Why is there so much fasting in the Orthodox Church? Is that not condemned by Saint Paul as legalism?
The Lord says “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16) – so it is obvious that His disciples should fast. St Paul only condemns a certain attitude related to fasting, and indeed these passages are read publicly in the divine services when a fasting season starts.
In the Orthodox tradition, fasting is not a rule to be observed, but a tool to be used. We do not fast for the sake of fasting, but for the sake of being able to set aside the material and focus of the spiritual.
The true goal of fasting is not in abstaining from meat and butter, but in abstaining from anger, envy, laziness, and other sins.
Why do we fast from foods?—Because we are wholesome beings. Christ did not come to save our souls only, but all of us: soul, body, mind, spirit, will—and as many “parts” as one would wish to count. He took our entire human being upon Himself, all of our human nature, and “made a man’s whole body well” (John 7:23). In the God-given order, our spirit is to pull us to God, our soul is to find its inspiration in the direction of the spirit, and our body is to be nourished in doing the will of the Father (John 4:34; cf. Matt. 4:4). Sin perverts this divine order, and our flesh feeds on this world and becomes a slave to food, our soul finds inspiration in the things of the flesh, and our spirit no longer hungers for God but finds its direction in the passions of the soul.The Holy Church gives to us times of fasting in order to help heal and restore our corrupted nature.
An athlete does not win a prize before patiently exercising discipline and “self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25). And if we are to receive an “imperishable wreath” (ibid.), we must do the same and begin by taking control of that in us which is most material, restoring the divinely-ordained order and reaching to that which is the most spiritual. If we cannot control our bellies, how can we hope to control our tongues and thoughts, how can we hope to even begin to fight our passions? We must learn to discipline our bodies, because without this foundation we cannot begin to build the walls of the temple of our soul. And just as the purpose of a foundation is not in itself, but in that which can be built upon it, the purpose of taking control of our flesh is in freeing the soul from being controlled by it.
For a more detailed discussion, please read: