What’s the Point of Penance and Fasting?

March 10, 2017

Understanding the need for fasting in the spiritual life

Ask any Catholic about Lent and usually the first thing that comes to mind is fasting. But do we understand the need for this discipline in the spiritual life, especially during Lent? One thing that should be clarified from the start is that God does not need our sacrifices and penance.

God, being infinite goodness and love itself, needs absolutely nothing outside of Himself. He doesn’t need our penance in the sense that they add nothing to Him because He is infinite love, goodness, beauty, and truth. But we need our penances and sacrifices because it unites us to Him.


So what’s the point of penance?

Penance is the renunciation and denial of self to the pleasures of the world that empties us of our disordered will and appetite within our fallen human nature that leaves little room for God within our heart. Cleansed from original sin through Baptism, the effects of our fallen nature still rear its ugly head through our tendency toward sin, also known as concupiscence.


 Fasting and penance are the means of conquering our tendency toward sin

Sin is something that we all experience and which primarily comes to us through the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Satan, as a fallen angel, who was transformed through pride, would never dream of denying himself to allow God to reign within his heart; thus, he was left to himself apart from God and there was no longer any place in Heaven for him and his followers. The irony is that it’s in the refusal to deny ourselves through pride and the other deadly sins that we facilitate the ultimate self-denial, which is a denial of the only one who could ever fulfill the desires of our hearts and bring us to the happiness we so desperately seek: God. 

Fasting becomes an extremely potent way to practice the sort of discipline necessary to increase our capacity for God through self-denial. We need look no further than the one who reveals man’s very identity and destiny: Jesus Christ.


Jesus is our ultimate example

Jesus, God incarnate, showed us during His earthly life the way we are to walk in the spiritual life so that we may be united to the Father. Before Jesus started His active ministry, which ultimately found its fulfillment on Calvary, He was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to pray and fast for 40 days and 40 nights, experiencing the temptations of the evil one. If Jesus, who was guiltless, entered into these temptations and severe penances, then we should long to do the same. It is through the imitation of His life that we experience a profound intimacy with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Trinity. 

This Lent, amidst your penances, cultivate a deep and abiding love in your soul by raising your heart to God in moments of self-denial. When things get tough or you feel tempted to turn away from your Lenten promises, gaze upon a crucifix and see what true love looks like.


Mike Grasinski is an ardent lover of study and teaching. He has a B.A. in Theology and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Theology. He loves all things truth and has a deep joy for writing and studying. Specific pursuits include: Mariology, Church history, lives of the saints, fundamental theology, moral theology, mystical theology, scripture studies, and medieval philosophy.