See how many problems you can spot in this personal story:
It’s the first Sunday of the month, and my oh-so-helpful family member reminds me that it’s fast Sunday while I’m pouring my cereal.
Annoyed, I think, Fine. I’ll just skip breakfast and start my fast right now.
I put the cereal away, finish getting ready for church, and grumble the entire time. The second I get home, I’m starving so I make a beeline for the kitchen. As I eat my sandwich, I applaud myself for having made it through church.
How many did you find? I can count at least five problems in what was once my “fasting” routine.
So what exactly was wrong and how does one fast properly? I’m glad you asked.
1. 24 Hours, 2 Meals, No Water
The first problem in my story came before it even started—did you catch it? Instead of thinking about fasting Sunday morning, I should have had it on my mind Saturday night.
The Gospel Principles manual reminds us that fasting is for 24 hours, includes two consecutive meals, and also means abstaining from drinking water. If I had intended to partake in a proper fast, I should have planned ahead the night before to remember not to eat any snacks or drink any water after my evening meal.
Elder Carl B. Pratt of the First Quorum of the Seventy also notes a second problem with my fast in a 2004 conference address. “If we are guilty of taking our fast day for granted or simply fasting Sunday morning instead of making it two complete meals—24 hours—we are depriving ourselves and our families of the choice spiritual experiences and blessings that can come from a true fast.”
Quick tip: If you do remember about Fast Sunday late, you can always eat breakfast, then fast over lunch and dinner through to Monday morning to get your 24 hours in. In fact, in many countries, breakfast is the biggest meal of the day anyway, so this distribution of two meals makes more sense than fasting from dinner to dinner.
2. Don’t Forget to Pray
In addition to forgetting about fasting in the first place, another problem in my fast came from forgetting something else. I forgot to pray.
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin taught, “Without prayer, fasting is not complete fasting; it’s simply going hungry. If we want our fasting to be more than just going without eating, we must lift our hearts, our minds, and our voices in communion with our Heavenly Father. 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.”
You should open your fast with a prayer—immediately following the meal you eat before starting your fast—and also close your fast with prayer.
In his address, Elder Pratt also shared this advice: “Let us begin our fasts with prayer. This could be kneeling at the table as we finish the meal with which we begin the fast. That prayer should be a natural thing as we speak to our Heavenly Father concerning the purpose of our fast and plead with Him for His help in accomplishing our goals. Likewise, let us end our fasts with prayer. We could very appropriately kneel at the table before we sit down to consume the meal with which we break our fast. We would thank the Lord for His help during the fast and for what we have felt and learned from the fast.”
3. For a Purpose
When a fast sneaks up on me, often I just don’t eat in order not to get in trouble with more righteous family members. I don’t have a purpose to my fast other than “to be seen of men.”
Elder Pratt said it this way, “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.”
There's always something to be fasting for. You can fast for guidance in your life, for a loved one who is struggling, for people in your ward, for Church leaders like your bishop or the Brethren, for missionaries, for peace, for any righteous desire you might have. You can also always ask someone you know what they're fasting for and fast along with them.
4. Be of Good Cheer
This common fasting problem might have escaped your notice in my story—I had a bad attitude.
We’re reminded in 3 Nephi 13:16-18 that we should fast with a cheerful countenance:
16 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.
17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face;
18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. (See also Matthew 6:1-4)
Whining or complaining about fasting—even to ourselves—shortchanges us of potential blessings we could have received for our efforts.
5. Other Things Your Fast Might Be Missing
My story definitely doesn’t contain every potential problem one might encounter when trying to participate in a proper fast. Here are a few more elements to remember when trying to partake in a good fast:
· Fast offerings. Don’t forget that part of fasting includes donating the money you would have spent on food to the Church’s fast offerings. This money is used to “care for the poor and needy.”
· Attending meetings. An important part of fasting includes attending your Church meetings, especially fast and testimony meeting if you are fasting on a designated fast Sunday.
· Moderation. President Joseph F. Smith counseled us to be wise in our fasting. “There is such a thing as overdoing. A man may fast and pray till he kills himself; and there isn’t any necessity for it; nor wisdom in it” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1912, 133-34).
Benefits of Fasting Correctly
It may seem like I’m being picky about rules for fasting, but a fast done right is a window to the blessings of heaven.
The Gospel Principles manual shares just a few blessings we can expect when we fast properly.
· Fasting helps us gain strength of character.
· When we fast properly, we will learn to control our appetites and passions.
· When we fast wisely and prayerfully, we develop our faith.
· With that faith we will have greater spiritual power.
· The Savior has said to those who fast properly, “Thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:18).
Studies have even shown that fasting physically blesses those who do it.
As President Joseph F. Smith has noted, not everyone is able to fast. He explained, “Many are subject to weakness, others are delicate in health, and others have nursing babies; of such it should not be required to fast. Neither should parents compel their little children to fast” (Gospel Doctrine, p. 244).
However, that doesn’t mean these people are exempt from the opportunity of fasting. For example, my grandmother cannot partake in a traditional fast because of a medical issue. Even so, she does not let that stop her from fasting altogether. Instead, she adapts the fast to her circumstances. In lieu of giving up all food, she will give up a favorite food over a longer period of time. In this way, she feels she is still sacrificing and can receive the blessings of participating in a fast.
Doing It Right
Elder Pratt expressed his concern that members were not fasting correctly. In a general conference address, he said, “I fear … that too many of us are either not fasting on fast day or we are doing so in a lackadaisical manner.”
Our fasts should be anything but casual. So how does my fasting story go now?
Saturday night after dinner, I make a special note to remember to pray and open my fast. I find a specific purpose to ponder over and pray about in the next 24 hours as I seek divine guidance. I do my best to remain cheerful and optimistic Sunday at Church, even if I get hungry. I keep a prayer in my heart until the evening meal comes again, when I close my fast with a thankful prayer.
Now that’s doing fasting right.