A forty-day fast for missionary work

My junior companion kept coming up with excuses why he didn’t talk to the people he passed on the street. “He’s not looking at me.” “He looked busy.” “He was looking at his watch.” As a missionary in Tokyo, if you wanted to talk to men, you didn’t knock on doors, since the only people at home were harried housewives and little old ladies. You went down to the train station and waved people down. Streeting, we called it. It required a little more initiative than going door-to-door, because your next target wasn’t as well defined, but you were always assured of being able to talk to someone face-to-face if you were willing to make the effort to open your mouth in the first place.

“Why didn’t you stop that guy? He walked right by you!”

“He was wearing headphones. He wasn’t going to stop to talk to me.”

Arrant nonsense. If he didn’t know it, at least I did, and I was going to prove it to him.

A few minutes later, a young man connected by his ears to his backpack by a pair of earbuds approached us at a brisk pace, his gaze firmly in front of him. If he had noticed us, he gave no sign of it. I nudged my companion. “Watch this.” I turned slightly towards the oncoming walker, took a small step towards him, and gave a slight bow. “Sumimasen….

The man had passed by me before he realized I was addressing him. He wheeled around, took a few steps back towards me until he was standing squarely before me, pulled the buds out of his ears, and asked me politely what I wanted. I explained that my friend and I were missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and were sharing a message that was important to us. “And”, I added, “I couldn’t help noticing that you were listening to something. Do you mind my asking what it is?”

“I’m listening to the Bible,” the man responded matter-of-factly.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. In all my months of teaching the gospel in Japan, I could have counted on my fingers the number of people I had talked to who had ever opened a Bible, let alone walked around town listening to it on their Walkmen. Surely this was the golden investigator who would help my companion learn a lesson about the value of opening his mouth.

The ensuing discussion was fascinating. Our new acquaintance not only listened to the Bible, he understood it better than anyone I had ever met. You know that talk that circulates around Sunday Schools in the church about the guy who makes a list of the 17 points of the true church based on his study of the Bible, then finds the LDS Church and discovers that he’s found what he’s looking for? This guy was even better. He didn’t just have an assorted list of teachings found in the Bible; he had managed to derive most of the foundational principles of LDS theology through his study. I spent most of the conversation nodding my head in agreement and wondering when we would be able to schedule him for baptism.

He had gotten through the Atonement, faith, repentance, baptism by immersion by authority, tithing, the prohibition parts of the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity when the discussion finally got around to the gift of the Holy Ghost. I shared with him my conviction that the testimony of the Holy Ghost was available to all who desired and asked for it with a sincere heart, and he fully agreed with me. “In fact, I’m beginning preparations now so I can fast for forty days so that I can receive the witness of the Holy Ghost, just as Moses and Jesus did.”

The other day, I was walking down the stairs, and somehow I thought that I had reached the bottom of the flight when in fact there was one more step to go. Instead of landing on solid ground, my foot tried to gain traction on nothing but air, and I ended up falling to the ground. I wasn’t seriously hurt, but very confused, dazed, and upset, kind of like I felt at that moment when I realized that our golden streeting contact was not, in fact, going to be baptized into our church, but was instead probably going to end up hospitalized for severe dehydration and malnourishment at some point in the not-too-distant future. I tried to find common ground by expressing my belief in the spiritual power to be gained through fasting, even for periods as short as 48 or even 24 hours. No, I was told, a true testimony only comes through denying oneself food and drink for the same amount of time that it took God to flood the earth.

We never saw our Bible-listening friend again. I still think of him every time I read of someone in the scriptures fasting for 40 days, and wonder if he ever accomplished what he had hoped to do. And I thought of him last month when in missionary correlation meeting one of the sister missionaries suggested that we fast for 40 days in our ward for missionary work.

Unlike the man who I had stopped on the street, Sister Ray, the missionary who proposed the idea, understood that generally it is not wisdom for any one person to fast for 40 days, even if he or she is trying to lose holiday weight. Instead, we fast as a ward. Every day for 40 consecutive days, at least one family in the ward volunteers to fast, specifically for missionary work in the ward. This includes, but is not limited to, fasting to receive strength and guidance in one’s own missionary efforts, fasting on behalf of the ward and full-time missionaries in the ward, and fasting for a specific investigator, less-active, or part-member family. It’s a goal that almost anyone can set and achieve and receive benefits from. It keeps the ward focused on missionary work for an extended period of time, and unites us in a common cause and action in which we depend on each other to accomplish our collective goal, and reap the benefits both collectively as a ward and individually as we fast.

