©iStockphoto.com/Achim Prill

After a hearty breakfast the first Sunday of November, my husband and I remembered it was fast Sunday. As I cleaned up the kitchen, I questioned myself:

Did I forget on purpose because fasting is hard for me? Do I still resist fasting as rebellion to the myth? What myth? That fasting is going without food to prove to God how much I want something so He will be more likely to bring it about. Wasn’t that like saying that going hungry could somehow make it possible to talk God into doing what I want – to bring about what I think is best (when I don’t know anything at all about what is best)? There was nothing right about such an idea. How did I ever get such a skewed perception of such a marvelous principle in the first place?

The Truth about Fasting

The Bible Dictionary, p. 671, says, “Fasting, a voluntary abstinence from food, is a principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ for developing spiritual strength.”

Speaking of the sons of Mosiah, Alma 1;7:9 says, “And they fasted much and prayed much that the Lord would grant unto them a portion of his Spirit to go with them, and abide with them, that they might be an instrument in the hands of God to bring, if it were possible, their brethren, the Lamanites, to the knowledge of the truth.” The spiritual strength to do the Lord’s work often comes no other way.

About halfway through my mission in Southern California in the 60, I was transferred into an area where the missionaries had not been diligent and had lost the trust of the members. With all the potential of a populous area in L.A. County, there had been no convert baptisms for some time. The previous missionaries left no investigators and no referrals from members.

I felt a huge responsibility to turn things around, and knew it was possible only with the Lord’s help. For the first time in my life, I fasted and fervently prayed for 48 hours, pleading for that help. Only in retrospect, and in context of the above definition, do I understand what happened.

In the six months following, the windows of heaven seemed to truly open and pour out blessings – including about forty baptisms. At the time, I truly believed that my sincere fasting and prayer had motivated the Lord to bless me and those other people. Now I believe that the refining power of the Spirit, greatly increased by fasting and prayer, strengthened me to be sensitive to the guidance necessary to find those who were prepared and to testify with power so that the Spirit could touch their hearts. My fasting and prayer changed me and my receptivity to the Spirit; it didn’t change the Lord’s mind about anything.

Spiritual Principles Are Consistent

The same principle applies with fasting as it does with the spiritual exercise of prayer:

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 (Bible Dictionary, 752-753).

On my mission, the Lord was already willing to grant an outpouring of His Spirit; I had but to ask and get my spirit in tune to receive.

What If We Fast for Something the Lord Is Not Willing to Grant?

I’ve been profoundly impressed with an experience recorded many years ago by Catherine Marshall, a prominent Christian writer. She wrote of losing a grandchild to a rare genetic disease, and the distress of learning that a second grandchild was dying of the same disease. She determined that this family had suffered enough, and that surely God would spare this child if enough people exerted sufficient faith through fasting and prayer.

She petitioned a large number of the most faithful, most spiritual people she knew to fast and pray with her for this child’s life repeatedly over a period of weeks. She had total faith that the Lord could and would heal him, yet the child steadily weakened, and finally died.

This heart-wrenching experience became a pivotal point in Catherine’s spiritual life. After sinking into depression and withdrawing from life for a time, she finally opened her heart to the great lesson the Lord was trying to teach her: that our faith in fasting and prayer must not be focused on certain outcomes, but on the supreme mercy and all-knowing wisdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. She learned that true faith must always say “Thy will be done.” I have heard this same principle taught in general conference more than once over the years.

Both fasting and prayer are not to change God’s mind, but to change our hearts. They are not to change God’s will, but to put our will in harmony with it.

Combining Our Faith in Fasting and Prayer

I experienced this principle in our ward a few years ago when a dearly loved Relief Society president, mother of seven young children, had cancer. The doctors had given her no hope, but we were all having a hard time accepting the prognosis.

