In the LDS Church, the first Sunday of every month is designated as a “Fast Sunday.” Members are given the opportunity to gain spiritual strength through the sacrifice of abstaining from food and drink for two meals (approx. 24 hours), and donating the funds they would have spent on those meals as a “fast offering”, which the Church then uses to help care for members who are struggling financially or economically.
I was thinking about this concept during church this morning. Fasting is a principle that I have gained a testimony of, as I have practiced it in my life. But it was not always so for me, and I tried to recall how it was that I gained this testimony, and how I might be able to inspire or help others to gain a testimony for themselves.
I think that a lot of people wonder sometimes about why we fast. My instinctive reply is that “it’s a commandment.” But that really doesn’t satisfy someone who is looking for an understanding of its purpose. I decided to begin my search by consulting the Bible Dictionary. The entry for “Fasts” begins by saying:
Fasting, a voluntary abstinence from food, is a principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ for developing spiritual strength; it has always existed among true believers.
So we have found one answer: we fast to develop spiritual strength. Cannot we achieve that same outcome from every form of obedience though? We can be strengthened through reading of our scriptures and daily prayer and paying our tithing. This is true, and we should be following those commandments as well. However, there is an added strength that comes from fasting, and there are other purposes for it which we can find in the scriptures and through modern revelation.
The Bible Dictionary mentions, and there are many instances in the Book of Mormon which show, that fasting traditionally accompanied mourning. Though I had never thought of this before, it did not surprise me. Often, when I am upset, I don’t feel like eating anything. Is that really a fast though? Doesn’t fasting require an active purpose and desire for comfort or for a change in the situation? Maybe I need to change my attitude. It is quite likely that the Believers in the scriptures understood the principles and power of fasting much more than I do. They knew that the Lord had power to console them in their afflictions, and that humbly submitting themselves to Him would improve their situation or at the very least enable them to bear their circumstances. On the other hand, though, as I was reading scriptures about fasting, I was struck by Alma 45:1.
Behold, now it came to pass that the people of Nephi were exceedingly rejoiced, because the Lord had again delivered them out of the hands of their enemies; therefore they gave thanks unto the Lord their God; yea, and they did fast much and pray much, and they did worship God with exceedingly great joy.
For the Nephites, fasting was not reserved only for times of sorrow or trial. They also used fasting as a means of expressing joy and gratitude to the Lord. Whether we are struggling with something, and need an extra boost from the Lord to get us through, or if life is going smoothly and we wish to express our gratitude to the Lord for the blessings which he has bestowed upon us, there is always a reason to fast.
The power of fasting does not come from the physical deprivation of food, but rather from the humility it brings as we submit our will to the Lord’s, and exercise control over our bodily desires. Putting the desires of our spirit before the desires of our body is a skill that we all need to learn as we strive throughout our life to overcome the “Natural Man” and the carnal temptations that we so often are faced with. Fasting is one way of demonstrating that our mind does have control over our body, and we develop self-discipline as we exercise that control rather than succumbing to temporal cravings. This is one form of spiritual strength we gain from fasting: as we practice exercising control over our bodies, we will become stronger in resisting other carnal temptations, such as those pertaining to the Law of Chastity or the Word of Wisdom.
Another blessing associated with this kind of obedience is highlighted in Helaman 3:35.
Nevertheless, they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.
Sanctification is “the process of becoming free from sin, pure, clean, and holy through the atonement of Jesus Christ” (Guide to the Scriptures). Elder D. Todd Christofferson, in the Book of Mormon CES manual, shares how sanctification assists us in achieving perfection:
Personal persistence in the path of obedience is something different than achieving perfection in mortality. Perfection is not, as some suppose, a prerequisite for justification and sanctification. It is just the opposite: justification (being pardoned) and sanctification (being purified) are the prerequisites for perfection. We only become perfect ‘in Christ’ (see Moro. 10:32), not independently of Him. Thus, what is required of us in order to obtain mercy in the day of judgment is simple diligence.
Thus we can see that fasting leads to faith and humility, which lead to purification and sanctification, which are necessary to achieve perfection. This in just one more argument in favor of choosing to obey the commandment to fast.
We also fast to demonstrate our commitment to the Lord, or the sincerity of our intentions, actions, and desires. A sincere and honest fast has power beyond what we often realize. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin explained some of the blessings that come from fasting and prayer:
Fasting, coupled with mighty prayer, is powerful. It can fill our minds with the revelations of the Spirit. It can strengthen us against times of temptation.
Fasting and prayer can help develop within us courage and confidence. They 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….
Fasting in the proper spirit and in the Lord’s way will energize us spiritually. It will strengthen our self-discipline, fill our homes with peace, lighten our hearts with joy, fortify us against temptation, prepare us for times of adversity, and open the windows of heaven.
The blessings that come from fasting are numberless. Spouting off facts and scripture, though, will do little to help build a testimony if there is not first a desire and willingness to test the principle. In Alma 32, Alma teaches the process of “experimenting upon the word.” Similarly, Christ teaches in John 7, verse 17 that:
If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.
Finally, Moroni cautions in Ether 12:6 “dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”
If any of you are lacking a testimony of the power of fasting, or of why we should take the chance each and every month to fast, even if there does not seem to be a pressing need in your life, I encourage you to experiment upon the word. Try it out. I was discussing this with a friend this morning after church, and he suggested that anyone desiring to see the effect that fasting has on our life should faithfully fast every Fast Sunday, for the full length of time suggested, for 3 consecutive months (that’s only fasting 3 times!) and then, if you can’t see the effects already, skip the 4th month. Then look back and consider the spiritual strength that you gained from faithfully fasting for the full length of time, and compare that with your spiritual state after neglecting to fast.
I testify that fasting is indeed a divine principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have seen the power that it holds, and have been blessed beyond words as I have tried to humble myself and submit my will to the Lord. My mind has been opened to receiving personal revelation, I have been better able to focus on matters of the Spirit, and I have been strengthened in my attempts to better obey other commandments which the Lord has given.
I know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true and restored Gospel of Jesus Christ on the earth today, and that it is led by a living prophet, Thomas S. Monson. I know that Jesus Christ is my Savior and Redeemer, and that through his great and infinite Atonement I am able to repent of my transgressions and become clean again. I know that the Book of Mormon is the word of God and that reading it brings each of us closer to the Lord. I know that through the sealing powers of the temple, we can have the opportunity to live with our families forever. I am so grateful for the knowledge that I have been blessed with, and for the opportunity to share it with others. I know that there is no other source which can compare with the joy that comes from righteous obedience to the commandments of our loving Heavenly Father.