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Going deeper with Mormon fasting

A lot of Mormon fasting is taken up with fasting *for* something—a particular end, a better life. What would it look like to go deeper?

A week ago, I would wager that many Mormons had never participated in a Good Friday fast. Unless we live in strongly liturgical cultures (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox) where Christians have fasted on Good Friday for centuries, the idea of fasting in conjunction with Holy Week might be new. We Mormons fast regularly, but not according to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar.

It’s good to get out of our comfort zones. I’m hoping this departure from our usual routine can prompt us to think a little differently about fasting, in three ways.

  1. More universal

Today, there’s palpable excitement in LDS social media feeds about joining with other Christians’ longstanding practice. I also have seen frustration on the part of non-LDS Christians who have been invited over these last few days to fast with our church, as though that were something we only now invented as a Good Friday practice and not something they’ve been doing all along.    

The opportunity here is to learn from folks who have more experience with what it means to connect the discipline of fasting with what we’re all commemorating today about Christ’s death on the cross. This week, for instance, a wonderful article in the Deseret News helped to introduce many LDS readers to the depth of Catholic traditions about fasting during these holiest days of the Christian year—what they do, and what it means to them.

  1. More rooted in Christ’s pain

In the Latter-day Saint tradition, we have long proclaimed the joy of Easter resurrection but not focused as much on the via dolorosa the Savior took to Calvary. We are empty-tomb people, not bleeding-on-a-cross people.

Sometimes, like during a global pandemic, the cracks in that approach begin to show. When Christianity neglects to re-enact Christ’s full journey, which includes grief and uncertainty and physical pain as part of the Passion, it teaches us that we have the ability to jump straight to Easter triumph without first passing through the Stations of the Cross. And then when suffering happens—as is beginning to unfold acutely at this moment in world history—we’re less prepared than we ought to be for the reality that we don’t get a hall pass to skip the Stations of the Cross.  

Speaking from my own experience, the Holy Week traditions of other Christian churches have taught me valuable, visceral truths about the suffering that preceded Christ’s resurrection. There is an embodied component to participating in a fast on Good Friday, where in our tiny way we enact Christ’s kenosis and sign up for sharing a fragment of his pain.

  1. More mournful, less transactional

I have a book at home called Fasting for Health and Happiness, by Ogden Kraut (1992). It has some interesting history about fasting in the LDS Church (which used to happen on Thursdays, not Sundays), but also a fair amount of what we might call a transactional theology of fasting.

The transactional approach is, in effect, “Deposit in, blessing out.” We make the sacrifice of going without a couple of meals, which turbocharges our prayers enough that the Lord is obligated to zoom them to the front of the queue.

I’m exaggerating here, obviously, but a lot of Mormon fasting is taken up with fasting for something—a particular end, a better life. The title Fasting for Health and Happiness encapsulates this notion pretty well. We want lives that are free from disease and trouble, not just for ourselves but for those we love.

This is the immediate motivation for today’s churchwide fast, and it’s a worthy one. As President Nelson put it in his invitation at General Conference, today members are fasting “that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized.”

Obviously, I am in strong support of all those things, and hope that in addition to fasting the Church and its members are actively doing whatever they can to help bring those things about: donating money, staying home to avoid spreading disease, and supporting local businesses. There’s good and important work to be done even while so many of us are sheltering at home. The Church has a long history of connecting the discipline of fasting to the discipline of charity, and it’s an important association.

Health and happiness are concrete, tangible things to pray about. When I do my monthly fast, I usually set an intention that’s related to the health of someone I care about. I’m not saying this is wrong, just incomplete. What I miss when I approach fasting in this way is the real lesson of fasting: it’s about mourning and coming to grips with our lack of control. Fasting is a form of lament, not a way to determine an outcome.

The book that really changed my mind about this years ago was Scot McKnight’s Fasting. McKnight, a biblical scholar, examines many stories in the Bible about when and why people fasted. Rather than trying to use fasting to change God’s will, they often turned to fasting during what McKnight calls “grievous sacred moments.” Often, these moments are about repentance and atonement; sometimes, they’re about straight-up grief.

For example, the book of Nehemiah opens with Nehemiah hearing news about what has happened to his fellow Jews in exile, and to the city of Jerusalem, and it’s so depressing that he’s devastated. “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 1:4)

Nehemiah doesn’t go down into the dust to fast because he’s praying that his fellow survivors will act a certain way or enjoy a certain blessing; he fasts because he’s so freaking sad he doesn’t know what else to do. McKnight explains, 

Fasting along with our prayer requests is not some kind of magic bullet to ensure the answer we want. Fasting doesn’t reinforce the crumbling walls of our prayers like a flying buttress, nor is it a manipulative device. We fast because a condition arises—what we are calling the sacred moment—that leads us to desire something deeply. We fast because our plea is so intense that in the midst of our sacred desire eating seems sacrilegious.”

This is a game-changer for me. I’m not fasting today because I want to tell God what to do about Covid-19. I’m fasting because I’m in grief about the rising death toll and fear of the future, and fasting is a way of turning my body to God in my darkest hour and allowing him to tell me what to do.

What happens in the book of Nehemiah is that after fasting and confessing his sins to God, Nehemiah gets leave from the king he is serving to return home and rebuild his city from the ashes. Fasting and grief become catalysts for unexpected action—but not before mourning and paralysis have been allowed their season, and not because Nehemiah prayed for that outcome.

Related posts on fasting:

Whatever happened to Mormon fasting?

All Mormons should fast on Fast Sunday