Fasting—A Gift of Joy
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“Fasting—A Gift of Joy,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 10

Special Issue: The Sabbath

Fasting—A Gift of Joy

“It was fast Sunday today and once more I didn’t fast. It seems like it has been a long time since I have fasted regularly and completely, my reasons being pregnancy or nursing a baby. I must become consistent in my fasting again.” This was my journal entry for January 2, 1977.

And so a year ago I decided it was time for me to get back into the pattern of regular fasting. With my new resolve, I also wanted to try to learn how to make my fasts more meaningful: more acceptable to the Lord and more powerful in expanding my own spirituality.

Fast Sunday came. I intended to fast from Saturday afternoon until after fast and testimony meeting on Sunday afternoon—but on Saturday evening I attended a meeting where refreshments were served. I changed my plan: I would fast from late Saturday to late Sunday.

The next morning, amid the hurried atmosphere of trying to get my three little girls fed and ready for Sunday School, I suddenly caught myself licking dripped honey off my fingers and popping rejected bread crusts into my mouth. When I realized what I was doing, I felt discouraged and weak, and I gave up fasting that day.

I resolved to fast sometime later in the week to make up for my failure; but the week—and the month—passed without my accomplishing the goal. And so fast Sunday approached again.

This time things were different. President Spencer W. Kimball asked us to fast and pray about the weather situation, the bitter cold and snow in some areas and the drought in others. It was an inspiring feeling to know that I was joining hundreds of thousands of people in doing what a prophet of God asked, and that feeling motivated me to succeed.

But even though I did not eat or drink for twenty-four hours, I was not really satisfied with my effort. The day hadn’t been much different from most Sundays, and it seemed to me that if fasting were important, it should make a difference. I knew that it was important, so I concluded that I must not be doing it right.

I decided to study the scriptures concerning the principles and practices of fasting. (There were over sixty index references.) I found definitions, examples, counterexamples, commandments, guidelines, and reasons.

Fasting and prayer have been used by those seeking inspiration in calling men to Church positions, for relieving the suffering of those in bondage, for asking guidance in war, and in conjunction with mourning. People fasted to receive deliverance from their enemies, to heal the sick, to receive revelation, for the success of missionary work, and for the souls of those who do not have the gospel.

I learned that fasting is both a sign of repentance and a sign of humility. The scriptures testify that mighty miracles have resulted from fasting, and Jesus himself teaches us that there is a power that is obtainable only by fasting: “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” (Matt. 17:21.)

There are many scriptures that command us to fast; and many examples show that righteous peoples of the earth have incorporated fasting into their worship. However, there are also scriptural definitions and counterexamples to help us understand that the outward behavior is not the only important thing about fasting. We are counseled to “be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance” (Matt. 6:16), but to prepare so that our “fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full” (D&C 59:13).

I became more concerned that I was doing something wrong in my fasting: my fast Sundays had not been days particularly full of joy: At best they were as joyful as any other Sunday; at worst, they were sometimes characterized by grouchiness, hunger, impatience, and bad feelings. And fast Sundays certainly did not produce a fullness of joy radiating through the rest of the month. For me, there was no noticeable difference between months when I fasted and months when I didn’t.

At that point I knew I was missing something that had made a profound difference in the lives of others.

Then, to supplement my scripture reading, I read some fasting guidelines given us by modern-day prophets. They were clear in saying that a proper observance of fast day means abstaining from food and drink for two consecutive meals, attending fast and testimony meeting, and paying a generous fast offering. President Joseph F. Smith also instructs: “It can easily be seen from the Scriptures, and especially from the words of Jesus, that it is more important to obtain the true spirit of love for God and man, ‘purity of heart and simplicity of intention,’ than it is to carry out the cold letter of the law.” (Gospel Doctrine, 1961, p. 244.)

President Ezra Taft Benson has also told us that we should use wisdom in our fasting, break the fast with light eating, keep our physical work to a minimum, and couple the fast with prayer and meditation. If we do, the fast “can help clear up the mind and strengthen the body and the spirit.” (Ensign, Nov. 1974, pp. 66–67.)

