In general terms, fasting means to go without food or drink for a period of time. The concept of fasting is not unique to Mormonism or to religion at all. For instance, a morning meal is called breakfast in English for the reason that a person breaks, or ends, the fast that he endured through the night. Oftentimes before surgery, tests, or other medical treatment, a doctor will require that the patient come fasting, not having eaten or drunk anything for a specified time so that the procedure will go smoothly.
The adherents of some religions consider fasting to be the act of merely going without certain foods such as meat, dairy products, or oil. They believe that this was the only way Jesus Christ could have survived His 40-day fast in the desert. Mormons, however, assert that Christ did in fact deprive Himself of all forms of food and drink during that period. Because of His mortal condition, inherited from Mary His mother, He was capable of suffering the extreme pangs of hunger and thirst; yet, as a result of His immortality as inherited from His divine Father, He was able to survive the ordeal.
Furthermore, Jesus did not simply survive His long fast. He used fasting as an opportunity to draw closer to God. Through heartfelt prayer and meditation over spiritual matters, Jesus Christ gained increased strength and understanding in relation to His own role as Savior in the wonderful plan of Heavenly Father. He fasted as a means of preparation for the teaching, the miracles, and the mighty sacrifice that He would perform. In answer to His fasting and prayers, Jesus was visited by angels who granted Him great knowledge and strength.
Mormons strive to follow the example of the Savior. Fasting in Mormonism typically means to go without food or drink for two meals, encompassing a period of about 24 hours. During this time a person prays often, both kneeling in the privacy of his room and, during the activities of the day, keeping his thoughts still turned in prayer to the Lord. The person reads and contemplates over the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or other scriptures and publications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church). Through these efforts, a fasting person faithfully hopes to receive special blessings from the Lord, such as: an understanding of God’s will in an important decision the person has to make in his life; increased strength to overcome a temptation, weakness, or destructive habit; guidance and the capacity to adequately care for the spiritual and physical needs of one’s children or spouse; and, above all, an enhanced sensitivity to God’s love and a deepened understanding of and conviction in His beneficent plan for His spirit children, all the people of the earth. Sometimes fasting might be exercised when a person is in mourning, or when he simply wishes to privately show thankfulness or devotion to the Lord.
A standard time of fasting for all members of the Mormon Church takes place on the first Sunday of each month. Usually starting on Saturday afternoon or evening and ending around the same time Sunday, Mormons unitedly implore Heavenly Father for spiritual and physical blessings while they obediently keep His law of fasting. Special practices are observed during this collective fast. One is that during worship services, members of the LDS Church are given an opportunity to voluntarily stand before the congregation and share of the feelings they have received through the Holy Ghost which have led them to know of the truthfulness of Christ’s gospel. They express their gratitude for blessings from God and share their testimonies, or convictions, as a way of inviting the Holy Ghost to touch the hearts of others.
Another practice is the offering of donations for the needy, discretely handed to a leader of the congregation, in the amount of the money that a person would have spent on meals had he eaten instead of fasting. This donation is known simply as a fast offering, and when possible, Mormons actually try to give much more generously than just the cost of a few meals. Collection plates are not passed in Mormon meetings, nor are contributions recognized in public. “Tithing envelopes” used for all types of donations, including fast offerings, are given by members to someone in their bishopric. Specially called clerks help the bishopric keep track of offerings. No one in the congregation knows what offerings others are making.
Besides the standard fast at the beginning of each month, Mormons may fast at other times when they feel a special need or desire to do so. Yet they are taught to always use wisdom and balance in fasting. For instance, fasting for an excessively long period, or fasting too frequently, might prove dangerous as well as inappropriate. Also, even though Mormons consider fasting to be a commandment, they recognize that some have special needs. Young children, pregnant women, the sick or diabetic, generally are not expected to fast.
Fasting is a very good way for a person to practice keeping his physical desires in check. When a person intentionally forgoes eating for the sake of gaining greater spirituality, he learns temperance and patience, and also deeper gratitude for the food and other necessities that he has, recognizing that they are all blessings from God. He finds himself more capable of controlling himself in other areas besides eating, such as in maintaining chastity before marriage and fidelity after marriage, or in not oversleeping or gratifying excessive desires for fun and idleness. He is not carried away by anger or other passions—overall, he finds himself more capable of keeping under control the physical body that he has been blessed with, something that is not to be despised as an impediment to the spirit but rather a wondrous tool that can do so many productive and beneficial things as long as it is properly harnessed by the spirit, and the wisdom of God.