Monday, January 6, 2014

Fasting 101: How to Fast and Why it Matters

Q:  Alright guys, I'm 18 and I don't know how to properly fast. Now after you're done laughing, can somebody give me a step by step list of how to start it, end it and anything else that I need to know?

A:  I applaud you for your desire to learn how to fast properly.  When done correctly, fasting is an opportunity to grow closer to the Lord and to grow stronger spiritually.

How to fast

As a matter of custom, the Church typically designates the first Sunday of every month as a day of fasting.  In order to properly observe ‘fast Sunday’ you should “go without food and drink for two consecutive meals, [attend] fast and testimony meeting, and [give] a fast offering to help care for those in need” (Gospel Topics:  Fasting and Fast Offerings,  You are not restricted to fasting only on ‘fast Sundays’ however.  In fact, it is perfectly appropriate to fast on other days, as long as you do not “fast too frequently or for excessive periods of time” (Gospel Topics:  Fasting and Fast Offerings,  The actual process of observing a fast is a relatively simple one; however I feel I should point out that, if you want to do it properly, there is a little more to fasting than just a step-by-step process.

 Fasting and prayer

First, it’s important to remember that proper fasting is always accompanied by sincere prayer.  In a way you could say that fasting is not a standalone principle, but that it depends on the related principle of heartfelt prayer in order to function properly.  Prayer is not always accompanied by fasting, but fasting should always be coupled with prayer.  I think that people too often forget that fasting (when coupled with prayer) is a profound way to worship God and to express our devotion and gratitude to Him.  We have also been instructed to “begin and end our fasting with prayer” (Gospel Principles, (2011), 144–48).

Fasting with a purpose

We have also been instructed to “fast with a purpose,” which means that “We can overcome weaknesses or problems by fasting and praying. Sometimes we may wish to fast and pray for help or guidance for others, such as a family member who is ill and needs a blessing (see Mosiah 27:22–23)” (Gospel Principles, (2011), 144–48).

Fasting is a powerful means by which we can seek for the welfare of others and not just for our own needs.

Alma 6:6  Nevertheless the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft, and join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God.
While we may choose to fast for many purposes, Elder L. Tom Perry, of The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught that there are three main purposes behind the law of the fast itself: “The law of the fast has three great purposes. First, it provides assistance to the needy through the contribution of fast offerings, consisting of the value of meals from which we abstain. Second, a fast is beneficial to us physically. Third, it is to increase humility and spirituality on the part of each individual” (L. Tom Perry, “The Law of the Fast,” Ensign, May 1986).

Fasting helps us to help the poor

The Lord described the purposes of a proper fast through His prophet Isaiah:  “Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (see Isaiah 58:6-7).

Prominent among these purposes is to feed the poor, and to clothe the naked.  Fasting is a principle whereby we are meant to forget ourselves and look to the good of those around us.  This is not merely a nice sentiment, but it is in fact something which we covenanted to do when we were baptized.

“Do we need to be reminded that included in our baptismal covenant is our pledge to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, to mourn with those that mourn, and to comfort those that stand in need of comfort? (See Mosiah 18:8–9)”(L. Tom Perry, “The Law of the Fast,” Ensign, May 1986).
When we fast we often do so in order to obtain some great need on our part, but why should the Lord feel obligated to give us what we want if we refuse to contribute to the great need and welfare of the poor whom we have continually before us?

Alma 34:26-29  But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.  Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.  And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, 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, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.  Therefore, if ye do not remember to be charitable, ye are as dross, which the refiners do cast out, (it being of no worth) and is trodden under foot of men.

Amulek has some harsh words for those who neglect the poor, but as it relates to the question before us, what matters is that if you turn away the poor in their need, the Lord will not answer your own entreaties and “behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing.”

