I Have a Question

Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

How can we teach the law of the fast to our children so that their fasts become a time of maximum spiritual growth and benefit?

Response by Sterling C. Hilton, high councilor in the Baltimore Maryland Stake and a member of the Loch Raven Ward.

Fasting is a commandment that the Lord, through revelation, has given to Church members, both young and old (see D&C 88:76). Fasting, along with prayer, can bring great blessings. By combining fasting’s physical requirements—abstaining from food and drink—with its spiritual aspects, we can experience the “rejoicing and prayer” that the Lord equates with fasting (see D&C 59:13–14).

Scripture indicates that the Lord rejects fasts that are not observed in the way he has instructed. He reprimanded the ancient Israelites for their failure to observe a proper fast:

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? …

“Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isa. 58:6–7).

Church leaders have explained that a proper fast day observance includes abstaining from food and drink for two consecutive meals, attending fast and testimony meeting, and giving generous fast offerings.

President Joseph F. Smith said: “The Lord has instituted the fast on a reasonable and intelligent basis. … Those who can are required to comply thereto; it is a duty from which they cannot escape; but let it be remembered that the observance of the fast day by abstaining [for two consecutive meals] from food and drink is not an absolute rule, it is no iron-clad law to us, but it is left with the people as a matter of conscience, to exercise wisdom and discretion. …

“But those should fast who can, and all classes among us should be taught to save the meals which they would eat, or their equivalent, for the poor. None are exempt from this; it is required of the Saints, old and young in every part of the Church” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. [1939], 244).

Parents and children alike may find fasting an unpleasant experience if they do not fast as the Lord has directed. Here are some suggestions gleaned from a study of the scriptures and the words of the Lord’s servants that may help turn fasting into a time of spiritual growth for children.

Teach children to fast with a purpose. Fasting without a purpose accomplishes little benefit, whereas fasting with a purpose brings spiritual strength. It is important to take time before beginning a fast to help children understand the general purpose behind fasting and the specific purpose for a particular fast. Children who fast for a purpose have something besides hunger on which to focus their attention.

Virginia H. Pearce, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, related how a Primary teacher taught her students the importance of fasting with a purpose.

“After talking with their parents, she arranged for the children to visit Brother Dibble, a ward member who was very ill. As they visited, Sister McRae explained that their class had learned in Primary about fasting. Most of the children had never fasted before, and it was their desire, as a class, to fast and pray for Brother Dibble on the following fast Sunday. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he expressed in tender words his gratitude—for them, the gospel, and the principle of fasting. On Sunday, having fasted, Sister McRae and her class members knelt together in their classroom to pray for Brother Dibble and conclude their fast” (Ensign, Nov. 1993, 80–81).

We can teach children there are many worthy purposes of fasting, such as healing the sick and afflicted (see 2 Sam. 12:16; Matt. 17:18–21), overcoming sin (see Isa. 58:6), gaining a testimony (see Alma 5:46), receiving spiritual strength (see Matt. 4:1–11), being delivered from enemies (see Esth. 4:16), gaining humility (see Ps. 35:13), receiving revelation (see Alma 17:3), spreading the gospel (see Alma 6:6; Alma 17:9), and becoming full of joy and rejoicing (see D&C 59:13–14).

Fasting individually or together with a common purpose—whether as a family, class, or ward—is an important way to teach children the principle of fasting while generating unity and love.

  • Begin and end fasts with prayer. Our children can be taught to understand that there is power in being united in prayer and fasting (see 3 Ne. 27:1–2). Throughout the scriptures, fasting and prayer often are mentioned together. This is quite natural since we need to communicate with Heavenly Father regarding the purpose of our fast and petition him for help and blessings. We can teach our children that humble and sincere prayer gives meaning to our sacrifice of food and drink, and that fasting humbles us and helps attune us to spiritual things. Even small children, whether or not they are able to participate in fasting, can be called upon to offer prayers during a family fast.

  • Give a generous fast offering. Children need to know that fasting is incomplete if we fail to give a fast offering. One of the purposes of fasting is to provide physical relief to the poor and needy (see Isa. 58:7). The promises in Malachi 3:8–12 [Mal. 3:8–12] apply to those who pay both tithes and offerings.

In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin teaches the people that helping the poor is requisite to retaining a remission of their sins (see Mosiah 4:26). And Amulek teaches that our prayers are vain if we “turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted,” and that we must “impart of [our] substance, if [we] have, to those who stand in need” (Alma 34:28).

Fasting provides all people, regardless of age or circumstance, the opportunity to receive the wonderful blessings promised to those who help the less fortunate. A monthly fast gives parents the opportunity to teach their children these principles and to involve children in the payment of fast offerings. Even young children can participate by handing the envelope containing the offering and the completed Tithing and Other Offerings form (31592) to the bishop.

Be patient with children. Because going without food is difficult for little children, parents have been counseled against compulsion. President Joseph F. Smith urged parents not to “compel their little children to fast. I have known children to cry for something to eat on fast day. In such cases, going without food will do them no good. Instead, they dread the day to come, and in place of hailing it, dislike it; while the compulsion engenders a spirit of rebellion in them, rather than a love for the Lord and their fellows” (Gospel Doctrine, 244).

Young children should not be expected to fast for the recommended two meals. However, after children have been baptized and are taught about fasting, they should be encouraged to practice this gospel principle to the extent of their ability. When children are able, perhaps they can at first abstain from food and drink for a few hours, then gradually expand their fast to two meals. One suggestion is to encourage children 8 to 12 years old to fast for one meal; children older than 12 may be encouraged to fast for two meals.

We can acknowledge our children’s hunger without focusing on it. We may need to remind them why they are fasting and help them understand that their physical sacrifice will result in both physical and spiritual blessings.

As parents set a proper example by opening and closing their fasts with prayer, fasting with specific intent, paying generous fast offerings, and acknowledging their children’s efforts and sacrifice, their children will learn that fasting can be a time of spiritual renewal, blessing, and strength.

[photos] Photography by Maren Mecham