Our bishop endorsed the idea, and the calendar has been pretty much filled. We’re starting on January 24th, and ending on fast Sunday in March, when we will fast together as a ward. for missionary work in our area. I may not be able to fast for 40 days on my own, but working together with my family and friends, we can accomplish many great and marvelous things.

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About Ivan Wolfe

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was over 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has six kids and four stepkids.

16 thoughts on “A forty-day fast for missionary work

  1. Annually? That would be cool. Maybe we could schedule it right before Easter every year.

  2. Bryce, I definitely endorse these group fasts. Good things can happen. On the subject of Moses and Jesus fasting for 40 days, my wife has the interesting theory that they may have fasted for 40 DAYS (sunup to sundown) and then eaten during the nights. Kind of like Ramadan today. I hope your Japanese friend did this rather than die.

    When I was in Japan (just for a few days on a business trip), all of the people I met knew who the Mormons were at their workplaces or in their neighborhoods. It was just interesting for me to see that there was a high awareness of the Church and Mormons, perhaps even higher than in the U.S.

  3. My ward completed a 40-day fast for missionary work just last year. At the end of 40 days–ward temple night.

  4. I don’t know. We have done this in our ward. I think it is a silly idea. Why would the benefits accumulate through different people? Why would this be any better than forty people fasting on the same day?

    In fact, if you get enough people together, why not break it up into 2 hour sections. I will take the time from 2 am to 4 am. You can go from 4 am to 6 am. Surely the Lord will poor out his blessing in this way.

    Try this, then try another gimmick. When you get to increasing your testimonies let me know. That is where real lasting change will come.

  5. If I recall correctly, my parent’s stake was going to do this but GA’s put a stop to it.

    Like #7, I tend to be wary of these kinds of things–the newest “better” way to do missionary work.

  6. I’m typically not a fan of this sort of thing. If you want referrals, just ask. I had more success from just asking for referrals than I ever had from some special program.

    I knew a guy on my mission who was told be his Church to fast for 40 days, he went insane.

  7. It’s interesting to see how people respond to things. I think at times we suffer from having had so many programs in the church. It seems to have led to an in-depth skepticism and resistance to these approaches unless they come from the top leadership.

    Personally, as a recently released ward mission leader, this looks to me like something that is do-able. Everyone is focused on a specific purpose, prays and fasts, agreeing (for a limited time) to fast and pray for that purpose. It may be a real way to receive special blessings from the Lord. Of course, everyone would have to be on the same page. That’s why I think the volunteer aspect is crucial.

  8. Yes, and the moment higher leadership catches wind of this kind of stuff becoming a regular thing, they will drop the hammer on it and tell the wards/stakes involved to discontinue the practice.

    And rightly so I say.

  9. Bryce,

    When were you in Tokyo? I was there in 90-92 & we also tracted out a guy who told us the same thing. I was in the Tokyo North mission.

  10. “Yes, and the moment higher leadership catches wind of this kind of stuff becoming a regular thing, they will drop the hammer on it and tell the wards/stakes involved to discontinue the practice.”

    They must have done that rather quietly here after my ward, my parents’ ward, and I don’t know how many other wards in my stake did this. (I think one ward had a 60-day fast.) I did go to my bishop and warn him that the sort of things the ward mission leader was doing would lead to other, more unpleasant things.

  11. I think a 40 day fast where people take turns on consecutive days is a beautiful way to unite and also open up the area to receive the blessing of heaven. I had not heard of this before reading this post. I do not know about the present, but at one time my Stake had a regular fast that I think was monthly. I had a friend who said that he really felt the Holy Spirit when this fast was announced. I also recall a brother who would bear testimony of how he was fasting to have someone to share the Gospel with that I think involved setting a date with the missionaries. His future wife was converted through these efforts. What a beautiful and spiritual woman she was at that.

    I hope the man in Japan came to his senses when hunger pangs set in.

    I think I entered the MTC in January of 1992 so our missions overlapped a little. I served in the United States.

  12. Interesting. The post lists me as the author, but I did not write this. Something must have happened the last time we switched platforms or something.

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