One of the most fascinating and, in some ways, attractive rituals involved in organized religion is that of the willing sacrifice, fast, or committed abstinence. Sometimes it is something expected as part of a pious lifestyle, as in celibacy for some in religious orders or vegetarianism for Jains. Sometimes it is a fast performed ritually such as Lenten sacrifices in the Catholic church or during Ramadan for Muslims. In some cases it is the avoidance of specific behaviors and substances which are contrary to the doctrines of the religion. In others it is an act of sacrifice meant to demonstrate a follower’s faith and commitment.
But there’s another aspect to these acts which, I think, is the reason we still embrace these traditions today: they are a challenge by which we test our mastery over ourselves and our capacity for positive change.
Interestingly, there are some who think that looking at fasting or sacrifice as a way to improve oneself is contrary to the spiritual nature of the practice. In other words, it shouldn’t be about us, it should be about joining in, for instance, Christ’s suffering. Others say it should be a way to somehow push the divine to give you what you want.
The bottom line, though, is that the sacrifice is supposed to be something you otherwise very much want. There is a judgment made about how much you really need something, how much you want it, and, most importantly, how hard it will be for you to go without. It’s about denying desire. It’s about telling yourself no.
I suppose there’s something to be said for simply developing the ability to tell yourself no when you otherwise desire something. The development of willpower is a commendable pursuit. Even outside the realm of spirituality, humans regularly participate in fasts and sacrifices to try and train their desires away from things in which we think we overindulge: diets, cleanses, New Year’s resolutions, decluttering… And invariably in these acts there is a judgment about which things and activities are good for us and which are not.
And therein, I believe, lies the real value of these activities. The most important outcome is not letting your spiritual path make you feel guilty for certain habits, not feeling deprivation as a spiritual lesson, not getting your way via dramatic spiritual demonstration. It is the development of a keen understanding of how you hope to become better for having sacrificed, and it can go far beyond the ability to say no to yourself.
The choice of sacrifice is the key.
It is that choice which begs the consideration of the role you’ve allowed certain behaviors and habits to play in your life. It presents an opportunity to think deeply about your own values and the extent to which you allow those values to guide your life where they stand in opposition to those imposed by your cultural environment. It asks you to evaluate your existence and decide for yourself what would improve it and yourself.