Lest this be misunderstood as some sort of tit for tat, or a system whereby one earns blessings by one’s own works, allow me to emphasize that caring for the poor is an essential feature of true discipleship, and we are to love and care for our fellow man without thought of reward.  It is simply that God chooses whom He will bless, and he elects to bless those who strive to love and bless others.

James 1:27  Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
Fasting and the related offerings represent an elegant system whereby the Lord looks after the needs of the poor while simultaneously providing opportunities for learning and growth to those who elect (out of their own free will) to provide for the needy and care for the poor.

“The longer I live, the more impressed I am with the Lord’s system of caring for the poor and needy. Surely no man would think of such a simple yet profound way of satisfying human needs—to grow spiritually and temporally through periodic fasting and then donating the amount saved from refraining from partaking of those meals to the bishop to be used to administer to the needs of the poor, the ill, the downtrodden, who need help and support to make their way through life” (L. Tom Perry, “The Law of the Fast,” Ensign, May 1986).
The fast offering

It should be noted that the fast offering is typically associated with the designated fast Sunday, and that you can fast privately for your own purposes without feeling any obligation to make an associated offering.  At any rate, the main points of the fast offering are these:

“As part of the fast, members of the Church contribute a generous fast offering for the care of the poor and the needy. This offering should be at least the value of the two meals the Church member went without while fasting. These funds are used to provide food, shelter, and other necessities to people in need, both locally and worldwide.  There is no standard donation amount for fast offerings. As you contribute generously to these funds, you will be blessed both spiritually and temporally for your desire to help others” (Tithing and Fast Offerings (pamphlet), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007).

For more details about exactly how fast offerings are collected and used you can read “Where Do Fast Offerings Go?” which was published in the May 2008 issue of the New Era magazine.

The health benefits of fasting

While I am assured that science has discovered many health benefits associated with the practice of fasting, I am not a scientist nor am I a dietician and therefore I will refer you to more informed sources which discuss the health benefits of fasting.  Suffice it to say that the mere act of fasting appears to have physical benefits which are more immediate and apparent than the much greater and more eternal spiritual benefits that one may also derive from fasting.

Seliger, S. & Haines, C.D. (2012) 'Is Fasting Healthy?' Accessed from

Panjwani, M. (2009) '11 Health Benefitsof Fasting', Accessed from

The spiritual benefits of fasting

Fasting can have many purposes, but it is important to understand that we don’t just fast in order to get something that we want (like adding “sprinkles on top” to our “pretty please” when we asked our parents for something).  Fasting is not designed to add extra weight to our requests or to increase the volume of our pleas—God can hear us just fine without it.

Isaiah 58:4  Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.

Fasting is not about getting something; so much as it is about giving up something.  Fasting and prayer are linked, and like prayer, the object of fasting is not to impose our will upon the Father, but rather to submit ourselves to Him and His desires and designs for us. In effect we surrender our will to Him in order that we might become more united with God.

“Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other.  The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them” ("Prayer," LDS Bible Dictionary,752).

One of the main purposes of fasting is as a way to humble ourselves before God and to demonstrate our willingness to give up our own selfish interests in order that we may be led by Him.

Psalms 35:13  But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.

As He fasted for forty days in the wilderness, Jesus Christ demonstrated profound humility and willing submission to the will and direction of the Father:  “Soon after his baptism Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wild, uncultivated wilderness. There he remained for forty days and nights, preparing himself for the formal ministry which was then to begin. The greatest task ever to be accomplished in this world lay before him, and he needed divine strength. Throughout these days in the wilderness he chose to fast, that his mortal body might be completely subjected to the divine influence of his Father’s Spirit” (Howard W. Hunter, “The Temptations of Christ,” Ensign, Nov. 1976, 17).

Fasting is a principle of humility whereby we are enabled to rid ourselves of distractions and our petty concerns in order that we might learn to contemplate higher and nobler truths as we draw closer to the Lord.  In this way, fasting is an important means by which we can be brought to be more in tune with the spirit and the will of the Lord.  In this state we will be more receptive to personal revelation and divine inspiration and “Through fasting we can come to know the truth of things just as did the prophet Alma in the Book of Mormon” (Gospel Principles, (2011), 144–48).