The whole ward fasted, praying for a miracle. We met for a special prayer meeting before we ended our fast. It was a soul-stretching spiritual mountaintop experience. The husband expressed his faith, saying he knew without a doubt the Lord could and would heal his wife if it was His will, but that he would accept whatever came. We all knelt together in prayer and felt the Spirit as strongly as I had ever felt it. I believe our fasting was necessary and important to increase our receptivity to that spiritual feasting.

This special mother died five days later. However, those I know personally had been spiritually strengthened by the fasting and the prayer meeting. We felt comforted, somehow reconciled to reality and lifted by the faith of the family and the sweetness of the Spirit we had felt that night.

We all know many other stories where a combined fast resulted in miraculous healing and sparing of lives. Only the Lord knows the reasons that some live and some die. Fasting helps us not to judge, but to trust that there is purpose in all things.

The Connection between Fasting and Personal Revelation

Speaking of the sons of Mosiah, Alma 17:3 says, “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.” In Alma 5:46, Alma tells his own experience with this principle:

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; the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.

Down through the ages, there seems to have been a frequent connection between fasting and revelation. The veil seems thinner, the voice of the Lord easier to hear when our systems are less loaded with the work of processing food.

As we clean and purge our bodies, it seems we find a greater mental and spiritual clarity. As we halt our physical intake, we can be more receptive to spiritual intake. Fasting often brings about spiritual feasting.

In chapter 26 of the Bridell diet book, Dr Bridell says, “Both physical and mental fasting (meditation) produce an ironic slowing of the mind and spirit that is conducive to inspiration. During a fast one feels less nervous energy, less tendency to rush or to worry about detail. It somehow becomes easier to have perspective, to see the big picture, to focus in on what really matters. And as this happens, time seems to slow down.”

The Joyful Side of Fasting

In the Book of Mormon we read of people fasting both in times of sorrow (Alma 28:6, 30:2, Helaman 9:10)) and in joy (Alma 45:1), Remarkably, “fasting” is a synonym for “joy.” D&C 59:13-14 counsels: “And of 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.”

Fasting, in this context, implies appreciation, gratitude, and spiritual awareness. It also implies that there is more to the word “fasting” than completely abstaining from food. Perhaps the “singleness of heart” is the key. I suspect that refers to a heart single to the glory of God – a mind focused on Him, not on food. A spirit reaching out to Him, praising Him, not distracted by the things of this world.

We can accomplish this kind of fasting even when simple wisdom dictates that a complete fast is not the best idea. I have often gone on a “liquid fast” – sipping juice or a protein drink at intervals to keep my blood sugar level and maintain a modicum of strength. When my body is not weighed down by heavy food and I’m not distracted by food preparation, eating, or cleanup, I find it easier to focus on spiritual things. Because of my health problems and empty nest circumstances, this works for me. I rejoice better and even pray better when I can think straight and remain upright!

I remember well my years with a houseful of children when the “distraction” of meals was a necessity no matter what. We all have to adapt according to our circumstances and stage of life and do the best we can. There is always a solution, and every person needs to determine what works best in his own situation.

More Rewards for Fasting

Another reason a partial fast works best for me sometimes is that I can more easily keep it a secret (because I am still able to function! At this stage of life, I can’t keep going with a total fast.) The Lord said,

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. Very 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. (Matthew 6: 16-18)

The self-mastery that comes with fasting is another great benefit. There is nothing quite like the feeling of having the spirit being in control of the flesh. It cheers and gladdens the heart. The Lord has promised great blessings when we fast and pray with this happy attitude. In D&C 59:15 we read, “And inasmuch as ye do these things [fasting and prayer] with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances … the fullness of the earth is yours.” What a promise!

Helaman 3:35 gives a good summary of the great spiritual blessings of fasting combined with prayer:

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.

No wonder the Lord said, “I give unto you a commandment that ye shall continue in prayer and fasting from this time forth” (D&C 88:77).

At this time of thanksgiving, may we remember that the best thanksgiving comes with feasts of the Spirit, with the kind of fasting that strengthens, cleanses, enlivens, and brings joy, personal revelation and a greater sense of God’s watchful care.