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“Is Not This the Fast that I Have Chosen?”

By Melissa McQuarrie

Like most of you, I’m guessing, I haven’t always understood or relished the law of the fast. On Fast Sundays as a young girl I hated that hollow, gnawing feeling in my stomach and I passed the time in Sunday school fantasizing about my favorite treats—custard tarts, vanilla slices, lamingtons—always resolving to buy two of each at school the next day. After church, while waiting in the car for my parents to finish talking and drive us home, I’d lie on the backseat, moaning, my fingers pressed against my protruding ribs, absolutely certain that once we got home I’d be too weak to walk into the house and I would be left to starve to death in the car. One Fast Sunday I found my brother, Todd, outside in the backyard, standing underneath our mulberry tree, his lips stained with berry juice. Mulberries aren’t particularly tasty, but they are a food source for starving children, as Todd—who was normally a fruit hater—discovered, and soon we were all asking to go outside and play on Fast Sundays.

In my young adulthood fasting became much easier, of course, but Fast Sunday wasn’t exactly my favorite Sunday of the month. Fasting was something I did more out of duty than devotion, and I admit that as a young mother I was secretly glad for the excuse not to fast whenever I was pregnant or nursing. Yes, I had the occasional meaningful fast, but usually my fasting was pretty rote—give up two meals, try to ignore growling stomach, attend church meetings, say a couple of quick prayers through the day, make big Sunday dinner (mouth watering), and then gratefully break fast—and oh, roast chicken and potatoes never tasted so good.

Of course, my children weren’t enthusiastic fasters, either (do you know any children who are?). In our case, we decided to break our children into full-fledged fasting by having them give up one meal when they turned eight, and then the full two meals when they turned twelve. Still, we’ve had our fair share of moaning, groaning, weakness, grumpiness, and complaining on Fast Sundays. And to be honest, though I know the law of the fast was given to us for our benefit, I don’t think I fully understood or took advantage of that law, and the spiritual benefits that result from keeping it.

Not that I fully understand or take advantage of it now, but I think I’m finally getting closer. I’m not sure when the shift occurred for me, but most months now I find myself actually looking forward to Fast Sundays. I’m learning that there is something truly profound and sanctifying about the simple act of giving up food for twenty-four hours—if I do it purposefully, prayerfully, with an attitude of devotion and love. On those Fast Sundays when I try to put off the natural woman for a time and focus on spiritual things; when my fasting moves beyond the realm of rote and duty and when I truly come hungering before the Lord, seeking, humble, earnest, and yearning, then my fast becomes a feast. And yes, over the years I’ve witnessed some dramatic and direct answers to prayers through fasting, but the real miracles, I’m coming to realize, are the subtle and incremental yet significant changes that occur in me each time I fast with devotion and purpose.

None of this is new or earth shattering, of course, but it feels new and important to me, during a period in my life when I need the extra help and spiritual sustenance that fasting provides. Isaiah described the blessings of fasting best: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens?….Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am….And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones; and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isaiah 58: 6, 9, 11).

It took me forty or so years of Fast Sundays to go from that little girl starving in the backseat of the car and sneaking mulberries in the backyard to a woman who delights in the “fatness” and soul-quenching bounties of fasting.

And it was worth every hunger pain.

Do you struggle with fasting? Have your feelings about fasting changed over the years? What do you do to make your fasts more meaningful? How do you help your children live the law of the fast? Are there any experiences you’ve had with fasting that you’d like to share?


About Melissa McQuarrie

(Advisory Board) grew up in Australia and California and now lives in Provo, Utah with her husband, four children, and their dog, Daisy. She served a mission in Peru and has a BA and MA in English from BYU. She loves reading, writing, and quiet afternoons. She does not love grocery shopping. Now that two of her children attend BYU and her youngest children are in high school and junior high, she is trying to adjust to this "emptying nest" stage and still wondering how it snuck up on her so fast.

15 thoughts on ““Is Not This the Fast that I Have Chosen?””

  1. "the real miracles, I’m coming to realize, are the subtle and incremental yet significant changes that occur in me each time I fast with devotion and purpose."

    Love this.

    Fasting is a tough one for me, because I can't do the typical fast due to my health issues. I've tried to find an alternative 'sacrifice' but it never feels quite the same.

  2. Melissa- what is a vanilla slice? I'm curious. And you didn't care for mulberries- you must have had a less than stellar tree- I fondly remember the ones we picked from when we lived in Maryland. They were good.

    I'm glad that fasting has gotten better for you- I'm still not there yet and you give me hope that I just may. I've also heard from many people that fasting is easier as you get older and your metabolism slows a bit and eases the discomfort- or maybe is it is just more maturity- spiritual and physical. It is just difficult now when I can't escape the kitchen when I fast, I still have to feed small kids at this stage.

    Lovely post.

  3. I stopped nursing my little boy this week and your post reminded me that means the return of fasting. I will try to remember some of these ideas about how a fast can become a spiritual feast.

  4. Michelle, thank you for reminding me that there are many who can't fast due to health issues. I'm wondering if those of you who can't fast would be willing to share some alternatives that have worked for you.

    And Sandra, a vanilla slice is a tasty dessert popular in Australia (where I grew up), made of a flaky pastry bottom and top and filled with vanilla custard. Here is more info (and a recipe and picture!): http://bakingbites.com/2009/11/vanilla-slice/ . And it's been years since I had mulberries, so I should try them again—I might like them better now. And you brought up a good point: I do think my metabolism slowing down a bit has made fasting easier; I don't feel as hungry as I used to. One of the advantages of entering one's mature years, I guess. =)

  5. Fasting without a purpose is just starving. Fasting is still very difficult for me–oh, the headaches! But when I come before the Lord with a purpose, and particularly when I'm fasting for someone I love, it is not only do-able but beautiful. Still, fast Sunday isn't exactly quick, is it? 🙂

  6. I struggle with fasting (like you, I was always secretly grateful when I was pregnant or nursing), but I also have a strong testimony of fasting because I've had some powerful fasting experiences–usually when I was part of a ward or family fast. I think having a purpose I care about is critical. otherwise, like Aundrea says, it's just starving!

