The Lord cares about our physical health and understands our unique situations—so does an inability to skip meals necessarily equate to skipping out on the blessings of fasting?
I pursed my lips apologetically, trying to ignore my husband’s contagious, smile-suppressed laughter as I fiddled with a plastic bag of crackers. We were sitting in sacrament meeting, and I was attempting—unsuccessfully—to open my snack as quietly as I could.
Pregnancy had rocked my world with an onslaught of symptoms, including sudden pangs of hunger that, if left unaddressed, would quickly degenerate into crippling nausea. I had to eat something, but eating during a church meeting felt so taboo. My self-consciousness caused me to imagine dozens of judgmental eyes flitting in my direction.
And, of course, it was fast Sunday. Everyone around me was abstaining from food and water, and here I was, frantically discovering that one can only be so covert with cracker crumbs.
It’s easy to feel self-conscious when your physical needs seem to sabotage your spiritual intentions. Many people are unable to fast, including pregnant and nursing mothers, people with medical conditions like diabetes or hypoglycemia, and those who are constrained by age or circumstance.
It’s easy to feel self-conscious when your physical needs seem to sabotage your spiritual intentions.
Certainly, the Lord cares about our physical health and understands our unique situations—but does an inability to skip meals necessarily equate to skipping out on the blessings of fasting?
In those early weeks of expecting our baby, I was just trying to survive my physical symptoms and ignore my spiritual guilt. Since then, I’ve come to view fast Sunday as a different kind of opportunity. If you find yourself in a similar boat (or pew, as the case may be), an altered approach to fasting could help you get the most out of these monthly meetings.
The Purposes and Principles of Fasting
Before considering alternatives to fasting, it’s helpful to understand the origins and purposes of this ancient spiritual practice. Fasting, or abstaining from food and drink for a designated amount of time, is seen as a way for the spirit to develop mastery over the body, bringing the soul closer to God. It can be an incredibly powerful experience.
- Cultivate spiritual strength
- Reinforce the ability to resist temptation
- Develop self-discipline over natural appetites
- Demonstrate humility and sorrow
- Foster feelings of compassion
- Enhance the power of prayer
- Connect the soul with divine inspiration
- Facilitate spiritual guidance and revelation
The purposes and blessings of fasting are inextricably intertwined. They’re so interrelated that, as the Lord describes through the prophet Isaiah, fasting has the power to “loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6). In short, fasting is a physical principle with immense spiritual implications, all of which benefit both the person fasting and the people receiving aid through the fast.
Alternative Approaches to Fasting
On paper, fasting can seem quite appealing! In practice, however, it can simply feel like hunger and thirst. And when physical constraints prevent you from fasting from food or water, it can feel like a completely unapproachable altar, a sacrifice you cannot offer.
When physical constraints prevent you from fasting from food or water, it can feel like a completely unapproachable altar, a sacrifice you cannot offer.
Fortunately, fasting is not a ritual with a set script. As President Russell M. Nelson remarked after inviting the world to fast for relief from the 2020 pandemic, “You decide what would constitute a sacrifice for you, as you remember the supreme sacrifice the Savior made for you. … Let us unite in pleading for healing throughout the world.”
Fasting is really about sincere sacrifice—a profound eternal principle that inevitably connects us with Jesus Christ. As we give up the physical comforts that satiate natural appetites, we can learn, lift, and love more deeply.
Through the lens of sacrifice, here are three alternative ways to approach fast Sunday and still enjoy the blessings of this spiritual principle.
Modify Your Fast
Some physical limitations still allow for flexibility with fasting. This can be a great opportunity to modify your fast based on your personal needs. For example, you could:
- Shorten your fast to a single meal
- Adjust the timing of your fast based on your church meeting schedule
- Fast from certain types of food or drink
One of my close friends suffers from excruciating chronic migraines. It’s difficult to hear or feel the Spirit when you can’t even think straight! She has learned that fast Sundays are far more impactful for her when she fasts from food but allows herself to drink throughout the day. Keeping migraines at bay with a few sips of water has been transformational for her.
