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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Fasting

John 7:17 gives Jesus' injunction for us to be experimentalists--spiritual scientists. For the sake of argument, assume that God exists. When we practice a commandment, and find we do not receive the promised blessings, we ought to conclude that either the commandment is not from God (our lives are filled with commandments of men), or we are doing it wrong.

One commandment that is almost universally "done wrong" is the Sabbath. Another is prayer. This article will address still another, fasting.

Fasting is engaged in for a variety of reasons. These include:

  1. A cultural expectation.
  2. A programmed cycle.
  3. To care for the poor.
  4. To gain spiritual power.
  5. To get answers to prayer.
  6. To conquer temptation.
  7. To focus on God.

A cultural expectation. Depriving oneself of food (and water, depending on the religion) as a spiritual rite is taught in many religions. In the LDS religion, for example, fasting is defined and prescribed as the deprivation of food and water for a 24 hour period. Fasting ought not be defined this way. We will get into God's description of fasting momentarily. You should not fast because someone told you to do so. The only reason you should fast is to focus your attention on God.

A programmed cycle. Depending on the religion, fasts are sometimes held on appointed dates. Catholics practice a type of fasting during Lent. Muslims practice a type of fasting on Ramadan. LDS are told to fast once per month. God has only proclaimed one fast--the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:29-30; 23:27-31; Numbers 29:7)--and whether this is a standing law today is unclear. The rest is made up. For example, LDS do not realize that a monthly fast day was a concept created by Joseph Smith (not a revelation to him) in order to provide funds to care for the poor prior to the reception of the commandment to tithe, at which point it was discontinued until his successors found themselves strapped for administrative funds, at which point they reinstituted it to provide a greater share of tithing to go to their operational budget instead of the poor. You should not fast because someone told you to do it on a prescribed date. The only reason you should fast is to focus your attention on God.

To care for the poor. Caring for the poor is a wonderful thing. It is a very important commandment, and one that is very often neglected. God's word couples fasting and caring for the poor. In Isaiah 58, the Lord describes fasting as:
6 Is not this the fast I require:
To release from wrongful bondage,
to untie the harness of the yoke,
to set the oppressed at liberty
and abolish all forms of subjection?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry,
to bring home the wretchedly poor,
and when you see men underclad to clothe them,
and not to neglect your own kin? (Isaiah 58, Gileadi Translation)
However, all is not well in Zion. There is a vast difference between what is described here and what most people practice when they think they are fasting. Let's analyze what is done while one is fasting (which most understand to mean going without food and/or water for some period of time). Some people leave it at that. Some people pray a little more during that time. Some people donate a bit of money to someone (usually a church) during that time. Is there anything wrong with that? It depends. Is there anything wrong with describing a college education as binge drinking, partying, and student loans? Technically, it might be a correct description, but thinking about it that way GUARANTEES you are not going to get the full scope of the intended benefits, if you get any benefits at all. 

If my purpose is to obtain education, my means for obtaining it should be optimized for that goal. If drinking, partying, or loans are employed, they ought to be employed only to the extent that they are the most effective means for advancing the goal of education. Most people would conclude that loans ought to be avoided in most cases, and drinking and partying are detrimental instead of beneficial to that goal. What are God's stated goals for us in fasting?

To release those in bondage of all types, including those who are hungry, through personal interaction with them, with a focus on those in greatest need.

Is giving your money to a church (or other organization) without any oversight on how it is spent a fulfillment of this commandment? Absolutely not.

Is hands-off, at-a-distance service a fulfillment of this commandment? Absolutely not.

Is donating money so that your neighbor can maintain a first world standard of living while ignoring the actually homeless people in your city a fulfillment of this commandment? Absolutely not.

Now, for the big one. Is the deprivation of your food and your water necessary in order to keep this commandment? If so, where is it mentioned? More importantly: does depriving yourself of food and/or water actually help you to keep this commandment in any way? In other words, couldn't you do this just as well or better without depriving yourself of food and/or water? Unless you are wretchedly poor yourself, the answer is that depriving yourself of food and/or water does nothing to help fulfill this commandment. [Sidenote: If you are wretchedly poor, than the desire of your heart is all that is needed to keep this commandment, not self-deprivation (see Mosiah 4:24-25)].

