There are three evils that attempt to separate us from God: the world, the evil spirits, and the self. Fasting and self-mortification are ways to order the self. The flesh is good but disordered by the fall. Our quest here on earth is essentially, “What will you choose with your free will? The world? Yourself? Or God’s will for you?” By making deliberate, albeit small and sometimes almost insignificant sacrifices, we are concretely choosing to order our physical body and the distractions it imposes, and we gain control of ourselves even under greater temptations.
You see it all the time with children. When you train your children to obey in small things, then they will more easily obey in the bigger more important things. Automatically.
“Do your homework first, please.”
- Sigh. OK.
- No! I don’t want to! You can’t make me! Blasaaaaaaaaahhhhh!
Fasting and self denial do this for your temptations of the flesh. Struggling with a habitual sin that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot overcome for long? Practice small elsewhere. Give up some pleasure that is extra. Habitually and consciously, and prayerfully offering it to God. Start with small things. Smaller lunch once a week. No dessert except on Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. Shorter shower. Cold shower once a week. No creamer in your coffee. Sounds pathetic. But these are concrete acts of the will to show that you desire good. The body is good but subject to your freedom. So you have to teach it what you will it to do. And it might need some convincing.
But it works. When you gain mastery in one area, you automatically gain authority over yourself in other areas. You start believing that you really mean it when you tell yourself to do it. It becomes possible to gain mastery over even those areas which have you in bondage.
Therefore: it is true that even if you gain self mastery it means nothing if you don’t do something with yourself for God and others. Fasting and self mortifications are not an end—they are a means. They free you from bondage to sin so that you can respond more fully to grace and more perfectly submit yourself to God’s will for you—which is to love others in his name.
It’s kind of like “put your oxygen mask on first, and then help those around you.” You really stink if you get your oxygen mask on and then DON’T try to help others who are struggling to get theirs on! But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to get yours on first in order to help them!
St. John Chrysostome lived at a time when people thought self-mortification WAS holiness. He was speaking to that over-zealous kind of self-mortification that has lost sight of its purpose. Self mortification is not holiness, it is a path towards holiness! For some sins, it is the best path, or the fastest path.