With this information and an intense desire to do what was right, I was ready to experiment upon the words I had studied. I knew the law of the fast, and I knew that I could observe the outward letter of the law. But it is the spirit of the law that can really change our lives. I decided to focus on the following five areas in trying to obtain the spirit of fasting:

1. A spirit of love for God and for my fellow beings. These two most important goals need constant work and attention. Not only is it difficult for me to love some people some of the time, but it is also sometimes difficult to want to love them. And when I think of loving God, I am overwhelmed to know that even my best love at this point is a weak and meager gift.

2. A spirit of sacrifice and service. Fast offerings are one sign of this spirit. Another is a willingness to share my testimony with others. I must also diligently seek other opportunities to give and to share my abundance of blessings with others. Sometimes I feel that I don’t even begin to understand what real sacrifice is.

3. A spirit of brotherhood and fellowship with the Saints. It gives me a wonderful feeling of joy to realize, when I fast, that I am joining the rest of the Church membership in this opportunity, and that we can gain power through unity.

4. A spirit of communion with God. For one day in each month I have an opportunity to put aside all distractions (except my three children, who cannot yet fully support me in my effort) and with “simplicity of intention” try to purify my heart to be one with God as I purify my body temple.

5. A spirit of self-control. To me, the exercise of my will in fasting is a sign of humility, that I submit my will to the Lord’s will, that I desire to strengthen my spiritual power and bodily discipline, and that I am willing to repent of wanting to do or doing other than what the Lord would desire.

With all of this in mind, I fasted. The first time, I fasted and prayed that I might withstand a particular temptation that had been bothering me. The results were miraculous. Not only did I withstand the temptation, but it ceased to be a temptation! Not only did I resist the sin, but I did not want to sin. And so I was immediately blessed.

I decided that it was important to my growth to fast again soon, and not wait for a whole month. This time I fasted and prayed about a decision I was having difficulty making. The pros and cons of the major alternatives seemed nearly equal, and I had been puzzling about it for several weeks. After fasting and praying about it, I suddenly knew what to do, and there was never another moment of wondering if it was the best choice. It is difficult to explain to anyone else the instant clearing of the cloudiness in my mind. Isaiah promises such guidance if we fast properly: “Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. … And the Lord shall guide thee continually.” (Isa. 58:9, 11.)

Not long after those fasting experiences, our baby had an accident in which the tip of her little finger was nearly severed. My husband and another priesthood bearer administered to her at the hospital, and then my husband suggested that we fast and pray that it would heal properly and that she would not suffer. I was grateful that I had gained a testimony of fasting. Now, in this time of our baby’s special need, I could fast not out of desperation but out of strong faith. My experiences helped me to be better prepared to use this powerful tool.

Since that time I have attempted to make fast Sunday be what I have learned it should be. This has brought real changes into my life, some of them quite surprising.

For example, I noticed that after fasting I was not as competitive. I played paddleball one day when I had fasted the day before. Usually I have to be careful that I don’t become too competitive, but on that day I just could not get “psyched up” to win. I was still very concerned about playing well, developing my skill, and giving my opponent a challenging, fun game. But I just wasn’t concerned about winning. Instead I wanted my opponent to win because it seemed important to her. More importantly, though, this noncompetitiveness also carried over into intellectual games and emotional power struggles. I was more concerned with how others felt than I had sometimes been before.

Another surprising result is that after fasting I was intensely aware of what food I put into my mouth. Somehow my body seemed more sacred to me; and I did not want to eat anything that was impure or unnecessary. It almost seems as if fasting can help us sense what foods are really nourishing to us, and which ones pollute our physical system.

Some of the other effects I noticed were not as surprising to me, although I could not necessarily have predicted them. The world seemed somehow more full of light, brighter in a real physical sense, not just speaking emotionally. This reminded me of some other passages in Isaiah: “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning. … then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day.” (Isa. 58:8, 10.) I seemed to be able to think more clearly and concisely. I was more able to concentrate with singleness of purpose when I went to the temple. Although I felt physically weak when fasting, it seemed that I was able to accomplish more and work with greater endurance afterwards. (“And thine health shall spring forth speedily”—Isa. 58:8.)

I also felt an increased tenderness toward my husband and children, an overflowing of love and appreciation. And it seemed like I cried more during sacrament meetings, and had goose bumps more. I’m sure that the meetings had not changed; instead, I was more emotionally and spiritually receptive.