To gain spiritual power / To get answers to prayer. It is good to desire more spiritual power. After all, what better way to bring souls unto Christ than become a vessel that reflects some portion of his glory and power? And yet, similar to the last point, the way we practice fasting is typically not at all optimized for this purpose. While the true fast will result in increased spiritual power, the way most people fast will result in nothing but being hungry (and/or thirsty). This is because instead of living the true fast (focusing on communion with God), most treat a fast as a hunger strike.

If inflicting pain upon ourselves attracts God's attention, perhaps we ought to participate in more efficient means for doing so. If long, dull hunger pains attract his attention, wouldn't slashing ourselves or whipping ourselves with scourges accomplish really get his attention? Why not just hold a gun to our heads while we pray? The suggestion might seem ridiculous, but isn't it just as ridiculous to think that making yourself hungry and thirsty will somehow get God to pay more attention to you?

Prayers are not heard as a result of pain. Rather, they are heard as a result of the faithful obedience of the offerer.

God hears the prayers of those who have faith in him. This includes trust in him, belief in him, and knowing and asking according to his will. Faithful prayer accomplishes miracles (Ether 12:12) including healing the sick (James 5:15), outpouring the Spirit (D&C 42:14), seeing angels (Moroni 7:37), receiving guidance (Alma 37:40), and many more.

God hears the prayers of those who obey him. There are many scriptures that explain and witness to this. Here are a few:

And also the Lord will remember the prayers of the righteous, which have been put up unto him for them. (Mormon 5:21) 
The Lord is far from the wicked: but he heareth the prayer of the righteous. (Proverbs 15:29) 
And there had been murders, and contentions, and dissensions, and all manner of iniquity among the people of Nephi; nevertheless for the righteous’ sake, yea, because of the prayers of the righteous, they were spared. (Alma 62:40) 
For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads. (Doctrine and Covenants 25:12)
Going without food and/or water does not directly impact your trust in God, your belief in him, your obedience to him, or your knowing his will. Correct prayer can, of course, do all of those things, but praying on an empty stomach may hurt rather than help your effectiveness in prayer. You should not fast because you think God weighs prayers by how much pain the offerer is in. The only reason you should fast is to focus your attention on God.

To conquer temptation. If you believe that temptation is a factor of will power, then depriving yourself of food and/or water will help you conquer temptation, since depriving yourself of food and/or water will certainly increase your willpower. However, temptation has nothing to do with will power. Instead, it is a factor of knowledge and faith. This claim is different enough from what most people believe that it is deserving of an entire book to convince them, which I am currently writing. For now, if you assume I am right, you can conclude that you should not deprive yourself of food and/or water to conquer temptation, because it won't actually help you one bit. Focusing your attention on God, however, will lead to an increase in knowledge and faith, which will cause you to conquer temptations that beset you.

To focus on God. Now we finally get to the real meaning of fasting. To me, the purest and simplest definition of fasting is to focus on God. The first commandment is to love God with all our heart, might, minds, and strength. Not to serve him, or cower before him, but to love him. When you love someone or something, you make it your focus. You don't need external reminders or laundry lists of chores to chide you into focusing on that thing or person. In life (whether ancient or modern), there is a lot to do. The cares of the world compete for our time and attention. What better way to focus on God than to ignore everything else for a time in order to focus more fully on him?

Isaiah 58 does mention care for the poor. It is very important. However, more important than that is the context of the instruction. The Lord (who is speaking in that passage) does not say that we should merely feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, or house the homeless. He says we should "release from wrongful bondage, ... untie the harness of the yoke, ... set the oppressed at liberty and abolish all forms of subjection." What beautifully descriptive language! Where have we heard something similar before?

In another place, Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying: "The Spirit of my Lord Jehovah is upon me,
for Jehovah has anointed me to announce good tidings to the lowly; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the eyes to the bound, to herald the year of Jehovah’s favor." (Isaiah 61:1-2, Gileadi Translation). This is the very scripture Jesus read to the congregation in Nazareth to announce the beginning of his earthly mission.

God is telling us that a true fast is to go and do the things that he himself would do if he were here. Although we like to think that means to go convince people to be baptized or to pray and accept Jesus as our Savior, that is insufficient and myopic. Jesus did not describe his mission as getting people to accept him as their Savior or to get people to be baptized. He described his mission as announcing good tidings to the lowly, binding up the brokenhearted, and proclaiming liberty to the captives and the opening of the eyes to the bound. We are to stand for the oppressed, support the afflicted, free the captives, and alleviate suffering wherever it is to be found. Certainly, the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a tool in the toolbox. To me, however, this is a much, much broader commission that includes not only the message of the gospel, but the power of God, and also much more secular work that might not even include the mention or context of the gospel!

