Sometime ago Jana Reiss wrote a column for Sunstone entitled ‘Mormonism as Praxis’ in which the writers attempted to explore what Mormonism means in terms of ‘spiritual practices’. Jana, in a Sunstone podcast with Dan Wotherspoon, has explained that one of her main interests is trying to understand how these spiritual practices can become effective through a Mormon context. This post is a feeble attempt to think in that same vein. I wanted to try and understand how fasting is a spiritual practice.
At the out-set I should explain that I am not a Biblical scholar nor am I especially good with languages. So I would appreciate, and even expect, some dialogue regarding the thoughts that I want to express here.
Isaiah 58 is, for me, the most inspiring text in the scriptures that discusses fasting. In this post I want to consider some of the ideas it expresses. Isaiah’s concern is that Israel’s focus in their fast is themselves. He writes that people complain ‘Wherefore have we fasted… and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul and thou takest no knowledge’ (Isa 58:3)? They fast ‘to make [their] voice heard on high’ (Isa 58:4).
The Lord in response to this behaviour asks the people to turn the focus of their fast outward. ‘Is this not the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?’ (Isa 58:6-7).
The sense I get is that this practice should be directed toward others. To fast is not just to go without food as a sacrifice, but it is to render service or make especial effort to love those whom we struggle to love. Fasting so that our own voice is heard in Heaven is condemned while serving our fellow men is central to our fast. In fact, it seems that to give up food is a means by which we can ‘draw out [our] soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul’ (Isa 58:10). As we voluntarily go without we are to think about or focus our time upon those who go without involuntarily. To do this expands our compassion and love. In fact, it seems that in this act we emulate Christ, who voluntarily suffered so that he might perfect his capacity for ‘mercy and empathy’ .
Isaiah outlines some of the promised blessings that may come from such a fast (see Isa 58:8-12). In v.9 he says ‘then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity’. I believe the Lord’s answer is not synonymous with having our voice heard on high. I believe that that answer is ‘Here I am’. I believe the Lord promises us his presence and comfort and yet, Isaiah reiterates that this will only come if we put off those behaviours which afflict others. Thus as we give up, or put off, food so are we also to put off those actions which offend or hurt. The food in one sense becomes a symbol of our sin, which we desire to put off.
In addition the Lord promises us that as we turn our lives outward to those around us, as we learn to expand our capacities for love and service, that our lives will become ‘like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not’ (Isa 58:11). The poetic allusion to Christ as the Living waters is wonderful and yet what is significant here is not that we come to the Living Waters, but they become placed within us. In this sense we become like Christ, in that we become fountains of love rather than cups which need filling. Fasting is one of those spiritual practices that helps us to place the Living Waters in us.
In v. 12 the Lord promises that such people will be those who help prepare Zion. In speaking of this verse Eugene England has said ‘The Lord has, in these verses, drawn a straight line from fasting for the hungry to becoming a “repairer of the breach”–to preserving peace that will “raise up the foundations of many generations” instead of dooming those generations to nuclear destruction. The Lord is describing, with the extra power of poetic language, a precise and inexorable moral law: mercy begets and multiplies mercy; sacrificial giving will beget and multiply kindness, understanding, patience, brotherhood–even between enemies.’  In this sense again through Fasting the Lord promises us that we will begin to learn how to heal the wounds which afflict ourselves and others; we will learn how to break down those barriers that restrict us from being at-one with each and with God.
I am inspired by these verse because I would like to be someone who exhibits these characteristics and yet it is clear to me now that only by directing my fast toward others will this be made possible. I feel that I have too often fasted so that I might receive a particular job, or even so that I might get good marks in my education. I feel the urge to repent and turn toward God and other people, and to do this through fasting.
1. Jana Reiss, Mormonism as Praxis in Sunstone, 12/1/04 [Salt Lake City UT.: Sunstone Education Foundation, 2004], p. 16-27
2. Neal A. Maxwell, A Choice Seer in Ensign, August 1986.
3. Eugene England, Fasting and Food, Not Weapons: a Mormon Response To Conflict in BYU Studies, vol. 25 [Provo Ut.: BYU Publications, 1985), p. 154.