  7. beautifully written.
    it made me weepy — so many blessings from fasting. and interesting how our perspectives change. thank you.

  8. I heard a great talk a few years ago that totally changed my perspective on fasting, and now I love the opportunity (although it's still sometimes hard to remember that in the 23rd hour). Especially in my recent weight loss efforts, I've treasured the monthly opportunity to prove that my spirit is stronger than my flesh. The most meaningful fasts for me have been when food is just one of many worldly temptations I give up for 24 hours; then am I truly able to commune with my Father in Heaven.

  9. Vanilla slices are fantastic creations (and still available in all Aussie bakeries, just so you know Melissa!) Having a dessert ready for after breaking our fast makes the fasting easier for my boys – they associate fasting with sweetness, and that's starting to spread into their prayers and attitude towards fasting as well.

    Fasting is difficult for me but I've found somewhere I started adopting the tithing phrase "prove me herewith" for anything the Lord asks, even fasting. I say in my prayers "I need help doing this" and He steps in and makes it possible. Sometimes by giving me focus in my prayers, sometimes in distraction, but makes it possible. Not easy, but possible.

    As for my boys, my youngest fasts for one meal (harder now we are on afternoon church meetings) though he acts like his stomach thinks his throat's been cut. He's 10 and dreading having to give up more meals. My oldest is 14 and at 12 decided for himself when he was going to fast and for how many meals. He now has a full fast (though is like a toddler pulling at my skirt if dinner is five minutes late!)

    Thanks for the Isaiah quote, it's getting highlighted in my scriptures.

  10. Melissa, the voice in your post was so genuine, un-ornamented and deliciously vulnerable. I think you gave people permission to relish and share their "subtle and incremental yet significant changes".

    My most significant experience with fasting happened when I was about eleven, when my Dad abruptly decided to quit his job with the Foreign Service (I had been born and spent my entire life over seas up to that point).

    We moved from Brussels, Belgium to Manassas, Virginia. And all eight of us had to adjust from a live-in maid, a four story house (with a Mercedes and a BMW nestled in the garage), private schools (with tuition exceeding that of Harvard)complete with week long field trips to other countries; to a three bed-room town house (in a neighborhood where three doors down a policeman got shot breaking up a drunken brawl) where frequently clogged toilets overflowed, a tired, smelly station wagon sprawled in our tiny parking space out front, and I experienced my first glimpse of a washer, dryer, and stove and the crash course in how to use them.

    The litany for our fast every month was "PLEASE help Dad find a job.". And He did. Three years later. "My sister described those years as "the arm-pit" of her life.

    But looking back, I'm grateful to have learned at a young age that some answers don't come right away. Fasting isn't a magic bullet meant to change your circumstances in an instant. I think that, for me, it's more of a way to access peace and hope in the middle of unsolvable problems. More often than naught fasting doesn't change the conditions I find myself entangled in; but it does change me.

  11. Thank you so much, everyone, for your thoughtful replies. Aundrea, this is so true: "Fasting without a purpose is just starving." And this made me smile: "fast Sunday isn’t exactly quick, is it?"—when my siblings and I were young we used to say, "It's not Fast Sunday, it's slow Sunday!"

    Allison, I loved this: "I’ve treasured the monthly opportunity to prove that my spirit is stronger than my flesh."

    Kellie, what I'd give for a vanilla slice right now! And I love your "prove me herewith" approach to fasting—it shows your trust and faith in the Lord. And maybe I'll break my next fast with a yummy dessert. That's a pretty great idea. =)

    Merry Michelle, your last paragraph was pretty profound: "Fasting isn't a magic bullet meant to change your circumstances in an instant… It's more of a way to access peace and hope in the middle of unsolvable problems." I think I'm finally learning this as well.

  12. I've had my share of non-fasting years b/c of pregnancy and/or nursing. I will always remember one time though when I wasn't nursing and was between pregnancies. I felt like I was on a spiritual plateau but didn't know how to get off it. Right about then the Ensign published an article about the benefits/uses of fasting as an aid to spiritual progress. So I tried it. And I'll be darned! It worked! Fasting that day kick started me right off that plateau!

  13. I fast weekly – at least 1 meal 2 – 3 days a week. I find it helps in all areas of my life.

    My largest lesson came from in my extreme "lean years" of my early 20's. I was explaining to this gentleman that i had no food to eat and no $. He calmly smiled and said, "What a wonderful opportunity. God wants you to fast and pray for others. You must not ask for $ or food, accept this calling and be grateful for it. You must not let others know you are hungry, you must look welll and clean and smile and answer you are great when people ask. And your growth will be tremendous.

    He was right. And after the hungry years – i decided to keep it going weekly. But it has never been as life changing as taking the "opportunity" in front of me and putting myself 2nd. Not trying to change circumstances, but letting them change me.

  14. Melissa – this was a beautiful post! I have loved fasting less since having all my children. I am out of practice you might say. At least in going about it the right way. So I was grateful for your thoughts. These lines particularly,

    "And yes, over the years I’ve witnessed some dramatic and direct answers to prayers through fasting, but the real miracles, I’m coming to realize, are the subtle and incremental yet significant changes that occur in me each time I fast with devotion and purpose."

    And I've always loved those verses about fasting from Isaiah 58. They help me center my fast. I am committing to do better. Thank you.


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