September Young Women Lesson: Why do we fast?
FOREWORD: There are some things to be aware of when teaching a lesson on fasting (especially with young women). Many LDS youth are growing up in societies that idolize female thinness and put an immense amount of pressure on women to obsess over and meticulously monitor and perfect their appearance, and it’s not a secret that Mormon culture (at least in some parts of the world) often adds to rather than works against this. With this context, and because the word “fasting” can be used to describe both a religious ritual and a fad diet (that’s especially big right now), I think there’s a very real danger in these kinds of discussions of equating self-inflicted hunger with holiness—sending the message that food as a general rule is something that dulls or diminishes a connection with God, and that our worthiness (especially as women) hinges on our ability to exercise extreme control over (rather than be mindful of and kind to) our bodies. Studies show, too, that while religious fasting can improve body image for people with low levels of “eating distress,” religious fasting can also “exacerbate or disguise eating disorder behaviors” and work as “a trigger for those at risk for or in the process of developing an eating disorder.” Please allow all of this to inform what you do and do not say in this lesson.
Beginning: What is the purpose of fasting ?
Start by posing the first question, the last two, or all three:
“What is the purpose of fasting? What are some good motivations to fast? What shouldn’t be our motivation to fast?”
Have them read the following scriptures to answer the question(s):
- Alma 17:2-3 (fasting to increase ability to prophecy and receive revelation)
- Esther 4:10-17 (fasting as a way to come together as a community in solidarity towards a higher goal; to call down increased divine help)
- Isaiah 58:3-12 (fast with the purpose of more deliberately “approaching… God,” that we might gain greater clarity and strength to rid ourselves of ungodliness [“loose the bands of wickedness”] and to be more aware of and offer greater help those in need [“undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free… to deal thy bread to the hungry… and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house.”].
- Alma 6:6 (fasting along with “mighty prayer” in behalf of others)
- Helamen 3:35 (fasting to reacquaint ourselves with our values, recenter our lives around Christ, and make a more dedicated and concerted effort to make space for stillness and for the Spirit to dwell within us)
Fasting in other faith traditions
Ask the young women, “Are Mormons the only religion that encourages its members to fast?” (They’ll almost certainly say no). ,
Ask them for examples of religions that include fasting in their spiritual practices and what they know about the rules and traditions around fasting in these traditions (they will likely know some things about Muslims with Ramadan, Catholics with Lent, etc.). If it were me, I’d add a bit to what they already know and also throw in a few fast facts (pun intended) about how fasting is approached in traditions like the Baha’i faith, Hinduism, Judaism, and/or Protestant religions like Lutheranism. (If you are going to use the links I’ve provided to do this, maybe give a “this is from Wikipedia” disclaimer.) This shouldn’t take up a huge chunk of time.
Please note: only include this section if you can model talking about the beliefs and practices of other faiths with sincere respect and if you are willing to respond constructively to any disparaging comments that might be made about other faiths (I’ve never had a young woman say something unkind or inappropriate in these kinds of discussions, but I’m sure it can happen). The point here is not to mock or condemn different ways of fasting or to somehow prove that Mormonism’s way is “best.” Rather, the goal here is simply to remind the youth that Mormonism doesn’t exist in a vacuum; that people from all over the world (and not just other Christians) fast for many of the same reasons we do. The fact that Mormonism shares many values and practices with faith traditions from around the world (and not just other Christians) is an eye-opening, heart-softening, and connective thing to remind the youth of every so often.
When there needs to be an alternative to going without food
Ask the class, “Are there times when people should fast in ways that don’t include giving up food? What are some situations when fasting by giving up food and/or water might not be best?”
- When pregnant (not good for the baby) or breastfeeding (can lower milk supply)
- When experiencing a health condition where fasting wouldn’t be safe (e.g., many doctors recommend that diabetics not fast)
- When we are too young or not fully able to make the decision about whether or not we want to fast by giving up food
- When someone has or is recovering from an eating disorder or experiences lots of anxiety around eating and/or body image (if this one isn’t mentioned, bring it up yourself. When I taught this lesson today, I went over most of the things I included in this lesson’s foreword.)
Share this quote by President Joseph F. Smith:
“Many are subject to weakness, others are delicate in health, and others have nursing babies; of such it should not be required to fast. Neither should parents compel their little children to fast… Better to teach them the principle, and let them observe It when they are old enough to choose intelligently” (Gospel Doctrine, p. 244).
