Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Death by Mormon fasting

fastingOn Sunday, Mormons around the world will join in a spiritual practice that has been part of our religion almost since its beginning: fasting.

I had been a Mormon for nearly ten years before I started taking fasting seriously. Before that, I had all sorts of “reasons” why I couldn’t fast.

Now, in many cases, people do have legitimate reasons why they can’t fast from food. (Here’s a post with some suggestions for ways they might still participate.)

But in my case, the “reasons” were just excuses. I didn’t really know how to fast (and it’s a mystery why Mormons don’t take the time to train people’s bodies and minds to do this, building up over time).

Moreover, I didn’t quite understand the point. I could see a lot of flaws in the theology around me, where people seemed to be fasting primarily so they could manipulate a vending machine deity into giving them their heart’s desire: a new job, a healthy check-up, an engagement ring.

But I kept haphazardly trying, thinking that even if I couldn’t see any spiritual benefits from fasting, at least my fast offering was doing something to alleviate poverty and need.

One thing that changed my mind about fasting was to embrace it as a mini-death. The practice began helping me get intimate with the reality that I am someday going to die.

This body I expend so much energy feeding and bathing and clothing will someday take one last breath. Could it be that fasting could help me to prepare for this truth, which is at once so inevitable and yet so impossible to believe?

Throughout Christian history people have struggled with the place of the body and whether it should be subjugated or celebrated. Mormons have generally fallen on the more positive side of that spectrum, affirming that the body is inherently good, that it is God’s creation, that it will be perfected and renewed at the resurrection. We have also consistently taught that our purpose in this life is to become more like Christ and to love him.

But here’s the thing: If we are to become like Christ, one thing we absolutely must learn to do is to die and be reborn.

Fasting, in its small way, is that lesson for us, month in and month out. Fasting is, at its foundations, a reminder of bodily death. Once a month we choose not to sustain physical needs and the physical body, preferring instead to affirm the truth that death will be real, that the needs of this body will one day cease, that we should not let ourselves become overly attached to the physical.

God created our bodies and declared them not just good but “very” good. But at the end of the day, they are not the sum of us. As Master Yoda says, “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” And ironically enough, fasting—which seems on the surface to be so world-denying and lifeless—is precisely the kind of spiritual practice that reminds us that human life is a gift. That the world, and many of its creations, are good.

I like to have people over for dinner on Fast Sunday, because no matter what I serve, they’re going to think it is the best meal they’ve had in ages. (“Tripe! My favorite!”) We’re so grateful for breaking the fast and welcoming life and food again that we have a new appreciation for every bite.

When we take the sacrament on Fast Sunday, it is our only sustenance for much of that day, which is an excellent metaphor for what the sacrament is supposed to be for us – unique, a witness of God, the bread that gives us life. If you’ve ever read or seen The Lord of the Rings, you might remember that Frodo and Sam receive a gift from the elves called lembas bread, which is a special bread where just one small bite can sustain a grown man for a day. JRR Tolkien, a devout Catholic, wanted a way in his fiction to represent what the Eucharist meant to him: that if all else were taken away, that one gift of God would be enough to sustain life.

That is what I want to remember on Fast Sunday when I take the sacrament—this is life, this is grace, this is resurrection.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

32 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I think you’re missing one important aspect of the Law of the Fast. See Isaiah 58:3-12 and Doctrine and Covenants 59:9-14, which set forth the Lord’s real reasons for giving us this law.

  • I do enjoy your perspective and humor even though I may not always agree with your point of view. You most always make me think and I like that exercise. So thank you! I find fasting a challange, physically, because I, like so many people, really enjoy food. I do it and I’m always greatful that I did since some of the spiritual experiences I’ve had while fasting have been remarkable. I hope you have a wonderful fast this Sunday and find joy in the Sabbath and “call the Sabbath a delight”.

    Peace.

  • I loved this post, Jana, it gave me a new perspective on fasting.

    I used to be an “expert” faster in my teens-twenties – (Lee, Isaiah 58 is my favorite scripture, and I’m sure it’s no news for Jana :)) – but I have grown somewhat lax. I’ts time to fresh courage take and “die a little” in order to live better.

  • When in doubt, it is usually safe to follow Jewish guidelines to annoying/potentially dangerous activities done in the name of religious faith.

