This is the talk I gave yesterday, in the general session of stake conference:
Years ago, a wise elder's quorum president of mine showed up to teach his priesthood lesson on a Fast Sunday. Imagine our dismay – a bunch of hungry, thirsty priesthood holders - when he revealed a large chocolate cake as part of his lesson. Then, he made a request of our quorum and said, "If you are fasting today, please raise your hand." Most of us dutifully raised our hands. He then made a follow-up request and said, "If you didn't begin your fast with a prayer, please put your hand down." To be honest, most of the group put their hands down. Without a word he proceeded to cut the beautiful cake into large slices and served them to those with their hands down. Nobody protested, but nobody was bold enough to partake either - after all, it WAS Fast Sunday. You can imagine the curious glances as we tried to decipher where this lesson was going. Once the cake was passed to those with their hands down, he said: "Now....those who have a piece of cake, go ahead and eat it. I know! I know it's Fast Sunday, but if you didn't begin your fast with a prayer, you're not really fasting, you're just starving." That lesson has remained with me and has had great impact on my understanding of the Law of the Fast.
As a bishop, I loved taking advantage of introducing the Sharing Time theme each month to the primary children of our ward. One month, I brought into primary a thick board with a phrase written at each end. On one end I wrote "Fasting with Prayer." At the other end, "Fasting without Prayer." I asked for a helper to come to the front of the room. I instructed the girl that we were going to race. The first one of us to put a construction screw all the way into the board would be declared the winner. Then I handed the little girl a screwdriver and a screw. Her task was located on the end of the board labeled, "Fasting Without Prayer." So I gave her the "go" signal and she started the task. Then I pulled a power drill out of my tool bag. It was over in seconds. She hadn’t even gotten 2 or 3 turns into the wood before I had completed the task with the powerful drill. Our discussion that followed drove home the idea that fasting REQUIRES prayer. It is simply ineffective without it.
The words ‘fast’, and ‘pray’ occur together over 30 times in our cannon of scriptures. On one hand, prayer is an action and a principle that stands completely on its own. It can be effective all by itself and used as often as necessary and under any circumstance. (2 Nephi 32:8-9) Fasting, on the other hand, does not become effective until combined with two other things: prayer and a generous fast offering. I use the word “generous” on purpose, because that is what we learn from modern revelation. We’ve been counseled to “…be as generous as circumstances permit in your fast offering.” (Eyring, Conference Report, April 2015; Holland, Conference Report, October 2014) Elder Wirthlin counseled us further when he said, “My brothers and sisters, the measure of our offering to bless the poor is a measure of our gratitude to our Heavenly Father. Will we, who have been blessed so abundantly, turn our backs on those who need our help? Paying a generous fast offering is a measure of our willingness to consecrate ourselves to relieve the suffering of others.” (Wirthlin, Conference Report, April 2001) King Benjamin taught that our generosity is also a measure of our ability to retain a remission of our sins. (Mosiah 4:26) And I would submit that while fasting without prayer is like starving yourself, fasting without a generous offering might be tantamount to starving others, since much of that money is used to help the needy. It’s really of little use unless all three actions are combined.
Another aspect of fasting that we should be aware of is that when we fast, it should be a private affair. “Moreover, when ye fast be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance, for they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face” (3 Nephi 13:16-18) and I might add ‘brush thy teeth often and chew minty, sugar free gum, if necessary.’ That last part may have been from The Book of Lance 12:21, so please don’t take that as gospel – just my opinion. If you feel like chewing sugar free gum will break your fast, please don’t change your habits on my account. But the principle of ‘appearing not unto men to fast’ holds true. It is something that should be known to you and the Lord only. Sometimes, hiding our fast is hard to do as members of the Church, considering we all generally fast on the same day each month. But my prolific use of minty, sugar-free gum on fast Sunday will continue, in my effort to ‘appear NOT unto men to fast.’
These principles can be very difficult to teach to young children. I’m sure, in many-a-house (mine included) we parents have heard that fateful rustling of cereal boxes in the kitchen from our beds on the first Sunday of the month and rushed out into the kitchen to remind our kids that it’s Fast Sunday. (picture a parent sliding, with a stubbed toe, across the kitchen floor, like a runner headed for Homeplate, yelling in slow motion “I-t-’s F-a-s-t S-u-n-d-a-y!!!” – as you narrowly grab the spoon from their hand as it’s headed for their mouth) I can still hear in my mind the moaning, and weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth and rolling of eyes as they grudgingly put away the milk and not-so-carefully pour cereal back into the box. To avoid this, we’ve tried to make it a habit to remind our children a few times on Saturday about the Fast so that they wake up in the right spiritual mindset. It might even be smart to be kneel next to your younger children when they pray to start their fast and have regular conversations during the fast to ensure the correct focus is maintained. Periodically reminding children about the purpose of their fast will help them to remember the person they are sacrificing for and the trials that person is experiencing. The principle of ‘remembering’ is a critical principle in this Gospel.
