How can we enjoy fasting?

by
January 3, 2011

Q: How can we enjoy fasting?

Short answer: If fasting is fun for you, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Long answer:

Ok, but seriously.  Fasting is going without something that you want.  Usually food.  Often water also.  (In the Mormon tradition we generally fast from both, usually for 24ish hours).   If you don’t get hungry and thirsty, you’re not fasting.  And chances are you won’t find it enjoyable (enjoying starving yourself is what you might call evolutionarily disfavored).

But just because it’s not fun doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.  Look at how many people throughout the ages have fasted.  Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus: every major world religion has some sort of religious/cultural/ historical aspect that includes purposely starving yourself.  Ramadan.  Lent.  Yom Kippur.  People do it, like so many uncomfortable things (giving birth, watching Eat, Pray, Love) not because they find it enjoyable, but because they find it meaningful.  In the scriptures, fasting is even talked of as a source of joy.

So, how do you find meaning in fasting?  Usually it’s tied to having a purpose.  Gandhi fasted for peace.  Jesus fasted before he started his ministry.  Alma of the Book of Mormon fasted and prayed “many days” to know that God was real.  The discomfort of fasting serves as a link.  A reminder.  A personal communication between you and God and a powerful inner symbol of how much you want what you are fasting for. You should have the reason before you fast, not decide to fast and then be frantically casting about for a reason.

The exception to that last statement, for Mormons at least, is Fast Sunday.  Like the Jewish Yom Kippur or the Muslim Ramadan, Mormons have a special designated time to fast as a group, which is once a month, usually on the first Sabbath.  The day is called Fast Sunday, and during church services, instead of prepared sermons, anyone in the congregation is invited to come to the front and share why they believe.   My guess is that the root of the question “how can we enjoy fasting?” is “how can we find meaning in fasting when our fasting is on a regular schedule?”

Most Mormons I know have some sort of personal reason to fast even on Fast Sunday.  But that’s not required, and in my opinion, it’s not really the point of the day.  Fast Sunday was set up during the early days of the church as a way to take care of the poor.  Everyone went fasted for two meals, and then donated those two meals to the church, which distributed it to the needy.  In our days, though, most of us aren’t living from meal to meal.  We could probably just donate that money to the poor without needing to go without ourselves.  Yet we still fast.  The fast now becomes a symbolic sacrifice and a reminder of our duty to those who are needy

Another source of meaning, like the aforementioned Jewish and Muslim observances, is communal.  There is power and togetherness and beauty in fasting as a faith community, to be part of a whole even if you don’t have a personal reason.  Sometimes I don’t have a reason, but I still fast.  I fast because I’m Mormon and it’s Fast Sunday, and that’s what we’re all doing on Fast Sunday.

I want to open this one up to my fellow Mormons, because finding meaning is pretty personal: any other perspectives on fasting?

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