Alma 5:45-46  And this is not all.  Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself?  Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true.  And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety?  Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God.  Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself.  And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.

Fasting is an effective way in which we can demonstrate our understanding of the sacred importance of the knowledge and understanding which we desire to obtain from God and the diligence and care which we will apply to that knowledge once it has been received.  Fasting is a technique by which we may make ourselves more receptive to the prompting, instruction, and inspiration of the Lord, for by such means we can gain insight into the mind and will of the Lord through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:9-10; 12-14; 16  But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.  But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.  Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.  Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.  But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.  For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him?  But we have the mind of Christ.

Fasting and self-control

Fasting is also a way for us to learn self-control and self-mastery, and the moral discipline which is an essential part of discipleship.

"The word for disciple and the word for discipline both come from the same Latin root—discipulus, which means pupil. It emphasizes practice or exercise. Self-discipline and self-control are consistent and permanent characteristics of the followers of Jesus, as exemplified by Peter, James, and John, who indeed ‘forsook all, and followed him’" (James E. Faust, “Discipleship,” Ensign, Nov. 2006, 20, 22).

“By “moral discipline,” I mean self-discipline based on moral standards. Moral discipline is the consistent exercise of agency to choose the right because it is right, even when it is hard. It rejects the self-absorbed life in favor of developing character worthy of respect and true greatness through Christlike service (see Mark 10:42–45). The root of the word discipline is shared by the word disciple, suggesting to the mind the fact that conformity to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ is the ideal discipline that, coupled with His grace, forms a virtuous and morally excellent person” (D. Todd Christofferson, “Moral Discipline,” Ensign, Nov 2009, 105–8).

“Fasting is also one of the finest ways of developing our own discipline and self-control. Plato said, “The first and the best victory is to conquer self; to be conquered by self is, of all things, the most shameful and vile.” (Laws, Book I, section 626E.)
Fasting helps to teach us self-mastery. It helps us to gain the discipline we need to have control over ourselves” (L. Tom Perry, “The Law of the Fast,” Ensign, May 1986).

“Jesus takes it for granted [in the Sermon on the Mount] that his disciples will observe the pious custom of fasting.  Strict exercise of self-control is an essential feature of the Christian’s life.  Such customs have only one purpose—to make the disciples more ready and cheerful to accomplish those things which God would have done.  Fasting helps to discipline the self-indulgent and slothful will which is so reluctant to serve the Lord….If we give free reign to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 169).

Fasting can help us to develop the strength of character and close relationship with God that will enable us to resist and overcome temptation.  It can help us to be more ready and cheerful in our desire to serve God, and as we develop this desire we will also begin to lose the desire to sin and to hearken to temptation.

Fasting can help to make us more in tune with the voice of the Holy Spirit by helping us to learn how to tune out the appetites, concerns, and distractions of the world.

The Savior taught that as Christians we are “to take no thought, saying, What shall we eat?  or, What shall we drink?  or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?... for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.”  We have been instructed by the Savior to “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you” (see Matthew 6:31-33). 

As we go through life it is easy to become caught up in our daily toil and our mundane worries and cares which can distract us from what is truly important and cause us to lose sight of our true priorities.

“Anxiety for food and clothing is clearly not the same thing as anxiety for the kingdom of God, however much we should like to persuade ourselves that when we are working for our families and concerning ourselves with bread and houses we are thereby building the kingdom, as though the kingdom could be realized only through our worldly cares…Worldly cares are not a part of our discipleship, but distinct and subordinate concerns.  Before we start taking thought for our life, our food, and our clothing, our work and families, we must seek the righteousness of Christ” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 180-81).

