Is the church's policy of fasting one day a month a health law or a finance law? Is its purpose to fill coffers to feed the poor and help the needy; or is it a principle of physical well-being that God instigated to strengthen and purify our bodies?
Or is it both?
If so, what a win-win it is. By missing a couple of meals at the first of each month and donating the money that those meals would have cost, members raise millions of dollars without changing their budgets or sacrificing anything except 24 hours worth of food; and hungry people throughout the world are fed.
And instead of being diminished or compromised in some way by the fast, members are greatly benefited. A little weight is lost, digestive systems are purged and cleansed, and minds and spirits are refreshed and sharply tuned by the physiological changes that fasting brings about.
The idea of periodic fasts for health or weight loss reasons is at the least a highly popular idea these days, if not a genuine fad. We have heard and seen a couple of documentaries and a book review just this past week on the benefits of fasting.
Some advocate long, multiday fasts, but most commonly we hear about the benefits of short fasts that happen regularly every few weeks — exactly what the church has been doing since its organization. It turns out that the body’s organs, like anything or anyone else, need a rest now and then; regular fasts, almost like regular oil changes, seem to keep the whole human machine in tune and in balance.
Plus, fasting teaches us, on the most fundamental and physical level, that we can become the masters of our appetites — that we can control them rather than letting them control us. If we can control our appetite for food, it gives us reason to believe that we can also control our appetites for sex, for power, for recognition, and even for sleep. Regular monthly fasting can be thought of as a conditioning exercise in developing appetite control.
As with so many commandments, our attitude makes all the difference. If we begrudge the fast, hate the hunger and just endure fasting because we are told to do it, few if any of the potential benefits will be ours. But if we do it joyfully (scripture sometimes uses “rejoicing” as a synonym for “fasting”) and with a purpose (fasting should always be accompanied by prayer, and the prayer should be directed to a preconceived and focused need), it can be a highlight and a great starting point for every month of our lives.
We are often asked when children should start fasting, and the best answer is “as soon as they can understand the point of it” (or the two points, with one being to provide a fast offering to help the hungry and the other being to strengthen and renew our bodies and to enable our prayers). Age 8, the age of accountability, is a great time for kids to begin participating in the fast and parents should get them involved not only in doing it, but in thinking about it and in making the donation of the fast offering to the bishop.
May we all learn in our families first to appreciate, and then to truly cherish the marvelous win-win commandment of the fast.