not necessarily bad.

A better understanding of the virtue of denying oneself would undoubtedly benefit our society, where one is taught only how to say, "yes" to what one wants and desires. The practice of self-denial provides a humble yet profound way of giving oneself to God and others out of love, thus breaking the tendency to self-absorption. For, as we have said, self-denial is necessary for helping bring about ongoing conversion, which is sought out of love of God: and one restrains oneself and sacrifices one's desires out of love of neighbor. Love, then–real liberating, sacrificial love–is behind voluntary self-denial.

This article was originally published in the February 2000 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.


[1] Luke 16:10.
[2] John Cassian Institutes 5.23.
[3] Augustine Rule 3.1.
[4] Luke 6:45.
[5] 1 Tim. 4:3-5.
[6] The theme of the mind ascending from created goods to God, the Ultimate Good, is common among spiritual writers. The spiritual master, Saint John of the Cross, refers to it in The Ascent of Mount Carmel (trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodrigues, O.C.D., in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross [Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publication, 1979]) 3.24.3-7,3.26.5-7. For a more recent discussion on the subject, see Dietrich von Hildebrand Transformation in Christ (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1963) 192-193.
[7] Col. 3:1-2.
[8] Heb. 11:26.
[9] For further insights into this subject, see Saint John of the Cross, op. cit.
[10] See Dietrich von Hildebrand In Defense of Purity (New York: Sheed and Ward Inc., 1935) 150-156.
[11] John 15:5.
[12] Augustine The Lord's Sermon on the Mount 2.11.
[13] Joel 2:12.
[14] Ps 4:8.
[15] Rom. 5:5: Ps 22:5.
[16] Jas. 5:16.
[17] John 15:9.
[18] John 15:13.
[19] Ibid.

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Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B., is a member of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Ill. He was born in Huntington, L.I., and grew up in Suffern, N.Y. In December of 1995 he received his B.A. in Economics from the University of Chicago. While in formation and preparation to take solemn vows at St. Procopius Abbey, he teaches high school mathematics at the abbey’s high school, Benet Academy.

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