    If it threatens your life or produces a dangerous situation to yourself and/or others, it should not be considered a transgression to avoid said action.

  • Americans are so spoiled. Like it’s some big deal to go without food for a day. In some parts of the world (even in the U.S.) people commonly go without for days at a time. Most Americans have enough excess body fat to keep them going for a week.

  • I have a serious question…. if 15 million Mormons went without food 1 Sunday a month. The church should be feeding at least a half a MILLION people a day, everyday of the month. Care to show me where this is happening?

  • Larry, LDS guidelines do mention that nursing mothers, those in ill health, etc., should not fast. I’m not sure if you have to do the equivalent of asking your rabbi for halachic guidance on your personal situation though.

  • Thank you for this perspective on fasting. Over the years I have learned to fast in the sense of abstaining from food and drink for a day. I have never had deep spiritual experiences or insight related to fasting in the past. Occasionally I have seen it as a way of experiencing, for a short time, the hunger that haunts too many people in the world, and helped me to develop some empathy for them, and that has been worth something. Since I am uncomfortable with the idea of a “vending machine deity” (thank you for that phrase!), fasting for a particular blessing has also been an issue for me, though I have been willing to join in fasting and prayer for others. Your thoughts on fasting have helped me have a different approach to fasting today. “It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life,” from the Prayer of St. Francis has been echoing in my head as I fast.

  • I read this as Jana saying she didn’t take fasting seriously until she could make sense of it in her own mind. Rather than putting her faith in the Lord and doing it because He asked her too, she refused to try (aside from haphazardly) until she could find her own reasons why.

    That is the very crux of many people’s problems with the so-called intellectual’s way of thinking. Do it on faith (but not blindly like sheeple). Why must it square in your mind before you obey? His thoughts are not your thoughts, so maybe trust His thoughts a little?

    My intent is not to judge Jana’s soul. I disagree with her most of the time, but my impression is she is, like me, just trying to figure out life and how to do right. She may very well be doing a much better job at it than I am.

    Maybe Jana is trying to explain how she gained a testimony of fasting and I am just resting it wrong. It just comes across as the typical, I won’t do it until it squares perfectly in own mind with my own…

  • Greg,
    “That is the very crux of many people’s problems with the so-called intellectual’s way of thinking…It just comes across as the typical, I won’t do it until it squares perfectly in own mind with my own…”

    Jana said: “But I kept haphazardly trying, thinking that even if I couldn’t see any spiritual benefits from fasting, at least my fast offering was doing something to alleviate poverty and need.”

    “So-called intellectual” is a little judgmental isn’t it? Alternatively are you suggesting we should not think? What would you have done in the Garden of Eden when faced with a) don’t partake of the fruit and b) multiply and replenish? I don’t believe God laid things out so simply such that we should not engage our brains.

    Jana discloses she tried (which indicates some effort) but wasn’t so successful until she found a way to make it meaningful to her. She probably gave it way more effort than many of us who grew up in the church such that fasting is merely a…

  • Thanks, Maddy.

    I, too, acknowledged Jana tried haphazardly. So I think we agree there.

    I pass no judgement is saying “so-called intellectuals”. “Intellectuals” is a commonly known term used for a specific group of people, probably better labeled the “intelligentsia”. With the Church, that would be the folks who think their intellect gives them a better understanding of crtain things than the Church (or its leaders), and often publicly say so.

    I don’t know who created that label, or if those who are so-labeled accept or reject it. I don’t like that label, because I consider myself and most people to be intellectuals, meaning we are intelligent people who do exactly what you said — engage our brains (the dictionary’s meaning, not the label). And so I said “so-called”, because they are so called.

  • I am Jewish and I no longer fast, because I now have Type 2 Diabetes. I have to admit that previously a 24 hour fast was just too long for me. I used to get pounding headaches. Although, that was probably from giving up caffeine for the day, but Mormons don’t drink caffeine.