In a primitive situation (think survival in the woods), it takes an immense amount of time to stay warm, obtain food and water, prepare food, and maintain shelter. By abstaining from food and/or water, you would free up a considerable amount of time to focus on God.

In a low-tech agrarian setting, you would also free up a considerable amount of time to focus on God by going without food and/or water.

In a modern, first world setting, are you able to focus on God any more without food than you would with food? Perhaps if you are into intricate meals that take hours to prepare. Even then, is the issue the fact that you are eating and drinking, or the fact that you take hours to prepare? Going without food and water result in decreased cognitive ability. You certainly cannot perform physical tasks as well when you are hungry or thirsty (which might be required to free others from their burdens). You cannot think or focus as well. Eating and drinking, provided they can be done without large quantities of time, would likely increase your ability to focus on God, rather than decrease it compared to going without. Getting drive through could actually do more for your fasting than going without food and water!

What this has to do with the Sabbath

  • I am out of time on this post, and will flesh this out later. For now, suffice it to say that:
  • Our failure to live the Sabbath is very coupled to our failure to fast.
  • The Sabbath is a built-in opportunity to conduct a 24 hour true fast. In other words, to spend an entire day free from the cares of this world, completely focused on God and his work.
  • When lived properly, the Sabbath truly is a delight. If Sunday is not your favorite day of the week, you are doing it wrong.

Conclusion

Isaiah 58 begins with this passage:

1 Proclaim it aloud without restraint;
raise your voice like a trumpet!
Declare to my people their transgressions,
to the house of Jacob its sins.
2 Yet they importune me daily,
eager to learn my ways,
like a nation practicing righteousness
and not forsaking the precepts of its God.
They inquire of me concerning correct ordinances,
desiring to draw nearer to God:
3 Why, when we fast, do you not notice?
We afflict our bodies and you remain indifferent!
It is because on your fast day you pursue your own ends
and constrain all who toil for you.
4 You fast amid strife and contention,
striking out savagely with the fist.
Your present fasts are not such
as to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is this the manner of fasting I have required,
just a time for men to torment themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and making one’s bed of sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
a day of Jehovah’s good graces?

Likewise, many today are "like" (as in, "in form but not in fashion") a nation practicing righteousness. They misunderstand what a true fast is, and wonder why their fasting does not result in the miracles they seek. Here, he tells them why. They completely miss the point! They focus on all the wrong things! They continue to engage in the Babylonian methods (enslaving others) while afflicting themselves, thinking that fulfills the law of the fast.

6 Is not this the fast I require:
To release from wrongful bondage,
to untie the harness of the yoke,
to set the oppressed at liberty
and abolish all forms of subjection?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry,
to bring home the wretchedly poor,
and when you see men underclad to clothe them,
and not to neglect your own kin?

Pious hypocrisy is straining at religious rites while denying the weightier part of the gospel. Want to get God's attention? Seek out those that are oppressed, suffering, or struggling, no matter how far away they may be or how little responsibility you think you have to them. Release their bonds, lift them from poverty. Invite them into your home, give them clothing. Care for your family members who stand in need. Why will God hear your request for him to hear the words of your mouth when your hands are filled with the blood of those you have the means to assist, but have not due to your preoccupation with religious rites?

Those who practice the true fast will obtain all the promised blessings:

8 Then shall your light break through like the dawn
and your healing speedily appear;
your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of Jehovah will be your rearguard.
9 Then, should you call, Jehovah will respond;
should you cry, he will say, I am here.
Indeed, if you will banish servitude from among you,
and the pointing finger and offensive speech,
10 if you will give of your own to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then shall your light dawn amid darkness
and your twilight become as the noonday.
11 Jehovah will direct you continually;
he will satisfy your needs in the dearth
and bring vigor to your limbs.
And you will become like a well-watered garden,
like a spring of unfailing waters.
12 They who came out of you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
you will restore the foundations of generations ago.
You shall be called a rebuilder of fallen walls,
a restorer of streets for resettlement.