Now, I skipped a little section of the scripture back there and I’d like to take a minute to go back and address the principle of “rewards.” The full scripture is in 3 Nephi 13:16-18 and part of it reads: “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” This is a general principle in scripture that teaches us that we can receive rewards for obedience from 2 sources in this life. One source of reward is from our Father in Heaven and the other source is from the glory and praise of men. When we ‘appear unto men to fast’ and broadcast that fact with our sad faces, the praise and glory of men becomes our reward. Once that is done, there is no further reward from Heaven. (3 Nephi 13:2) This principle is mentioned several times in scripture associated with giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. (Matthew 6:4,6,18) And when we give to the poor, we are counseled often to do it privately. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood were a family activity we called ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. My mother helped us understand the principle of anonymous giving very well. Twelve days before Christmas, we would trudge through dark, snowy streets to take a gift to a family in need without their knowing, and this would continue each night until Christmas Day. One family became so curious that they would stay up all hours of the night to discover the identity of their anonymous donors. And Mom gave strict orders – we were NOT to be caught under ANY circumstance. The penalty would be severe, I was sure. So, to keep the spirit of anonymous giving, I’ve delivered those gifts at some extreme hours, even jumping into prickly bushes to prevent anyone from finding me. And even with those scratches, OH, how glorious is that feeling of receiving those blessings from heaven and not from the praise of man.
Fasting, for certain folks with health issues, can be daunting if not outright impossible. Consider those with diabetes or health concerns that do not allow them to fast. I served my mission in the lower coastal areas of Ecuador and fasting was extremely difficult, as a missionary. While there are temperate areas in Ecuador, I served in none of those areas. Along the coast, it can get quite hot and the humidity can be incredibly stifling, especially in the rainy season. I remember the coldest I ever felt during my mission one specific night. Instead of using the normal, single sheet which I slept under for two years, one night, it got SO cold that I was forced to use 2 sheets. THAT’S how hot it gets. And when the most common mode of transportation used on my mission is your own two legs and temperatures reach over 108 degrees in that Ecuadorian sun, it became almost dangerous to fast a full 24 hours if you engaged in the regular rigors of missionary work. When we realized Fast Sunday was approaching, we would generally try to plan a little less work in that time span and stick closer to home so that we would not be too worn out. Several times we worked a little too hard and I became overheated to the point of heat exhaustion. It was likely these multiple experiences that makes me welcome winter snow when it comes to the Salt Lake Valley each year. Summer is not my favorite season, believe it or not. To those who cannot fast, I would say, do what you can, within reason, to simulate a fast of your own making. If you cannot sacrifice food or water, sacrifice something, and do it with a purpose. The Lord understands your needs and limitations very well.
Fasting has yielded some holy and purifying experiences for me. Fasting is an effort to deprive your physical body of life-sustaining nutrients for specific spiritual purposes. While fasting deprives and weakens the physical body, with prayer - even CONSTANT prayer and scripture study - it will strengthen the spiritual body within you. The spirit then becomes the foremost entity, becoming stronger and stronger the more dedicated you become to that fast. And isn’t that part of our purpose on this earth? To overcome our physical nature and let our spiritual natures lead us? “For the natural man is an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) Fasting, when combined with the power derived from the sacrament ordinance and study of the Book of Mormon, also becomes a powerful way to break the chains of sin and addiction.
But fasting must also have a specific purpose. It might be to ask for extra blessings upon someone going through a life-threatening illness. It might be for help in passing a major college exam, finding a spouse, or even to obtain Spiritual Gifts. The purposes can vary widely, but there is no such thing as fasting without a purpose.
I like to compare fasting with temple work. When we go to the temple, once the work is completed for ourselves, we stand as proxy for others so that they can receive those same ordinances in the Spirit World. So, when we fast for the needs of another, it is like standing as proxy for them as YOUR sacrifice is dedicated to them, and those needed blessings flow straight to them, from heavenly sources.