Fasting provides us the opportunity to briefly transcend our worldly concerns so that we might refocus our priorities and center ourselves once again on Christ and His righteousness.

For more on the importance and blessings of ridding oneself of unnecessary distractions in order to better commune with the Lord you may want to read my article:  Scripture Master Tip #12: Rid Yourself of All Distractions

Fasting brings spiritual power

If we wish to be filled with the spirit of God, and if we wish to be preach and testify with the power that comes of God, we must learn to build on righteous practices such as diligent scripture study and heartfelt prayer by fasting to obtain that spiritual power than can serve as a protection and a blessing to us and those around us.

Alma 17:2-3  Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.  But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.
Fasting in and of itself is not some kind of magic talisman by which we can invoke the power of God, rather it is symbolic of the process and progress of our personal conversion, and of our desire to yield our hearts unto God.

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.

Christ’s disciples were perplexed to find that they were unable to cast out an evil spirit that plagued a child, and after Christ Himself had to heal the child they asked Him “Why could not we cast him out?”  To which Christ responded with a rebuke:

Matthew 17:20-21  And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.  Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.

Prayer and fasting bring spiritual power, not through any talismanic power of their own, but rather as expressions of faith, and means by which that faith and belief can be enhanced and increased.  Without such faith, and without the diligence which prayer and fasting represent, a professed follower of Christ can never be anything but weak and ineffectual.  If you are struggling with your own faith or your testimony, pray and fast to have your belief and understanding strengthened.  As you do so in humility, and with faith (as well as with diligence and persistence), you will gain the knowledge you seek, along with a powerful witness of the truth of the gospel and the reality of God and Christ.
We do not fast in order to impress other people

As has been mentioned above, fasting is a principle of humility and self-denial.  However, I have noticed that on occasion we sometimes make too much of a public spectacle out of our fast.  This includes complaining about how hungry we are, or announcing the purpose of our individual fast over the pulpit during fast and testimony meeting.  On the other hand, (at least to my mind) a ward fast for the needs of the members of the ward which has been initiated (or at least sanctioned) by the proper priesthood authorities doesn’t fall into this category.  At any rate, the Savior has instructed us not to draw too much attention to ourselves during our fast.

Matthew 6:16-18  Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.  Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

Interestingly enough, fasting (while it is a principle of self-denial) is not about suffering and misery.  In fact fasting is supposed to be a principle of joy, gratitude and rejoicing, as the Lord explained to Joseph Smith in D&C 59:13-15:

And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, 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.  Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.  And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances, not with much laughter, for this is sin, but with a glad heart and a cheerful countenance—

The blessings that come with fasting

The Lord has named a number of blessings with which He may choose to reward us openly as a consequence of properly observing the law of the fast (which includes caring for the poor):

Isaiah 58: 8-11  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.  Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.  If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;  And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday:  And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

D&C 59:16-20  Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;  Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;  Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;  Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.  And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.

Fasting, and using the fruits of that fast to help our fellowman, is a powerful way for us to express our devotion to God and to demonstrate that rather than allowing ourselves to be consumed by our own selfish (or worldly) desires we instead “hunger and thirst after righteousness.”  If we live the law of the fast and devote ourselves to a life of discipleship, the Lord has promised that we will be filled: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

The gospel is full of such seeming contradictions: he who will lose his life for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s shall find it, and he who fasts shall be filled.  There are many others, but suffice it to say that fasting is a powerful symbolic act by which we signify to the Lord our readiness to deny ourselves and to take up our cross to follow Him.  By forsaking the transitory comforts of this world we show the Lord that we are willing to lose our lives in His service and in return He has promised that by doing so our live will be saved through Him.  There is no more powerful blessing, and so the act of fasting should be looked upon as an opportunity to more firmly lay hold on the gift of eternal life which Christ offers to all who will follow Him.

“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” (Joseph B. Wirthlin, “The Law of the Fast,” Ensign, May 2001, 73).

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