(I recommend emphasizing the part that says we ought to choose for ourselves whether/how to fast and remind them that it’s none of our business how/whether others do.)
Quickly review the purposes of religious fasting, and then ask them what some alternatives might be for those who shouldn’t fast by giving up food.
- -Temporarily remove distractions like gaming and social media apps from your device and instead using your phone to listen to more inspirational music, spend more time reading scriptures or other uplifting poems or prose, etc.
- -Spend the time making a concerted effort to be aware of and ask for strength to overcome bad habits (e.g., making unkind mental judgments about people, not practicing good listening skills with family members, etc.)
Important Elements of a Proper Fast
While not eating doesn’t necessarily need to be part of a proper fast, there are important elements that need to be present in our fast in order to take advantage of the purpose of fasting.
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin taught, “Without prayer, fasting is not complete fasting… If we want our fasting to be more than just going without eating, we must lift our hearts, our minds, and our voices in communion with our Heavenly Father. Fasting, coupled with mighty prayer, is powerful. It can fill our minds with the revelations of the Spirit. It can strengthen us against times of temptation.”
Ask, “Why do you think prayer is such an important part of fasting?”
- Providing temporal help for those in need
Elder L. Tom Perry taught that of all the purposes of fasting, the first is that “it provides assistance to the needy through the contribution of fast offerings, consisting of the value of meals from which we abstain.”
What do fast offerings in our church go towards?
- Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin taught, “Fast offerings are used for one purpose only: to bless the lives of those in need. Every dollar given to the bishop as a fast offering goes to assist the poor” (April 2001 General Conference).
- Elder Eyring taught, “Part of your fast offering and mine this month will be used to help someone, somewhere, whose relief the Lord will feel as if it were His own” (April 2015 General Conference).
Remind them that while they probably don’t pay fast offerings right now as teens, Isaiah taught that fasting with the intent to serve others is an important part of fasting: to “undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free… to deal thy bread to the hungry… and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house” (quoting Isaiah 58 again).
When we fast for something that doesn’t “come true”
When I taught this lesson yesterday, one of my young women made a comment that led me to add this section to my lesson. With what seemed to be some disappointment and confusion, she remarked that she knows that God “is supposed to hear us better when we fast” (rather than just pray), but that she has fasted for things that haven’t “come true.” Responding to this kind of observation obviously isn’t comfortable, but I think it’s an important topic to start to address more honestly and openly with the youth.
- If you need to introduce the topic, I would start with a question with an obvious answer, like “When we fast for something specific, like a loved one’s return to health, is there a guarantee attached that everything we ask for will happen?” (They’ll almost certainly say no.)
- At this point, I’m hesitant to give a one-size-fits-all recommendation for how to proceed, so I’ll just summarize what my response was today to the young woman in my class; take it for what it’s worth.
- First, I tried to validate her concerns. I told her that I’ve also said lots of prayers and participated in many fasts where I asked God for something that didn’t “come true.” That it can be tough to realize as we get older that prayer isn’t as clear-cut as we may have believed it to be as kids (and that realizing this isn’t good or bad—just a sign that we’re growing up.)
- I also assured her that unanswered prayers don’t mean that we didn’t pray or fast “right,” that what we wanted was evil, that we weren’t being faithful or “good” enough at the time to receive the answer we wanted, or that God doesn’t hear us. I told her that there’s a lot I don’t know or understand about prayer and God and how God hears and works with us, but that I don’t think a loving God would be more willing to give guidance and support to those who fast than he is to those who have just prayed for something, just like he isn’t somehow more willing to hear prayers that use “thee” and “thine” than he is to hear prayers that use everyday language, etc. I told her that I think that fasting is more for us—an opportunity for us to make a more dedicated and concerted effort to make space for prayer, sincere reflection, and Grace to enter our hearts; to feel gratitude for all of the good in our lives and to turn our attention to the needs of others and how we can be more aware of, kind to, and helpful towards other people.
I haven’t had enough time or mental energy to reflect much on how I could have improved that response (although I think responding with more questions rather than just straight talking at them would have been good), but there it is.
Conclusion: End by briefly bearing testimony of a principle you taught that is especially meaningful to you, giving them a few minutes to think about and make plan to make fasting more personally meaningful for them in the future, and/or expressing your love for and confidence in them.