What Are the Purposes of Fasting?

Yesterday, I wrote about how the Savior’s sacrifice sanctifies us—makes us holy. I also wrote that we receive the blessings of that sacrifice by offering our own sacrifices to him in a spirit of humility and contrition.

Today, I’ve studied a specific kind of sacrifice which both predated the Savior’s atonement and continues today: fasting.

To fast is to abstain from food and drink for a period of time, usually for religious purposes (Oxford English Dictionary).

About 130 years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Amaleki wrote the following admonition to his future readers:

I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. 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 1:26).

Notice that consistently fasting and praying over a period of time enables us to receive the redemptive and saving power of Jesus Christ. It is a part of how we offer our “whole souls” to Him.

Mormon also described fasting as an activity which yields benefits only as we participate consistently over time. Speaking of a group of believers who were enduring persecution for their religious beliefs, he said:

Nevertheless 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 (Helaman 3:35).

When the sons of Mosiah left the land of Zarahemla to preach the gospel to their enemies, the Lamanites, they knew that they would need God’s power to be successful. Consequently, as they traveled in the wilderness, “they fasted much and prayed much that the Lord would grant unto them a portion of his Spirit to go with them” (Alma 17:9). This fasting and prayer continued throughout their missionary experience. Fourteen years later, their friend Alma was amazed at the spiritual growth they had experienced:

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 (Alma 17:3).

In order to help us participate consistently in this practice, the church specifies certain days when we all fast together (Alma 6:6, Moroni 6:5). In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one Sunday each month (usually the first) is specified as Fast Sunday, and members of the church throughout the world join in fasting.

Additionally, it can be beneficial to fast for specific purposes, either alone or with other people. For example:

  • Alma explained to the people of Zarahemla that he “fasted and prayed many days” to know for himself the truth of the gospel. “And now I do know of myself that they are true,” he said (Alma 5:45–46)
  • After a horrific battle in which many people died defending a group of refugees, the Nephite people joined together in mourning the loss of their friends and relatives. Mormon tells us, “this was a sorrowful day; yea, a time of solemnity, and a time of much fasting and prayer” (Alma 28:4–6).
  • When Alma the Younger saw an angel, he was immobilized for several days. His father, who was the high priest, gathered the other priests together, and they fasted and prayed during that time on Alma’s behalf (Mosiah 27:22–23)

Two words of caution about fasting:

First, don’t focus primarily on your discomfort. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior taught that people who “disfigure [their] faces” or have a “sad countenance” will fail to receive the full blessings of fasting (3 Nephi 13:16–18). Why? Because they are concentrating on what they are giving up—and hoping to receive credit and praise for that sacrifice—instead of focusing on their reasons for fasting.

Second, the length of the fast is not necessarily correlated with its effectiveness. As Joseph F. Smith taught:

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. … The Lord can hear a simple prayer, offered in faith, in half a dozen words, and he will recognize fasting that may not continue more than twenty-four hours, just as readily and as effectually as He will answer a prayer of a thousand words and fasting for a month. … The Lord will accept that which is enough, with a good deal more pleasure and satisfaction than that which is too much and unnecessary (in Conference Report, Oct. 1912, 133–34, quoted in Gospel Topics, “Fasting and Fast Offerings“).

Today, I will remember the importance of fasting as a religious practice. I will remember the value of fasting for specific purposes in conjunction with prayer. I will also remember that participation in this practice consistently over time will help me to grow in humility and faith and to receive the sanctifying power of Jesus Christ.

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