Fasting without acts of mercy is meritless
Inspired & Blessed

Fasting without acts of mercy is meritless

Mar 20, 2024, 12:28 AM
Bob Acebedo

Bob Acebedo


It’s Holy Week once again and, for us Christians, the apex of the Lenten season is best observed, obviously aside from prayer, through fasting.

From the Christian perspective, fasting cannot be construed only as abstention from food; it can also take the form of giving up other goods like comforts, leisure, or entertainment.

The theological basis of fasting can be summed up thus: God commanded it, Jesus practiced it, the Church fathers have preached the importance of it.

In the beginning of the Old Testament, we find that the very first fast was ordered by God in the Garden of Eden, when God instructed Adam and Eve not to eat the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17).

Then in the New Testament, Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, abstained from food and water for 40 days and nights in the desert to rectify Adam and Eve’s transgression against God’s order on “fasting” in the Garden of Eden.

The highly revered late 4th century Saint and Father of the Church, St. Augustine of Hippo, wisely wrote: “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the hart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity” (De orat. Et Jejun, Serm. lxxii/ccxxx, de Tempore).

It is remarkable to note that, in particular, St. Augustine teaches us that “fasting without (the acts of) mercy is of no merit to him who fasts” (Serm 207,1).

Here he wants to stress the significant relationship between the personal act of “giving up” some of that natural desire for food and the loving act of “giving to” someone else who is more in need of food.

When we remove acts of mercy from the equation, fasting may just so easily become a Pelagian do-it-yourself religious discipline, exercised by one who manifests the will to overcome bodily needs, with little or no attention to the workings of grace. Or it may, by extension, morph into a Pharisaical view of our moral high ground, exactly because we see the act of fasting, not only as a fulfillment and validation of our religiosity, but also as a human achievement worthy of human reverence and respect from others. 

St. Augustine’s emphasis on the works of mercy or the works of charity as the fruit of our fasting allows us to be more and more sensitive to the needs of others. Fasting from some desirable good in order to give that same food to the poor bears fruit in humility and charity. 

Fasting to give the poor gives a human face to poverty. To feed hungry mouths is to feed our hungry souls. To listen to the stories of the poor is to be touched by their humanity. To learn from their radiant faces the joy of receiving everything as gift is to witness the power of true fasting and the fecundity of true love. 

Indeed, as St. Augustine stressed, “fasting without the acts of mercy is of no merit to him who fasts.”

On a similar vein, thus, St. Augustine’s thought is best resonated by St. John Chrysostom: “Do you fast? Then feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, do not forget the imprisoned, have pity on the tortured, comfort those who grieve and who weep, be merciful, humble, kind, clam, patient, sympathetic, forgiving, reverent, truthful and pious, so that God might accept your fasting and might plentifully grant you the fruits of repentance.

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