Mormons offer all kinds of legitimate reasons for not taking part in the all-church fast that Mormonism requires on the first Sunday of every month (which was yesterday, so it’s on my mind). I’ve heard many of these reasons, and have used some of them myself. They could be:
- “I take medication that requires a full stomach, or at least drinking enough liquid to down the meds.”
- “I get terrible headaches when I fast, so I had to stop.”
- “I am so crabby and mean when I fast that I’m no good to my family, and I’m certainly not setting an example for my kids about fasting being a deeply spiritual experience.”
- “I don’t think fasting is any more helpful than just engaging in regular prayer, so I don’t do it.”
- “I can make a generous fast offering without having to actually fast.”
- “No one else in my family fasts, so it is just too hard for me to do it.”
The Mormons I know who don’t fast often experience a great deal of guilt about it. Because they are not able to measure up to the expectation that they fast from all food and water for two meals (or, as it has been even more strictly interpreted of late, for a full 24-hour period), they feel spiritually inadequate.
And that guilt holds true even though regular fasting is kind of a “Class B” spiritual practice for Mormons. It’s important, but if you don’t do it you can still get a temple recommend and hold any calling in your ward. It’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” spiritual discipline of the LDS Church.
There are also lots of official get-out-of-fasting-free passes in Mormonism, including if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you are sick. One mom of ten told me after I gave a talk on fasting that part of the reason she had those ten kids in the first place was so that she could spend most of her adulthood exempt from fasting. I think she was only half-kidding.
But here’s one thing I have learned about fasting: I don’t think any Mormons should be exempt, whether they are sick, pregnant, nursing, old, traveling, or recovering from an eating disorder.
The problem is not the expectation that we should fast once a month. The problem is the all-or-nothing way that Mormons tend to go about it. If we can’t do a full fast, we figure, we’re either a) exempt, meaning we’re in one of the approved categories above, or b) spiritually lazy/worthless/ungrateful people who can’t manage to do without even two meals.
What is it with this binary thinking?
When I say that I believe everyone should fast, I am not advocating unhealthy practices, like nursing moms depriving their babies of nutrients. I am advocating that we expand our definition of what constitutes a fast.
In Lynne Baab’s excellent book Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites, she defines Christian fasting as
. . . the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community, or nation.
Fasting from food is ideal because doing so has many things to teach us—one of which, in Mormonism, is what it feels like to go hungry. This gives a new level of sympathy to our fast offering. Fasting from food also teaches me, like nothing else can, just how dependent I am on God for every good thing.
But we can’t all, or always, abstain from food. Instead we might:
- Prayerfully abstain from meat for a day, a week, or a month in accordance with D&C 89:12
- Fast from social media and use the resulting free time to reconnect with people in nature, read the scriptures more, or call old friends on the phone
- Abstain from TV on Fast Sunday
- Keep an Eastern Orthodox fast of only very simple foods on Fast Sunday: no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, oils, and wine (the wine part should be easy, but the rest—which is basically a diet of rice, bread, water, etc.—can be very challenging and turn our minds and hearts to God)
- Fast from shopping for nonessentials for a prescribed period
- Fast from cosmetics, mirrors, vanity, and nice clothes for a prescribed period
There’s no limit to the creative ways that we can fast; any of the above disciplines can draw us closer to God. As Baab puts it, “sometimes we are called to fast from something for a season simply to make space for God.”
Yes, fasting is difficult. It’s called a spiritual discipline for a reason. But if you can’t do everything, just do something. Spiritual growth happens line upon line and precept upon precept.
You don’t have to be a superhero. You just have to keep showing up.