Lately, I’ve spent some time thinking deeply about this question due to this article in the New York Times Magazine (This may seem like a stretch, but bear with me). Mormons have an interesting, and probably unique, relationship with fasting. It is something we do every month. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the first Sunday of the month is designated as “Fast Sunday.” We abstain from two full meals so that our fast extends for about 24 hours. We then take the money we would have spent on food and we give it to the church, earmarked for for providing food for the poor.
This is a practice I’ve participated in for many years (although when I was younger I often defied my parents’ wishes by sneaking to the basement pantry to down a few Pop Tarts or Swiss Cake Rolls to sate my hunger), but only recently have I begun to think about its purpose.
The first step to understanding why we do this is exploring where the tradition came from. Throughout the Bible, there are mentions of fasting. These range from the famous 40 day fasts of Moses and Jesus Christ to Paul’s 3 day fast after his conversion and Paul and Barnabus’ fast to help them appoint leaders for the newly formed Christian church. There are also examples of fasting in the Book of Mormon. LDS.org provides the following list of the purposes of fasting:
- Worshiping God and expressing gratitude to him (Luke 2:37; Alma 45:1)
- Asking God to bless the sick or afflicted (Matthew 17:14-21)
- Helping us to receive personal revelation and become converted to the truth (Alma 5:46; 6:6)
- Gaining strength to resist temptation (Isaiah 58:6)
- Humbling ourselves before God and Exercising faith in Jesus Christ (Omni 1:26; Helaman 3:35)
- Receiving guidance in sharing the gospel with others and excelling in any assignments we receive from God (Acts 13:2-3;Alma 17:3, 9; 3 Nephi 27:1-2)
- Accompanying righteous sorrow or mourning (Alma 28:4-6; 30:1-2)
I think this list can be reduced to the following three purposes: seeking blessings, seeking guidance, and seeking God. I think fasting to seek blessings and to come closer to God seems fairly rational. We are giving something (food) up that we not only love but that we also enjoy a great deal to show our humility and obedience. This is something that we, as humans, are used to doing to get close to someone. In marriage, we give up some level of independence and discretionary free time in order to come closer to our partner. In a business relationship, we give up some things we want in order to seal a deal. In politics, (in normal times) the politicians on one side give up some of the things they want and the other side gives up some of the things they want, and an agreement is reached in the middle. We understand the need of sacrifice to strengthen a relationship, so we understand why abstaining from food and drink can bring us closer to the individual (God) asking us to do the sacrificing. We also understand that when we give something up for someone, that act of sacrifice is often reciprocated, so receiving blessings from God for our sacrifice makes sense.
The remaining purpose of fasting, seeking guidance, seems a little less rational, however. This is where the article I mentioned above comes in. In the article, the author describes recent findings in neuroscience that suggest that we are less able to make rational decisions and have less self control when our bodies have low levels of glucose (which happens when we aren’t eating). After reading this, I started to think about how, if this is actually the case, fasting in order to receive the answer to some important question or to be able to think more clearly about some issue I’m having a hard time with makes absolutely zero sense. Why would I engage in a behavior that makes it more difficult for me to think clearly in order to think more clearly?
After struggling with this for a while, it became clear to me that this is not a contradiction at all. Instead, it makes total sense. Normally, we go to God in fasting and prayer after we have exhausted all of our own cognitive abilities trying to resolve the issue. It is like a strategy of last resort saved for the most important and most difficult questions. It is not something we do every day. If we are unable to come up with the answer on our own, maybe the best thing for us to do is eliminate our own cognitive biases completely. And, how do we do this? By fasting in order to reduce the ability of our brain to think rationally, by “putting of the natural man” in order to allow God to speak to us more freely.
Throughout my life, I’ve experienced this clarifying effect of fasting, but, until now, I’ve just taken it for granted. While my theory my not resonate with you (and I’d love to hear any holes you can poke in it), I think it provides me with a better understanding of the purpose of fasting. And, even if it is totally wrong, it doesn’t really matter, because I still know that fasting, when accompanied by prayer and reflection, does help me make better decisions, while fasting not accompanied by prayer and reflection is just starving yourself (and probably making yourself worse off by reducing your ability to think straight). I know this because I’ve experienced it both ways. I spent years in my youth starving myself, but I’ve also engaged in several fasts over the years that have helped me receive answers to some of my deepest questions. I invite you to give it a shot. Fast and pray to receive answers to one of your deepest questions, whether it be the existence of God or the veracity of the Book of Mormon. Give it a shot. You won’t be disappointed.