Whatever happened to Mormon fasting?

It’s Fast Sunday tomorrow, and I’m genuinely looking forward to it.

I have an alert in my phone to remind me to skip my breakfast cereal.

I have a personal situation to pray about that has reached St. Jude-like levels of desperation.

And I am excited that this Fast Sunday happens to fall on the first day of Ramadan, which means that in my own tiny way I can experience solidarity (and mutual bad breath) with my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world.

All systems would appear to be “go,” except for a nagging sense that something is missing. So what don’t I have as I prepare for the fast?

Oddly enough, I’m feeling a bit bereft of my Latter-day Saint community.

All Mormons are instructed to fast on the first Sunday of every month, praying more fervently and donating the money we would have spent on our own food to the poor. It’s a tradition that extends in some form to the earliest days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though in the nineteenth century our fast days occurred on a Thursday, not a Sunday.

But the reality is that I haven’t heard much about fasting from Mormon leaders or members in a good long while. It’s been four years since the last major General Conference talk that was devoted to the topic, though it’s mentioned occasionally in passing.

But even those brief mentions are occurring less often than they used to in recent LDS history, as seen in this index of General Conference references to fasting:

LDS General Conference references to "fasting." It has been mentioned 51 times in this decade, tying the 1990s for the lowest incidence since WWII.

Discussion of fasting also seems to be absent from this year’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum for individuals and families. I haven’t found it in the manual.

The topic also doesn’t come up in my ward, or at least it hasn’t on the Sundays I’ve been in town recently (which is not often enough, admittedly). And when I ask fellow Mormons who live elsewhere how often fasting is explored in their wards, they often can’t remember the last time it was discussed intentionally.

I’m not sure why Mormons appear to be de-emphasizing fasting, but I have a germ of a suspicion: So many people have had trouble with this particular spiritual practice that, as a gesture of mercy, leaders may be trying to lay off the guilt.

Part of the issue is that Mormons tend to be an all-or-nothing people, and our leaders have done little to discourage this line of thinking. I have heard many church members say that they can’t fast because they take medication, or they have stomach problems, or they get headaches.

Obviously, people’s health is vitally important, and if they have severe health problems they need to think carefully about ways they might fast responsibly, or whether to fast from food at all.

But for many of us, a lighter approach to fasting is possible, but we just don’t pursue it creatively.

For example, what if instead of giving up altogether on fasting, people who get headaches fasted for one meal instead of two? Or they fasted from food but not liquids, since dehydration is often responsible for headaches? Or they fasted from sugar and fat and seasonings, keeping meals entirely basic, bland, and small?

I’ve known evangelical and Eastern Orthodox Christians who have opened my eyes to creative ways to think of fasting, which is not just giving up something for the sake of giving up something. Author Lynne Baab defines Christian fasting as “the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose.” We remove something habitual (eating) “so we can experience something new” (a deeper spiritual connection).

I’ve shared before that as a Mormon convert, it took me years to adapt to fasting. I struggled often with headaches and dizziness. But the combination of working up to a full fast v-e-r-y slowly while learning about its spiritual benefits from authors like Baab, Richard Foster, and Scot McKnight helped me to think of fasting in a different light—as a privilege rather than a burden.

In Mormonism, we have a tendency not only to approach fasting as an all-or-nothing practice, but to think of it as a transaction we make with God: “If I give you x, you must give me y.” McKnight talks about this same tendency among evangelicals and challenges Christians to go deeper. “Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life,” he explains. “When people tell us they are fasting, we should ask, ‘In response to what?’ instead of, ‘What do you hope you will get out of it?’”

I hope that we as Latter-day Saints don’t abandon communal fasting; one of the greatest blessings of our tradition is that we still do it together, at least in theory. Rather than quietly doing away with the practice, I hope we’ll talk about how we can experiment more profoundly with it, going beyond legalism (“now, am I supposed to fast for two meals or exactly 24 hours?”) to spiritual freedom.


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