“‘What are you, some kind of freak?’” The gentlemen, holding their beers, cast a glance at the bartender.

After some bragging about their exploits in using others for “pleasure,” the guys had noticed their server was not downing his normal energy drinks the last few times they had seen him, so they asked if something was wrong. The barman explained he was doing a program with some other men for 90 days that included giving up sugary drinks. “‘What is it, some kind of diet?’” “No,” he said, sharing that they were giving up different foods, drinks and pleasures “as a way to grow closer to God and our families.” Giving things up would bring some freedom from things that sort of enslave us. With a sideways glance at each other, the gentlemen made clear they thought their server was disturbed.

Our fasting friend had joined a group of men doing Exodus 90, a program that involves daily prayer, fasting and fraternal support. The Exodus men agree to keep certain practices that are meant to discipline their desires, channel their energy and essentially free them from being the self-indulgent brats we easily become. Yes, it means following a rule that someone else has made, denying normal daily pleasures for the sake of self-mastery. Occasionally others notice. “Why aren’t you eating those chips you always eat?” Multiple guys in the group had been interrogated by co-workers who took them aback saying, “‘That sounds like a cult.’” Why? Because the guys were following a rule abstaining from pleasures like alcohol, sweets, screen time and pop for a set period of time. “That sounds like a cult” puts in relief how self-indulgent and self-focused our culture has become.

The beauty is that we do not have to remain this way. On this day that many people celebrate romantic love, it is wise to remember the basis of true love. It is not possession and use. A world fixated on use for pleasure — of people and things — certainly accelerates the epidemics of human trafficking, abuse, exploitation and the discarding of those who are inconvenient. Fighting self-indulgence, on the other hand, with the ancient and Biblical practice of fasting, can fan the fire of love. Rather than itching to check the scores or pop open a beer, the free person can actually cherish his beloved as a gift and desire to give of himself for her good. So also in our relationship with God — when those itches are tamed we might actually sense the Lord’s presence to us intimately throughout the day and we might choose to respond with more joy.

While the practices of fasting and mortification may have been lost in our culture, they were well known to the early Christians and most religious people throughout East and West. Such discipline is a path to freedom for true love. I am inspired by the men taking up the challenge to be transformed in love through prayer, fraternity and self-denial. Their goal is to be free to give the gift of themselves in authentic love, as Christ gave himself for his bride on the Cross.