I wrote this originally to submit to the Ensign as an article, which is why it is so flush with quotations and scriptures. But apparently, the Ensign doesn’t want to publish articles about how to get out of keeping the commandments, so they rejected it. Who knew?
Fasting is a skill. It takes practice and dedication to do it in the right frame of mind and with the proper motivation. Monthly practice, in fact. But it is worth the practice because it is a real source of spiritual power. When we sacrifice our body’s needs for our spiritual desires, it shows a level of commitment to Heavenly Father that supersedes even the most fervent prayer. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “Fasting and prayer can help develop within us courage and confidence. It can strengthen our character and build self-restraint and discipline. Often when we fast, our righteous prayers and petitions have greater power. Testimonies grow. We mature spiritually and emotionally and sanctify our souls. Each time we fast, we gain a little more control over our worldly appetites and passions.”[i]
As a missionary, my companions and I became well-practiced in fasting. We fasted for investigators, for members, for our own trials and goals, and with the congregation on Fast Sunday each month. With practice, fasting ceases to become a time of starvation and truly becomes a reason to “rejoice”[ii]. The more consistently you participate in Fast Sunday, the easier it becomes to go without two meals, and the more pleasure you derive from exerting your energies towards spiritual goals. The rejoicing comes from a feeling that you are doing what the Lord expects from you, you are not bound by your body’s physical appetites and you are happy to be doing it.
Unfortunately, in my current cycle of early motherhood with pregnancy, followed by months of nursing, followed by another pregnancy, followed by nursing, it is difficult to get back into the polished, rejoicing level of fasting. I know this situation is common among other mothers, as well as those with health problems for whom fasting makes them seriously ill. I have spoken with some mothers who haven’t fasted for years, both because of the need to fuel their body (and their babies’ bodies), and because they have just gotten out of the habit of fasting through those years of childbearing.
President Joseph F. Smith said:
The Lord has instituted the fast on a reasonable and intelligent basis. … Those who can are required to comply … ; it is a duty from which they cannot escape; … it is left with the people as a matter of conscience, to exercise wisdom and discretion. …
“But those should fast who can. … None are exempt from this; it is required of the Saints, old and young, in every part of the Church.[iii]
When I am pregnant, it is not reasonable and intelligent to try to complete a full 24-hour fast, it makes me physically sick. However, the spirit of fasting and sacrifice can still be achieved, even if my body requires some fuel to keep it going. Below are a few suggestions for maintaining the habit and spirit of fasting, and still receiving many of the blessings of the Fast—even if it is not possible to completely abstain from food or drink for the recommended 24-hour period.
Food vs. Fuel
Whenever I’m pregnant or nursing I really do need to eat to keep from being sick all over the chapel pews. But I don’t need to eat as much as I possibly can! I can choose to eat oatmeal or toast over a delicious and extravagant meal. I can go without desserts. I can simply eat what I need to maintain a healthy balance without eating everything I want.
Doctrine and Covenants 59:13 says “only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full.” When we fast, we should do it without thinking the entire time about the next meal—the potatoes, the cheesecake, the salad, the pot roast stewing for hours with the smell wafting out the kitchen and permeating every room in the house…When we focus entirely on what we are missing and when we can eat again, we lose the spirit of the fast and it is an imperfect sacrifice. The principle still applies when you have to eat a little—viewing food as fuel and not as an indulgence helps keep the proper attitude for your fasting period.
Prayer and Purpose
Hopefully, even if you cannot fast, the rest of your family still fasts on Fast Sunday. Join them in beginning and ending the fast with a prayer. Treat the day with the same reverence that you would if you could observe a full fast.
Elder Carl B. Pratt said,
If all we do is abstain from food and drink for 24 hours and pay our fast offering, we have missed a wonderful opportunity for spiritual growth. On the other hand, if we have a special purpose in our fasting, the fast will have much more meaning. Perhaps we can take time as a family before beginning our fast to talk about what we hope to accomplish by this fast. This could be done in a family home evening the week before fast Sunday or in a brief family meeting at the time of family prayer. When we fast with purpose, we have something to focus our attention on besides our hunger.[iv]
Even while still fueling your body, you can have a purpose in mind for the fasting period. Use your purpose to motivate you to keep your attitude reverent and your eating simplistic. Remember that prayer always accompanies fasting—pray often, read your scriptures, attend your church meetings, and, if you desire, bear your testimony on Fast Sunday. All of these are important to a successful fast, and will enrich your experience.
Fasting is the Lord’s way to take care of the needs of His children. The plan is, if someone has more than their neighbor, they go without and give what they would have used to the person who has less. Fast Offerings stay within the ward or branch in which they are given and are used to help the brothers and sisters in that ward. They are a key component to a complete fast—in fact, Alma 34:28 says that “if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain and availeth you nothing.” Our prayers are powerless when we don’t share with those in need. And if our prayers are in vain, our fast is incomplete.
Elder Marion G. Romney stated:
Be liberal in your giving, that you yourselves may grow. Don’t give just for the benefit of the poor, but give for your own welfare. Give enough so that you can give yourself into the kingdom of God through consecrating of your means and your time.”
One of the important things the Lord has told us to do is to be generous in our payment of fast offerings. I would like you to know that there are great rewards for so doing—both spiritual and temporal rewards. The Lord has said that the effectiveness of our prayers depends upon our generosity to the poor.[v]
Fasting is about sacrifice—both the sacrifice of your body’s needs and of your means to give to others. Prayerfully decide with Heavenly Father what you can sacrifice to show your commitment to Him, if you are unable to go without food. You could sacrifice T.V. watching, internet time, thought patterns, language, or activities that you know are not uplifting; you could sacrifice by giving service to others more regularly, speaking up about the church more confidently, or making time for more in-depth scripture reading.
Everyone has their own needs and weaknesses; Heavenly Father knows what the best course of action is for each individual. Ask Him what would be the best for you and have faith that your sacrifice will be just as pleasing to him as your fast would have been.
I anxiously await the years when I will be able to hone my fasting skills in earnest again—as I did in the mission field. But for the present time, I am content to do everything in my power—eating simply, praying, having a purpose, paying fast offerings and sacrificing elsewhere—and hope that Christ will make up the difference.