I think we sometimes approach practices like fasting with an emphasis on “longsuffering” (Galatians 5:22), with the painstaking interpretation that we are to simply make ourselves suffer for as long as possible in order to reap the fruits of the Spirit. But I have come to believe that these fruits can be within reach for anyone who is doing just that: reaching.
A more contextually accurate synonym for Biblical “longsuffering” would be “patience” or “forbearance”—a trait that can be cultivated under more personally elevating circumstances than an empty stomach and a throbbing head. With a small adjustment based on your physical needs, fast Sunday can be meaningful rather than just painful!
Offer a Different Sacrifice
You may be unable to safely sacrifice food, but there are plenty of different sacrifices you can make with the same mentality as when fasting. A key purpose of this principle is to conquer the natural human appetites for comfort and indulgence. So, find something that’s hard to give up. You might be able to observe fast Sunday by fasting from:
- Using your phone for certain things
- Watching your favorite TV show
- Eating treats or other indulgent foods
- Participating in certain recreational activities
None of these things is inherently bad—neither is eating food—but learning how to put a physical desire on the altar gives your spirit control.
Better yet, replace your sacrifice with an engaging offering. Offer your time to a family member or friend. Serve a neighbor. Study a chapter of scripture. The possibilities for a meaningful sacrifice are as diverse as our individual circumstances.
In a myriad of situations, we can be blessed with increased spiritual power over the physical forces that would otherwise act on us from day to day.
Focus on Prayer
If prophets both ancient and modern have taught us anything about fasting, it’s that fasting and prayer go hand in hand. When testifying to the Nephites about Jesus Christ, Alma emphasized that spiritual certainty takes work: “Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself” (Alma 5:46).
Not everyone may be able to go without food or water, but anyone can pray! Fast Sunday can become your designated day for elevated, focused prayer.
Think of a question you have, a person you care for, something you’re worried about, an issue you’d like help with—anything that matters to you personally—then take the time to really have a conversation with the Lord about it. Move beyond the typical length and content of your everyday prayers. Try praying in a more earnest, thoughtful way.
While I’ve been pregnant with our baby girl, I’ve taken a more prayerful approach to fast Sundays. Praying for the growth, safety, and future happiness of our daughter has filled me with deep assurance. I know, with a greater sense of calm than I’ve received from my typical prayers, that her future is in the Lord’s loving hands.
Whether you’re on your knees, addressing the Lord vocally, or communicating with Him silently throughout the day, praying with spiritual hunger and thirst can lead to divine connections that fill and quench the soul.
“The Lord Loves Effort”
At the start of 2022, President Nelson shared a message on social media about making resolutions for the new year. Four words of his simple, inspired guidance have completely changed my perspective about what I am capable of offering:
“The Lord loves effort.”
He continued, “While we surely will come up short from time to time, our persistent efforts to hear Him and follow the inspiration He gives us will help us to ‘wax strong in the Spirit’ (Mosiah 18:26).”
Jesus Christ, of all people, understands the individual nature of sacrifice. His life was never one of wealth, excess, or luxury. When Mary and Joseph came to present young Jesus at the temple, it was Israelite custom to bring a sacrificial lamb. Unable to afford such a sacrifice, they brought the Levitical alternative: two turtledoves (see Luke 2:24). Surely, such an earnest offering was accepted by a Heavenly Father who knew and understood their circumstance.
As you approach fast Sunday next month, consider what kind of effort would most closely connect you with the principles and blessings of sacrifice. I highly doubt that the Lord is keeping a fast Sunday tally sheet of who fasted, how long they fasted, and how hungry they felt. I am certain that He is filled with love for those who internalize the spirit of fasting and try to implement it the best that they can, even if it means making personal adjustments or substitutions—and even if it involves cracker crumbs.