One day as I was teaching a class full of teenagers about fasting, they were bombarding me with questions like, “Can I chew gum while I’m fasting? Can I suck on a hard piece of candy? Can I just fast for 2 meals or does it have to be for 24 hours?”
While these were sincere questions, they were completely missing the point! They wanted to know exactly how little they could do and still count it as a full fast! I was reminded of Isaiah’s words:
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.
Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:4-5)
Apparently, the Jews were fasting, but not for the right reasons. They were going through the motions and “afflicting” their bodies with hunger, but they were not reaping the spiritual benefits.
In our church, we set aside the first Sunday of every month as a Fast Sunday. We go 24 hours without food or water. We also give the money we would have spent on our meals that day as a Fast Offering to help the poor. Now, the definition of our fast is to go without food or water for 24 hours, but if that is ALL we are doing, we are NOT fasting. We are just starving and that is a miserable experience!
Fasting is NOT about food. It’s not about being hungry and miserable. It’s not about showing everyone how righteous you are because you’re fasting. It’s about connecting with heaven and having a deep, soul satisfying spiritual experience. Fasting is about your spirit, not your body.
Paul described the natural man as someone who “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” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We all have “natural man” tendencies – it is quite natural to be lazy, selfish, angry, and dishonest. It is exactly those tendencies that we have to fight off in order to develop Christlike character traits and make our spirits strong. When we are fasting, our body wants food and the battle between spirit and body begins.
Some of the greatest battles we will face will be fought within the silent chambers of our own souls. (Ezra Taft Benson, “In His Steps,” Ensign, September 1988).
When I was a little girl growing up, I woke up to the smell of pancakes on Sunday! We had cold cereal every other day for breakfast, but my sweet dad would wake up early on Sundays and make sure a delicious breakfast was waiting for us. It helped me look forward to Sundays and taught me that they are special. I remember one Sunday running (and I mean running!) into the kitchen for breakfast. Dad served all of us his delicious pancakes, but I noticed that he hadn’t eaten anything. “Dad,” I said, “Aren’t you going to have some pancakes?” My dad just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m fasting.” I wondered what kind of a man could make pancakes and not eat them! I was sure I would NEVER have that kind of willpower! I was also pretty sure that fasting could definitely NOT be worth it if you had to skip pancakes for breakfast!
As I got a little older, the dreaded Sunday came when there was no smell of hot pancakes on the griddle. At first, my parents just had us skip breakfast and then we gradually worked up to the point we could fast for 24 hours (which I think I first did as a teenager). It was tough. It was probably even tougher for my parents (I’m sure we complained more than once that we were hungry!), but they knew the power behind fasting and they wanted us to discover it for ourselves as well.
Do not think that there is not a spiritual significance in the little principle of fasting. Do not think, parents, that you are favoring your child when, out of compassion, you say, “Oh, give him his breakfast; oh, let us have breakfast; let us have dinner; I have a headache; the little boy is too young to go without his meal, and so on. You do not know what you are doing by such teaching as that. I want to tell you that the children of our Church can be so taught this principle of self-denial that they will set worthy examples to their parents in the observance of it (David O. McKay, in Conference Report, Apr. 1915, 105-106).
Physical hunger is hard to fight off! It gnaws at you! Your body knows it needs food to survive and it will fight for it! It takes a lot of self discipline to resist. And that is one of the greatest blessings of fasting – it develops our self mastery. We become a master over our bodies instead of our bodies being the master over us. We develop some serious willpower! In my humble opinion, there are few things on earth that can develop our willpower quicker than fasting!
Fasting increases your power to resist temptation. And not just the temptation to eat, but EVERY temptation the devil will throw at you! Wanting to eat while we’re fasting is one of the strongest temptations there is, and if you can control that, you can control anything!
Developing our self discipline is crucial in fighting against Satan. Just think about it – EVERY time we’ve sinned it’s because we lost self control. We weren’t disciplined enough. We didn’t have enough willpower. We caved to the temptation. Through fasting, we gain more power over Satan. It’s not that sin is not as tempting as before, but we are stronger than before and are less likely to give in! Every time we do give in to sin, it weakens our willpower. If you feel like you’ve been losing a lot of battles with Satan lately, maybe it’s time to fast and gain that power back.
