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A good friend who is also a member of the LDS Church was visiting me recently, and her visit happened to fall on what members of the Church commonly refer to as fast Sunday. On the first Sunday of each month we are encouraged to fast—to forgo food and drink for approximately twenty-four hours and donate the money we would normally have spent on food to those in need. We are also encouraged to use this period of fasting to strengthen our church community, petition God for those we love, and draw closer to Him. As my friend and I approached the end of our fast, a tender, bright contentment and stillness settled in my soul. My friend, acknowledging a similar feeling, said, “I’m so grateful to have been taught to fast. I never would have thought this up on my own.”

I too would never have thought up fasting on my own. In fact I fasted many times before I saw any spiritual benefit in the practice, and I can still go through the motions of fasting without feeling much of anything except hungry. But increasingly I notice that sincere fasting and prayer brings a particular peace into my life that seems to come in no other way. I feel more fully myself, more grounded in my relationship with God, more sensitive to spiritual impressions, more genuine in my relationships with others when I fast.

Like exercise (something else I never would have thought up on my own), fasting can be difficult for me and doesn’t necessarily yield immediate results or satisfaction. I think of another acquaintance, a spiritual woman who heard of the LDS practice of fasting and decided to try it. Her assessment was, “I’ll never do that again! That was ridiculously hard, and all I got out of it was cranky and hungry.” Fasting is definitely an acquired taste, and it helps to have social support, an expectation from an early age that one can succeed, and testimonials of the spiritual benefits that can come from fasting to help a person persist in this practice long enough to contact the finely-tuned spiritual experiences that can come once the hurdles of physical discomfort are cleared. It is still challenging for me to fast in such a way as to allow these experiences to surface, but I am grateful to have been taught to fast.

People from many faith traditions fast and pray; these are hardly unique ideas. But they are one part of a broad lifestyle of spiritual commitment that has led me to feel, recognize, and value the Spirit of God. The teachings of the LDS Church awakened me to the possibility that a fallible, ordinary woman can come to know God, and have shown me a path to get there. That path includes many elements that, like fasting, I never would have thought up on my own. In fact, some of those elements have been not only unlikely but at first troubling. I have had to remind myself that Jesus’s teachings were also troubling at times, even to those who knew Him best. But I have been on the path long enough now to say with confidence that it has led me to the One I have sought.

Like many people who have longed for a close and loving relationship with God and more regular access to spiritual impressions and direction, I used to wonder why God seemed so distant when I wanted so much to be close to Him. In recent years I have increasingly realized that I have been the one who has kept Him far away, not so much by my disobedience as by my restlessness, my distractibility, my impatience, my blindness, and, especially, my fear. Intimacy is hard enough to tolerate in human relationships, where closeness reminds us of just how vulnerable we are, how often we have been disappointed and hurt, how much we have to lose. God, for me at least, has been even harder to let in than people. The LDS Church teaches without apology that God can be found, that He wants to be found, and that ordinary people can reach Him. Fasting, praying, studying scriptural texts, paying tithes and offerings, ordering one’s life and relationships, serving other people in systematic ways, and a host of other aspects of what it means to try to live as a disciple of Christ, a saint – these are the spiritual disciplines that have helped me gain the spiritual muscle I needed in order to tolerate God’s closeness.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I have found much that has challenged my scientific and scholarly training, my common sense, my somewhat liberal inclinations, and my personal comfort. I have experienced periods of doubt, dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and disapproval. Still, I have come to love the Church. I love the comprehensiveness of its doctrine, the scope of its charitable service, and the goodness of so many of its people. But I especially love the hope that it holds out to me that sincere people who are willing to submit to the Lord’s tutoring can receive the Holy Ghost and be changed and sanctified by His influence. I have felt that influence teach me, change me, lead me to understand and receive the atonement of Jesus Christ, and prepare me to seek and endure the consuming fire of God’s love. I believe there are many paths that sincere people may follow to increase their spirituality and faith. My experience has been with this path, and it has led me to God. Because I believe Jesus Christ’s teaching that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father but by Christ, I trust this path to be of Him.

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Wendy Ulrich holds a Ph.D. in psychology and education from the University of Michigan and an M.B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a practicing psychologist for over twenty years, and is a former president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists. She is the founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), a group of mental health professionals committed to enhancing the spiritual and emotional resilience of LDS women and their loved ones. She is author of Forgiving Ourselves: Getting Back Up When We Let Ourselves Down (2008, Deseret Book); Weakness is Not Sin: The Liberating Distinction that Awakens our Strengths (2009, Deseret Book); and, with her husband Dave Ulrich, The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Deliver Value (2010, McGraw Hill; thewhyofwork.com). They have three children.

Posted April 2010