Each year at this time, Baha’is fast for nineteen days, refraining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Why?
The Baha’i teachings say that fasting has “innumerable effects and benefits:”
There are various stages and stations for the Fast and innumerable effects and benefits are concealed therein. Well is it with those who have attained unto them. – Baha’u’llah, quoted in The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, # XIX.
That said, like with many dimensions of the spiritual life, the benefits and the aims are two different, albeit connected, things. If I help an elderly lady carry her groceries across the street, I will no doubt receive some spiritual blessings, but hopefully that’s not why I help her. I help her for her sake, not mine. The bounties I receive are a by-product, not the purpose.
The same can be said of fasting. While it is true that we benefit physically and spiritually from fasting, it is essentially something we do for God. Baha’u’llah asked his followers to:
Fast ye for the sake of your Lord, the Mighty, the Most High. Restrain yourselves from sunrise to sunset. Thus doth the Beloved of mankind instruct you as bidden by God, the All-Powerful, the Unconstrained … Well is it with the one who fulfilleth My decrees for the love of My Beauty … – Ibid., # XIII.
Why would we do things for God? Because Baha’is believe that God truly is “the Beloved of mankind:”
… Whatsoever God hath revealed is beloved of the soul. We beseech Him that He may graciously assist us to do that which is pleasing and acceptable unto Him. – Ibid., # XVI.
This shows that ideally believers fast because God has asked them to, not just because they will benefit from it. Fasting and prayer, then, essentially demonstrate an act of devotion, the lover performing the wish of the Beloved. As Abdu’l-Baha said:
The seeker, when immersed in the ocean of the love of God, will be moved by intense longing and will arise to carry out the laws of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Ibid., # II.
An act of devotion has no thought for the self, only the Beloved. Baha’is don’t fast for the benefits of fasting—although there are many—instead, we fast for the love of God. Just as with any act of devotion to our Maker, we receive spiritual bounties, but these are not the reason that we perform these acts.
During the days of the Fast, when our empty bellies and our parched mouths want to be fed, we might ask ourselves, “What am I trying to get out of this?” The short answer is “Nothing.” The devoted lover is not trying to gain anything for him or herself; they are trying to show their love for God.
For the true lover, the bounty of being asked by the Beloved to do something is a reward in itself. In one sense, there is no question of why or what the benefits are of performing his wish; for the ardent lover there is only loving submission to God’s command.
It might be part of the modern mindset to ask, “What’s in it for me?” Or is it just human nature? Either way, in a pure act of devotion, we can’t really ask this question. Of course, we know that there are benefits that we will receive; the Baha’i teachings and modern science say so. But this is not mainly why we fast. We fast because we love God and he has asked us to.
That said, this loving servitude cannot be blind, especially in regard to fasting. Baha’u’llah has cautioned us to pay attention to our health and to stop fasting when we are sick or traveling or elderly or working at hard physical labor:
The law of the Fast is ordained for those who are sound and healthy; as to those who are ill or debilitated, this law hath never been nor is now applicable. – Baha’u’llah, Ibid., # XXI.
These provisions of the Baha’i teachings ensure against blind obedience, showing that loving obedience and blind obedience are not the same thing. When we lovingly devote ourselves to God, we maintain our rationality.
Part of maintaining our rationality is understanding why we do things. Of course, it is important to understand the reason that God wants us to fast: “Verily, I say, fasting is the supreme remedy and the most great healing for the disease of self and passion.” – Ibid., # XVII.
By fasting, we learn to control our lower nature, which means that it will have less of a hold on us, allowing our spiritual nature to flourish. But at the same time, heeding God’s counsels is not conditioned on understanding them; it is only deepened by the action itself.
Fasting as an act of devotion doesn’t make it easy. Performing an act of loving devotion is not effortless. It requires intense perseverance and strength of will, especially with the Baha’i Fast. Giving up things so central to our daily lives—food and drink—is what makes it a sacrifice. Metaphorically speaking, instead of consuming food and drink, we place them at the altar of the Lord as a sign of our love for him:
… this physical fast is a symbol of the spiritual fast. This Fast leadeth to the cleansing of the soul from all selfish desires, the acquisition of spiritual attributes, attraction to the breezes of the All-Merciful, and enkindlement with the fire of divine love. – Abdu’l-Baha, Ibid., # XXVI.