I am impressed with the feelings and the desires which motivated Ezra and Nehemiah to fast.
When Nehemiah learned firsthand of the state of Jerusalem—walls broken down, gates burned, and the people “in great affliction and reproach”—he was devastated. “When I heard this,” he wrote, “I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4, New Living Translation). He pleaded with God to remember His promises. God answered his prayer; he was sent by the king to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. (See Nehemiah 2:1-8.)
As Ezra prepared to lead a group of priests carrying the vessels of the temple back to Jerusalem, the responsibility and the danger weighed heavily on him. “I proclaimed a fast,” he said, “that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance…. So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was entreated of us” (Ezra 8:21, 23).
Later, when both Ezra and Nehemiah were in Jerusalem, all of the people fasted together to express gratitude to God, to confess their sins, and to reaffirm their commitment to follow Him. (See Nehemiah 9.)
When Ezra subsequently saw the people drifting from God, he fasted again (Ezra 10:6).
On all four of these occasions, there was a clear purpose for the fast. Nehemiah and Ezra used fasting as a way of augmenting their prayers, humbling themselves to demonstrate their sincerity to God. In effect, they were saying, “I care more about this prayer than I care about eating. I’m willing to ignore my physical desire for food to demonstrate how much this means to me.”
In the Book of Mormon, there are several examples of people fasting for deeply desired blessings:
- Alma gathered the priests of the church to fast and pray for his son, who was unconscious after seeing an angel. Their prayers were answered two days later (Mosiah 27:22-23).
- Alma’s son (also named Alma) subsequently “fasted and prayed many days” to know for himself that the gospel is true (Alma 5:45-46).
- When the sons of Mosiah began their journey to preach the gospel to the Lamanites, “they fasted much and prayed much that the Lord would grant unto them a portion of his Spirit.” In response, “the Lord did visit them with his Spirit” (Alma 17:9-10).
- Jesus Christ appeared to a group of disciples on the American continent who were gathered and “united in mighty prayer and fasting” (3 Nephi 27:1).
Elder Carl B. Pratt suggested that we can make fasting a more meaningful experience by being more intentional about our purpose:
Perhaps we can take time as a family before beginning our fast to talk about what we hope to accomplish by this fast. This could be done in a family home evening the week before fast Sunday or in a brief family meeting at the time of family prayer. When we fast with purpose, we have something to focus our attention on besides our hunger.“The Blessings of a Proper Fast,” General Conference, October 2004
Today, I will start thinking about purposes for my next fast. I will think about what I want to fast for, I will consider fasting with others for a shared purpose, and I will strive to ensure that the purpose of my fast is heartfelt and meaningful.