  • 15 million each month is a BIG assumption to start with (:D) . Fast offerings are first used at the Ward and Stake Level so you likely won’t see a mass project as it is spread out in ones and twos all over the Church. A lot of wards use more that they bring in. Additionally fast offerings are not used for just food but frequently i’ve seen people get help with rent and rarely bills. Deseret Industries, Welfare Square, Employment and Family Services all receive support from fast offerings as are a lot of the Church’s emergency response projects.

    https://www.lds.org/topics/serve-and-teach/how-church-is-helping?lang=eng

  • Lee, thank you for reading. This post was derived from a sacrament meeting talk I did on fasting. This section on resurrection was the fourth part, and the Isaiah 58 passage (which I totally agree with you is important) was addressed earlier in the talk. It’s hard to squeeze in everything in that I want to in a 700-800 word blog post.

    If you’re interested, I am going to record the whole talk this month for a new sermon series that A Thoughtful Faith is starting, and will post a link when it goes live.

  • I agree that there is something to be said for simple obedience and discipleship. But we also have to concede that perfection is lacking in this world, among any of us. (You do agree with that, yes? You experience your own failures of total obedience, don’t you?) Priesthood leaders have consistently taught that applying the rule becomes easier (would it be better to say, “more certain?”) when the principle underlying the rule is taught, understood and internalized. That seems to be the point of Jana’s essay.

  • “Let’s bring up a completely unrelated argument, and then link to my blog that no one reads.” Oh, yes, let’s! 🙂

    Who do you think you are, David Tiffany? That’s HIS gig.

  • Great post, Jana. It gives me a new resolve to fast. The heckler in me, however, asks:

    What need is there to die by fasting once a month, when by simply attending our services, we die from boredom once a week?

  • Well, I know. On account of you’re soooo much smarter and better and more interesting than those peons they ask you to listen to, it’s no wonder you’re bored. Great and wonderful guy like you. It’s amazing that you even bother to sit in the pew, since you’re so far above them! Small wonder that their untutored and unlearned testimonies and words intended to inspire lack sufficient entertainment value for you. I feel your pain!

    Of course there’s always the alternative: getting over yourself and trying to find the value that is there for your spiritual life. Maybe you’re not as all-fired superior as you think.

  • I am an atheist, but I study anything about religion I can come across. For a while, I studied with a local Islamic Masjid and fasted with them for the month of Ramadan. I still say this was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I didn’t feel any form of ‘spiritual’ enlightenment or any sort of ‘connection’ to the divine. Nevertheless, the experience was quite meaningful. We could all stand to step outside of ourselves every once in a while. All too often, we are more concerned with our own needs (most of which really aren’t ‘needs’) than with anything going on around us.

  • I used to feel like that as well and had to decide to put effort into whether the church was true or not. You will get out what you put into preparing for services each Sunday. I guess you might need to decide what kind of relationship you want with our Heavenly Father and Savior. Sounds like you are just going through the motions and putting no thought or heartfelt effort into Sunday attendance, or daily observance as well. Remember, He’s outside the door waiting for us to open it for Him – He can’t come in unless we invite Him in. There are some awesome articles to help you have a more meaningful fast as well as improving our Sunday observance. I wish you all the best!

  • For the record, many “Mormons,” or Latter-day Saints, do drink caffeine. We’ve been invited to live by a principle that we call: “The Word of Wisdom,” wherein we choose to abstain from coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, or other harmful substances. I believe that caffeine is harmful, so I abstain. Caffeine isn’t specifically listed- as the Word of Wisdom was given in the 1800’s- and some see this as “permission” to drink something thing that science is beginning to understand as unhealthy. That said, everyone has the freedom and agency to act, and choose, and say, and do, and consume as they please.

  • Great question! Thanks for showing an interest in this. Perhaps this will provide you some “food for thought:” https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/topic/welfare-and-self-reliance
    Here’s a terrific video chronicling the recent visit of Jewish leaders and their visit to learn about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, their temples, and their welfare program. https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/jewish-leaders-tour-temple-square-welfare-square
    Several years ago, a tour was given of the Churches’ welfare operations. Here’s that video: https://youtu.be/eBZWeh31TIs
    This video provides the story of one families’ journey through the welfare system and explains how their family was benefited by the Churches’ generosity. https://youtu.be/-O3qGLjRYeM
    I feel like I’m giving you too much information, but I hope that it’s being well received. This next article, from 2013, includes details about the Churches’ response to disaster and their role in emergency relief and recovery in the event of a flood, hurricane, earthquake, or other disaster. https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-responds-to-over-100-disasters-in-2012–including-sandy
    Best of luck! ~Jeff Stout

ADVERTISEMENTs