We all know that icky and anxious feeling that comes from our own failure to set and enforce boundaries in our lives. Whether we’ve experienced it at work, with friends or with our partners, the inability to clearly discern appropriate boundaries and stick to them can be a real barrier to relationship satisfaction.
We might find ourselves on a third date with a man simply because we can’t figure out how to tell him we aren’t interested. Conversely, we may have trouble expressing our desires or tolerate behavior we shouldn’t out of fear of losing someone. Even more commonly, especially for young women swept away by the romance of new relationships, we may work too hard to please a man and forget about our own needs. These are just a few behaviors that indicate difficulties with setting boundaries and limits in our lives, but most women can come up with their own examples ad nauseam.
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For Christian women who are dating and pursuing marriage, boundaries are especially important and tricky because of the complicated role that sex, or a lack thereof, plays in our dating lives and relationships. The question of boundaries and “how far we can go” is one that most of us have struggled with, or continue to struggle with, at some level. Although we may have resources to guide us, clear answers from spiritual directors and level-headed talks with our sisters in Christ, the struggle against the flesh is real and ongoing.
Luckily, Our Lord is well aware of our weaknesses and has not left us orphans. Scripture reminds us that we are not alone in any struggles, spiritual or physical, and that “No trial has come to you but what is human” (1 Cor 10:13). That being said, there’s a not-so-secret ingredient that often serves as a preliminary step in the discernment process, and even preparation for battle, in sacred Scripture. I’m talking about the ancient and undervalued practice of fasting — and not just during Lent!
The role of fasting in the Bible
There’s a reason that nearly all religions practice some aspect of fasting. Scripture shows us that fasting exists as a means of detaching ourselves from sin and gaining spiritual strength. Fasting, in fact, is often the first step in hearing from God in Scripture, and it is synonymous with faith and humility.
In Acts of the Apostles, we see that the apostles fasted and prayed as they appointed Church leaders. The wisdom and revelation that they received was in direct correlation to their prayer and fasting (cf. Acts 13:1-3).
In the Old Testament, likewise, fasting and prayer were vital components of one’s relationship with God. King David refers multiple times to his practice of fasting in the psalms, and Ezra proclaims a fast to show submission to God’s authority and beg God’s protection: “Then I proclaimed a fast … that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves. … So we fasted, seeking this from our God, and it was granted” (Ez 8:21-23).
Perhaps the most profound example of fasting in Scripture, however, was from Christ himself. Before entering into his ministry, Our Lord, in his wisdom, retreated to the desert to fast and pray and face temptation head-on. In this way, he fortified his soul so that he could carry out his mission of salvation.
Sacred Scripture is full of many more examples that point to the important role of fasting in our spiritual lives. Contrary to what modern society might lead us to think, fasting is not merely an antiquated and primitive practice of mindless self-denial meant to harbor feelings of guilt. Rather, it is a positive first step toward greater mental clarity and spiritual renewal. It is a way of overcoming, with the help of God’s grace, obstacles that stand in the way of the total freedom offered us in Christ.
The importance of boundaries in our relationships
When we struggle to maintain boundaries, our actions are not honoring our emotional and spiritual needs. When we are not honoring our feelings, we end up feeling drained and our self-esteem plummets. Furthermore, it communicates to others, especially the men we date, that we do not have our priorities in order and that we are insecure in our identities as daughters of God.
When it comes to our relationships with men, it’s important to remember that men are drawn to women who know how to set boundaries — not in a harsh or intimidating way, but in a kind and self-respecting way. This is true for all men, but particularly men of strong character and deep faith, and it is a main facet of authentic femininity. After all, what is the Proverbs 31 woman if not a woman with strong boundaries and a sense of security in her identity as God’s precious daughter?
Fasting is important, therefore, because it is a way of learning to say no to little things so that we can say no to bigger things more easily. It’s also a way of ridding ourselves of all of the little distractions, and even addictions, that we have come to rely on so that we can see ourselves, our needs and our attachments more clearly. When we can do this, we can abandon ourselves to God more fully.
It’s one of the great mysteries of our faith, that by embracing our small sufferings, we can grow spiritually, and by giving of ourselves, we can receive far more in return. We shouldn’t be afraid, therefore, of the little discomfort that comes with the territory when we fast. It’s worth the sense of peace and happiness that comes from investing in our personal growth. Furthermore, it shows a great faith, not in our own powers, but in God’s power to save and change us.
What does fasting entail?
Fasting traditionally includes abstaining from certain foods, especially the most scrumptious ones, but it can also be broadened to include just about anything: abstinence from television, social media, alcohol, magazines, etc. There is also the reverse, where we decide to commit to certain healthy actions: getting seven hours of sleep, eating breakfast, or increasing our time spent in meditation and prayer. You can start slowly and decide what would serve you best.
To begin, we can evaluate our lives for those little distractions and dependencies that only serve to keep our minds busy but offer no real value. Seek to let one of these things go, and add others as you see fit. Perhaps you will want to fast on a certain day of the week, or perhaps you will want to try abstaining from a different thing each week. If you are up for more of a challenge and want to do a more formal fast, you might consider something structured, such as Fiat 90.
However we choose to fast, it’s important to remember that the focus should not be on our own strength but on God’s strength within us. With this in mind, if we stumble, we know God’s hand will be there to lift us up again. Because Our Lord is endless in his generosity, he will accept and multiply our small efforts and sacrifices and teach us to love as he does. It’s God’s own heart that he offers us when we surrender our attachments and offer ourselves to him. With his grace, we, too, can be like the woman described in Proverbs 31 who, because of her discipline and fear of the Lord, “girds herself with strength” and “laughs at the days to come.”