There are many good examples in the scriptures that help us to understand the concept of fasting. Through these examples we can also see the results in spiritual blessings that comes from earnest and sincere fasting before our God. Hopefully I will be able to provide you with answers to the following questions concerning fasting:
- Why should we fast?
- What does it mean to fast?
- How do we fast?
- Are there different ways to fast?
- What are some of the purposes for fasting?
Why should we fast?
Fasting should be an intrinsic (extremely important and basic characteristic) part of a Christian’s spiritual life. It is the means by which we can effectively approach or communicate, in deep humility and reverence, with our God. The scriptures plainly point out that to follow the commandments of God is to include fasting and prayer in our spiritual devotions to Him.
“Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15)
“And they did not walk any more after the performances and ordinances of the Law of Moses, but they did walk after the commandments which they had received from their Lord and their God, continuing in fasting and prayer, and in meeting together oft, both to pray and to hear the word of the Lord.” (4 Nephi 1:13)
What does it mean to fast?
Fasting is the physical separation from the worldly ties to our flesh combined with a spiritual focus of “our will” becoming the will of our Heavenly Father. This means that we turn off the TV, our Computer, and Phone (unless we are using those things as tools to listen to sermons, or scriptural studies, or to email/text to uplift a Brother or Sister) so that we can focus on our spiritual life; fulfilling the commandments that God has given us. Our life should become “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” in the flesh (Romans 12:1-2). God’s promise to hear our prayers is predicated on our sincere desire to be heard (our faith) based upon our works as they pertain to the commandments of God. Remember the words of James the Apostle “I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Jesus said very plainly that “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The promise to those who keep God’s commandments is that we will be loved of God and Jesus “will manifest” or reveal himself to us (John 14:21) by the Holy Ghost.
How do we fast?
There is recorded in the book of Isaiah where the children of Israel had been murmuring against their God because they had been fasting and it seemed to them that He was not listening nor answering their fasts and prayer requests. The Lord’s Spirit moved upon Isaiah to speak to the people in rebuke and guidance concerning their fasts and prayers. The following was given of the Lord as to why he had not honored their fasts:
“Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. 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.” (Isaiah 58:3-4)
Let us take a closer look at the above referenced scripture and see what Israel was doing wrong when they fasted before God. First, we can see that God had seen their efforts to keep His commandments by fasting, but God clearly was not pleased with their fasts. God pointed out to them that they would find time, during their fasts, to satisfy the worldly pleasures of life and devote most of their time to other things. The purpose of their fasts were to be “heard on high” to prove their righteousness through “strife and debate” before men and God. God begins to answer their question “wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?” with a question:
“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 58:5)
Israel said in their hearts that during their fasts “we afflicted our souls” and God had not taken notice. God had witnessed Israel doing an outwardly show of public humility by hanging their heads sitting in the streets dressed in sackcloth and covered in ashes.
Sackcloth was a coarse, dark cloth woven from the hair of goats or camels, which was normally used to sack grain. The wearing of sackcloth was more a custom as an outward show when mourning a death of a loved one or to call attention to a pending calamity (i.e. Esth 4:2; Jonah 3:8). The use of ashes comes from the Mosaic Law, which was used as a purification for sin.
“And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin.” (Numbers 19:9)
“For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:” (Hebrews 9:13)
God had also witnessed that Israel had been fasting in their pride, by putting on sackcloth and ashes and sitting in the street, thinking they were justified and acceptable before God. Israel thought that by their fasts they could invoke God’s wrath upon those that disagreed with them or to prove how right they were before God and man.
The words of Christ, as recorded in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, provides us a very clear picture as to how we should approach our God when we fast.
“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. 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)
“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. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face; 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.” (3 Ne 5:108-109)
Our fasting before our God should be transparent to the world around us but filled with those things that God has commanded us to do.
“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
The promise that the Lord provides to those individuals who approach him in a proper attitude of fasting and prayer is contained in the last part of the prophecy delivered by Isaiah to Israel:
“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;” (Isaiah 58:8-9)
Are there different ways to fast?