One of the greatest blessings I received was instruction in what it feels like or sounds like to receive the quiet promptings of the Holy Ghost. On two separate occasions I had impressions of things I should do. I dismissed the first impression because I didn’t want to do it, it seemed irrational, and I didn’t recognize it as inspiration. But my husband independently received the same impression and told me about it. Then I realized that it was inspiration, and that I should act on it.

The second instance occurred in Sunday School when I was impressed that I should be more involved with a certain person in our ward. I thought the impression was merely a good idea, admitted to myself that I probably wouldn’t get around to doing anything about it, and rationalized that I wasn’t doing justice to the people that I already loved—how could I add someone new?

Later that afternoon one of our home teachers called to ask my husband and me if we would help this person. Again my impression was confirmed and I recognized it as inspiration. In both cases the confirmation came through one of my priesthood stewards. I was taught very effectively to better recognize my spirit’s quiet and subtle interactions with the Holy Ghost.

Another important blessing I have received as a result of fasting is an increased ability to recognize evil influences and temptations—and to dismiss them without consideration. Other blessings Isaiah 58 promises (some of which I do not yet fully understand) include: “The Lord shall … satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.” (Isa. 58:11, 12.)

As I have renewed my efforts to fast as the Lord would have me do, I have discovered some practical aids to help me.

1. Be united in fasting as a family. Take strength and motivation from the priesthood example and support each other in the effort. Those who are not yet old enough to abstain from eating and drinking can still participate in the spirit: praying, learning scripture stories, singing, counting blessings, planning service to others.

2. Plan specific service and sacrifice for others. Always give a generous fast offering and seek inspiration concerning other service the Lord desires. “Undo the heavy burdens, … let the oppressed go free. … Deal thy bread to the hungry. … bring the poor … to thy house. Cover the naked.” (Isa. 58:6, 7.)

3. Prepare carefully so that physical work can be held to a minimum. For me this means planning in advance what the children will wear and what they will eat. I also try to prepare appropriate Sunday activities for them before my fast begins on Saturday.

4. Prepare carefully so that my patience is not strained. Allow plenty of time to get ready for church meetings so that we don’t need to hurry.

5. Plan time for intense prayer. This is especially difficult for me now, with my three little girls always wanting to be involved in everything. Sometimes we can pray as a family; sometimes my husband and I can pray together while they are napping or sleeping; sometimes one of us can concentrate on them while the other prays alone. My best time for intense private prayer is in the middle of the night.

6. Fast and pray for a specific purpose or blessing. This might be a personal need, a family problem, a blessing for someone else, or something involving the whole Church or country, such as fasting for a change in the weather conditions.

7. Repent of sins. Seek strength to change and inspiration on how to change. Seek ways to make restitution and to receive forgiveness from those I have wronged.

8. Read, study, and ponder the scriptures. Seek to understand depths I have not yet understood. Use my husband’s resources to help answer my questions. Read topically as well as consecutively. Try to develop ways of teaching my children to know the scriptures and to love them.

9. Praise God. Show gratitude for his blessings. Sing hymns of praise to him. Rejoice in my relationship with him. Bear testimony of him and his goodness to others.

10. Avoid social conflicts and distractions. Saturday night wedding receptions, parties, dinners, sports, and Sunday dinners may not contribute to fasting and spiritual communion. “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.” (Isa. 58:13–14.)

11. Record my experiences in my journal. Include praise to God, what I repent of and my plans for change, commentary on the scriptures I have read, service I plan to do, the purposes for which I fast each month, and my testimony. If we regularly make such entries in a journal, it can be a powerful tool in keeping our testimonies strong, providing direction and motivation for change, and inspiring our children and our children’s children. The miracles in our lives are quickly dimmed in our memories, but our journal entries can bring them flooding back and make us hunger for eternal life, a life of constant miracle.

Even though my fasting still cannot perfectly be called “rejoicing and prayer,” I feel much closer to that ideal than I did a year ago. I am grateful that I know that God lives, that we are his children, and that his desire for us is that we find joy. And now I’m convinced that fasting is an integral part of that joy. It is a crucial element in our effort to eliminate every weakness, strengthen every talent, become perfect so that we can rejoin our Father in heaven. I am thankful to him for revealing fasting as a powerful tool that can help us find our way back to him.

  • Sheryl Condie Kempton, a homemaker, is a counselor in the Provo Utah East Stake Young Women organization. She resides in the Provo Thirteenth Ward.

Photograph by George Brown