Thomas S. Monson, the prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the true name of the Mormon Church), told a story in November of 1983 that explains one of the uses of fasting and prayer. President Monson was serving as a mission president in Toronto, Canada. This means he oversaw all the missionaries in the area, some young men who arrive at the age of nineteen, and some retired couples.
One missionary became extremely sick and doctors believed he might not survive the surgery he required. His parents were contacted and soon arrived to be with him. President Monson and the father of the young missionary gave him a priesthood blessing. This is done by having the men place their hands on his heads and praying for God’s will to be accomplished.
The missionary, Elder Davidson, was in a hospital room with five other husky and usually hungry men. While he was having his surgery, the nurse arrived with breakfast, a larger than usual portion because the men always wanted more than they were given. However, when she tried to serve it to the first man, he refused it. Each of the other four patients also refused breakfast that morning. When the nurse asked what the problem was, they explained that Elder Davidson had told them a lot about his religious beliefs. One thing they had learned was that he believed that if people fasted and prayed, they could bring about miracles. They had decided to fast and pray that day for Elder Davidson, even though they weren’t Mormon themselves.
Not only was the surgery a success, but when Thomas S. Monson tried to pay the surgeon, he refused to take any money. He said that it was the first time he’d ever done a surgery where he felt his hands were guided by a higher power. Because of this, he felt it inappropriate for him to take payment.
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Mormons follow the Biblical teachings of fasting and prayer. Let’s look at fasting first.
For Mormons, fasting means to go without food or drink of any kind, even water. They do this once a month if they are physically able to do so, usually the first Sunday of the month. They fast for twenty-four hours, which requires them to miss only two meals if they time it properly. During this time, they spend extra time in prayer, and often choose a purpose for their fasting, just as the men in the above story focused their fast on helping their friend survive surgery. Mormons might fast to gain a testimony of a particular doctrine, to help a struggling family member or friend, or to give them strength to confront a challenging situation in their own lives.
Fasting allows them to focus on spiritual matters and also humbles them, making them more receptive to God’s teachings. During the fast, they will pray and then wait for answers and because they are making this sacrifice, they are better able to recognize the answers given.
As an interesting side note, when Mormons fast, they donate the money they would have spent of food and drink—and often an additional sum as well—to a special fund used only to help the poor. None of the money is used for administrative costs, so all of it goes to feed someone who would otherwise be hungry, homeless, or without other necessities.
Jesus taught that fasting could strengthen us spiritually and allow us to bring about miracles that cannot be accomplished any other way. (See Matthew 17:14-21.)
Prayer is a critical part of the fasting process. Jesus taught his followers to pray and he prayed to His Father Himself, sometimes publicly to set the example. Mormons are noted for the number of times they pray to God in a given day. They are taught to pray each morning and evening in a personal prayer, a couple prayer if married, and in a family prayer if they have children or others living in their homes. In addition, they pray prior to meals and before scripture study. Then, of course, they also talk to God at any time during the day when they feel a need or desire to do so. Many keep an ongoing conversation going all day long.
The Mormon religion started with a prayer, making that doctrine especially meaningful to its members. When Joseph Smith, the first prophet, was fourteen, he read James 1:5 in the New Testament. It said that if you lacked wisdom—needed to know something—you could ask God and it promised God would respond. He took the scripture to heart and went into the woods to pray, where God and Jesus Christ appeared to Him to answer His question about which church to join.
Of course, most people don’t get quite that direct an answer to their prayers; however, God does promise to answer every meaningful and righteous prayer. He may answer in three ways—yes, no, or not yet—but He always answers.
To receive answers to prayers, Mormons follow a prescribed pattern. They do not use written and recited prayers except in a few formal situations and never in their personal prayers. (Recited prayers are reserved for situations like blessing the sacrament, similar to communion, or baptism.) Although there aren’t exact words, there is a pattern which is very simple.
Mormons begin their prayer by addressing God by name. They use a simple phrase such as, “Dear Heavenly Father” or “My Father in Heaven.” Next, they offer thanks for the blessings God has given them. In this way, before they start asking for things, they are reminded of the good He has already done and of His attentiveness to their needs. They also demonstrate to God they are paying attention themselves and that they are not taking these gifts for granted.
These expressions of gratitude can be followed by requests for help, although Mormons sometimes offer thanks and nothing else. Mormons believe they should not treat God like Santa Claus, asking Him for things they can do for themselves. A person who needs a job will still sit at the computer looking for work, rather than going off to play and expecting God to drop a job in his lap. He will trust God to show him where to look for the job he needs, but he will continue to look. A Mormon will also act as if he expects his prayer to be answered. For instance, if he prays for an opportunity to introduce someone to Jesus Christ, he will begin to learn more and to decide how to discuss the Savior, even though he can’t yet think of anyone who doesn’t already know about Jesus.
Mormons close their prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, because we pray to God through Him. The prayer is then ended with the traditional “Amen.”
For Mormons, prayer serves many purposes. It helps them make God a partner in their lives, a part of everything they do. It also allows them to build a close, personal relationship to Him so that when they return home, they know Him well. They build trust in God and learn to recognize how He communicates with them.
God promised, in James 1:5, that He would answer our prayers. Mormons believe God keeps His promises and that if He says he will give us wisdom, He will do so in a way we can recognize. Although some religions teach people not to pray for truth because they won’t know who is answering the prayer, Mormons trust that God can do anything—including making His answers identifiable. For that reason, after they pray, they are taught to remain quietly on their knees, waiting to see if God would like to speak with them. Prayer is not a one-way communication.
Mormons generally research their problems first and come to a conclusion on their own. Then they go to God for confirmation of their choices. When we have made the right choice, God fills our heart with a feeling of peace and joy. Satan cannot create peace or joy. When we are wrong, we often feel confusion or a “stupor of thought.” This tells us we need to start over with the study process.
The more we pray and turn to God in faith, the greater our faith grows and the closer our relationship to Him will be.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.