The scriptures do give us guidance as to the different ways that we can fast before God. One of the ways that we can fast should be very familiar to us. Remembering the definition for fasting “Fasting is the physical separation from the worldly ties to our flesh combined with a spiritual focus of our will becoming the will of our Heavenly Father” let us consider the following scripture verse:
“And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls: and they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus;” (Moroni 6:6)
When we come to church to worship God, it should be in an attitude of fasting and prayer before our God. We are to leave the world behind and focus on the purpose of our gathering. The following scripture verses is the expectation of the Lord when he commanded us to “meet together oft” (3 Nephi 8:53):
“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)
“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
Many times, we forget about God’s Spirit and the words that are spoken by that Spirit to direct us as individuals or collectively as a church. Later day revelation that is contained in the Book of Commandments provides us with a very clear picture of God’s expectation for fasting and prayer.
“ Thou shalt offer a sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in righteousness.  Even that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up they sacraments upon my holy day:  For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;  Nevertheless thy vows shall be offered up in righteousness on all days, and at all times;  But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations, and thy sacraments, unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.  And on 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.  And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts, and countenances, not with much laughter, for this is sin, but with a glad heart, and a cheerful countenance;  Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this the fulness of the earth is yours;” (Book of Commandments 60:16-25; pages 111-112)
There are other ways to fast and pray before God found in the examples that Jesus set where from time to time, he went off alone (his “closet”; Matthew 6:6) to fast and pray.
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.” (Matthew 4:1-2)
“And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.” (Matthew 14:23)
“And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him.” (Luke 22:39)
“And it came to pass, as he was alone praying, his disciples were with him: and he asked them, saying, Whom say the people that I am?” (John 9:18)
For those of you who are married the Apostle Paul provides some guidance to couples that determine to set aside time to fast and pray to their God. It is important to note the completeness of our separation from the worldly ties that God requires of us during our times of fasting and prayer.
“Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” (1 Corinthians 7:5)
So, we can see by the examples recorded in the scripture that fasting can consist of a few hours, half a day, a day, a couple of days or more. We can also have an acceptable fast before God partaking some food (…only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart, that thy fasting may be perfect, …) or without food and drink for a time depending upon the purpose of the fast.
What are some of the purposes for fasting?
The scriptures provide us with many good examples where individuals or groups of people fasted for a variety of reasons. The following are some of the purposes found in the scriptures, where they fasted for:
- Physical and Spiritual Blessings
- Spiritual Understanding
- As Part of Worship
- Repentance and Deliverance (physical and spiritual)
- Spiritual Direction
Use Wisdom in your Fasting
Our Lord Jesus Christ understood how weak we are in the flesh. Jesus made sure that when he found those who would listen and were followers of him that they would not endanger themselves in doing so. Consider the following scripture verses and apply it to your life not for an excuse not to fast, but to use wisdom when you do fast:
“Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way.” (Matthew 15:32 see also Mark 8:2-3)
Another example is recorded in the scriptures where there were those who were fasting many days because they feared for the safety of their lives. The Apostle Paul had interceded in their behalf and knew God would preserve them and compelled them to end their fasting for their physical health.
“ And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing. Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health: for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you.” (Acts 27-33-34)
Scriptural Examples of “Purposes for Fasting”
I offer the following scripture references from the Bible and Book of Mormon which provide good examples of various purposes and reasons as to why and when we should fast and pray:
2 Chronicles 20:34, 14-17, 22-25
Ezra 8:21-23; 9:5-15; 10:1-12
Joel 1:13-15; 2:9-19
Matthew 4:2; 17:16-21 (Mark 9:14-29)
Acts 13:2-3; 14:22-23
Alma 12:4-5, 13-15
3 Nephi 12:14-16
Remember periodic fasting for your spiritual welfare and the welfare of others is a commandment of God and we should not be waiting for a calamity in our lives before we decide to follow the commandment of God to “meet together oft, to fast and to pray”.
“Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting
and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth, ye will be saved.” Omni 1:47