When I was 21, I decided to do a service mission for my church. I was assigned to serve in Germany and Austria for 18 months. At the beginning of my mission, I was pretty discouraged. I was struggling to learn a new language and the lessons I was trying to teach people weren’t coming across very well. I knew I needed some extra help. I decided to fast, but I also realized that I couldn’t become a master teacher in 24 hours.
That’s when I came up with a plan that transformed the way I fasted and I truly reaped the POWERFUL blessings from fasting. I decided to have a monthly theme for each fast. I started each month (on that first Sunday) with a fast. I went without food or water and begged Heavenly Father to help me learn how to be a better teacher. At the end of the 24 hours I knelt down and said, “I am going to end the food part of my fast, but I am NOT going to end my fast. I’m dedicating this whole month to Thee and learning how to teach Thy word better. Please help me and teach me the things I need to learn.”
That entire month I focused, read, prayed, pondered, and studied how the Savior taught. I woke up early, studied during lunch, and pondered during the day and miraculous things began to happen! They probably wouldn’t have been considered miraculous to other people, but they were to me. I was amazed at how many experiences, stories, poems, scriptures, and analogies came to my mind. I was amazed at how easily lesson outlines came together and how many different kinds of teaching methods I came up with. God was so very merciful to me that month. The heavens were opened and a constant stream of brilliant ideas flowed down to me.
The next month I chose a different theme and marveled at the fabulous results. To this day, I still choose a monthly theme each month.
The monthly themes also work when you are fasting to help someone else in need. It’s great to fast for them for 24 hours, but even more powerful if you dedicate an entire month to helping that individual!
I have also fasted to strengthen relationships. I’ve fasted to strengthen my marriage, help a child who was struggling with a certain issue, etc. Every time I’ve come away with a far greater understanding of that individual, how much God loves them, and received a ton of new ideas on how to help that individual (or how to help me deal with them). It’s been during these months where I’ve come up with some of my most brilliant parenting strategies!
Sometimes we feel like we’re being pulled in a million different directions. We have a millions different responsibilities, and it seems we’re not making much progress in ANY direction. We are stretched too thin.
The trick is to pick ONE direction – ONE thing you really want to improve, and focus on it for a month. It’s amazing how much progress you can make in becoming more patient if you dedicate an entire month to fasting about patience (believe me, I know! I’ve done it!).
Isaiah was lamenting the fact that the Israelites did not understand the powerful blessings that came from fasting.
Look at these beautiful promises in the book of Isaiah to those who fast:
- Loose the bands of wickedness
- Undo the heavy burdens
- Let the oppressed go free
- Take care of the poor (Isaiah counseled them to “deal thy bread to the hungry and “bring the poor that are cast out to thy house”) (Isaiah 58:6-12)
BLESSINGS FROM FASTING
- Then shall thy light break forth as the morning
- Thine health shall spring forth speedily
- Thy righteousness shall go before thee
- The glory of the Lord shall be thy rearward
- Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer.
- Thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.
- 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 (Isaiah 58:6-12)
Can we chew gum while we’re fasting? It depends. It’s all about our inner desires and motivations. If we’re chewing gum to freshen our breath, maybe. If we’re chewing gum to take the edge off our hunger, maybe we should think twice before popping our favorite spearmint gum in our mouths. Feeling hungry during our fast is actually a blessing. Each time we feel hungry, we are reminded of the reason we are fasting and can focus our attention on that. In addition, the harder it is to go without food, the more willpower we develop! If it were easy to go without food for that long, maybe our spirits wouldn’t grow quite as much. Although, there have been times when it was easier to fast than others and it was precisely because I wanted the thing so badly that I was fasting for that the sacrifice was easy to make and the temptation to eat didn’t phase me at all.
Fasting without a purpose is torture, but fasting with a monthly theme in mind is powerful and rewarding. I used to dread fasting each month (especially when I was younger), but now I look forward to having a month of one on one time with the Lord where He can personally teach me how to overcome my next challenge.
And yes, I get up early Sunday mornings and make my kids pancakes. None of them are old enough to fast yet and, as I pour syrup over hot pancakes, I think back to my four-year-old self who never would have believed that she’d be able to resist pancakes on Fast Sunday!