The Origins of Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving

Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. Juan de Flandes.

Have you ever wondered why we bother to practice prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent?

“For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life, which is not of the Father but is of the world.” – 1 John 2:16

The concupiscence of the flesh (which includes all disordered bodily desire, not merely sexual desire) we today call lust, the concupiscence of the eyes we call greed, and the pride of life we simply call pride.

Fasting trains our bodies in self-denial, and so helps to fight lust. Almsgiving trains our hearts in generosity, and so helps to detach us from our possessions. Prayer places us in a subordinate position of trust in the providence of our loving Father, and so helps to fight pride.

That in itself is enough to justify these three Lenten practices, but there’s much more to it. We put these three things into special practice during Lent not only because they answer three worldly realities, but because they are answers to three ancient roots of temptation in the soul, the same three by which the devil tempted Christ.

In his condemnation of lust, greed, and pride, the apostle John was not simply plucking low-hanging fruit from the tree of vice as easy examples of sin. He was calling to mind the three things that led to the original sin all the way back in the Garden of Eden:

The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. – Genesis 3:6

Is it wrong to eat fruit because it seems nutritious, visually-appealing, or able to make a person smart? Certainly not – unless, of course, you are choosing to pursue those ends against God’s will.

It was lust, greed, and pride that led to the downfall of Adam and Eve. These three things were passed on as well to us through the concupiscence mentioned by St. John. They had their beginning with our beginning. They continued to their damage throughout our history.

In Deuteronomy 17:16-17, Moses laid out God’s Laws of the King. His stipulations include three specifics I’d like to focus on:

  1. Prohibition on a personal army. God did not want the king to have an opportunity to grow in pride like so many ancient conquerors.
  2. Prohibition on a multitude of wives. Taking a little wisdom from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” God did not want the king to be led astray by lust for his wives, which makes men do things they otherwise would find repugnant.
  3. Prohibition on accumulation of vast personal wealth. God did not want the king to govern with an greed and an eye for personal gain.

King Solomon failed these three laws miserably. 1 Kings 10-11 lists his sins:

  1. Solomon stored up hundreds of shields, over a thousand chariots, and over 10,000 horses.
  2. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines who led him into idolatry with their pagan gods.
  3. Solomon received golden tributes each year totaling 666 talents of gold.

The track record of other kings on these laws was pretty pathetic. Fortunately for us, St. Matthew was very serious about showing Jesus as the fulfillment of the King, and so he gave us an account of the Temptation in the Desert in Matthew 4:1-11.

  1. Round One: The Devil tempted Jesus to feed the desires of His body by turning stones to bread. Because He was fasting, it would have been a violation of God’s will for Him to eat at that time, and so giving in to Satan would have been a disordered act on the order of lust.
  2. Round Two: The Devil tempted Jesus to jump from the height of the Temple roof. Why? Let’s not forget that the Temple was a place filled with observers who would definitely witness Christ’s being saved by angels. Giving in to Satan here and displaying His authority over angels would have been an act of pride.
  3. Round Three: The Devil tempted Jesus to take possession of all the wealth of the worldly kingdoms. Giving into Satan here would have been an act of greed.

Fortunately, Christ could not have sinned. Not only did Jesus uphold the Law of the King perfectly and resist where Adam and Eve had caved, He ended the temptations for Himself by opposing the same mentality that had begun them for all mankind. Where Adam and Eve had desired to be like gods, Christ rebuked the Devil: “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.’”

At once, Jesus conquered the snares of Satan and proclaimed in humble confidence that there is only one God and that we are His subjects.

These are the biblical origins of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

  1. Almsgiving fights greed.
  2. Fasting fights lust.
  3. Prayer fights pride.

But wait, there’s more! Not only do our Lenten practices find their roots in the Bible, but so do the evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

  1. Poverty fights greed.
  2. Chastity fights lust.
  3. Obedience fights pride.

Here’s a helpful table for you apologists:

Temptation Lust Greed Pride
Attributes of Forbidden Fruit
Genesis 3:6
Good for Food Pleasing to the Eyes Desirable for Gaining Wisdom
Law of the King
Deuteronomy 17:16-17
Not many wives Not much silver and gold Not many cavalry
Solomon’s Failure
1 Kings 10:14-22, 26-29; 11:1-13
700 wives + 300 concubines 666 talents of gold, annually 1400 chariots, 12,000 horses
Christ’s Fulfillment
Matthew 4:1-11
Refused to put bodily hunger before God Refused to pursue wealth before God Refused to seek pride before God
Lenten Practice Fasting Almsgiving Prayer
Evangelical Counsels Chastity Poverty Obedience
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