Is it such a fast that I have chosen?

You may have heard that President Nelson asked the youth of the church back in June to take a seven day “fast” from social media, and that he repeated the same counsel (but for ten days) was to the women of the church during conference. I’ve taken breaks from social media in the past, but I always thought of it more as a “Sabbath” rather than a “fast”: a time to disconnect from worldly influences, to re-connect with the real world of creation and with the Spirit of God, and to reset and renew ourselves.

This post is an attempt to think about some of the implications of casting this social media break as a “fast.” Fasting has important implications, both inward looking and outward looking.

Only women and youth?

But first, I feel like I have to address the Elephant in the Room, the gendered nature of the counsel. Women and teenagers have been invited to take part in this fast; men have not. Maybe men will receive the same counsel in six months at priesthood session. I don’t know. I don’t know why exactly it was that women and teenagers were asked to do this but men weren’t. But I think we can safely say that it is not an indication that God thinks women are more easily tempted by social media than men or that men would somehow benefit less from doing such a fast than women would.

Let me say that as a man who can be easily tempted to overuse social media and let it become a distraction, I think the idea of taking a break from social media could be a very good thing for men, and I probably will do it at some point in the near future. But I wasn’t asked to do it. Nothing prevents me from doing it of course, and if I choose not to, nobody will judge me for it. But because women were asked to, there are reportedly already women being judged for being on social media now even though nothing in President Nelson’s invitation said that the fast had to begin immediately. That’s wrong. Absolutely wrong.

“That thou appear not unto men to fast…”

And that brings me to Jesus’ teachings about the inward-looking aspects of fasting. Almost nothing could be more inconsistent with the spirit of fasting, according to the teachings of Jesus, than judging another person for not fasting. Jesus taught in Matthew 6 that fasting should be all but invisible, that when you fast, you should wash your face and comb your hair and “appear not unto men to fast.” Those who draw attention to their fast? “They have their reward.”

Can we apply this principle to a social media fast? I’m not saying that it’s absolutely wrong to mention your social media fast on social media at all, but if I post a sanctimonious tweet about how I’m righteously choosing to follow the prophet even though it will be such a sacrifice, and then ten days later announce my triumphant return with honor to twitter, waiting in anticipation of all the likes I’ll get, well, Jesus might say that when I get those like and retweets, I have my reward.

The principle is not necessarily that fasting has to always be a jealously guarded secret. The principle is that fasting is an act of worship, not a performance. When we fast, we should be focused on God and our own fasting, not on how others perceive our fasting, or, even worse, on judging how others fast. As President Nelson said, when he invited the youth to fast from social media, “[t]his social media fast can be just between you and the Lord.”

That requires understanding that not everyone who fasts will be able to fast the same way. As Latter-day Saints, we sometimes get a little hyper-focused on rules and bright lines, and fasting is one example of that. The guidance for our monthly fast is that it’s abstaining from food and water for two meals, and sometimes we members of the church adopt the attitude that anything other than a full 24-hour fast from everything is not “real” fasting. But in the real world, there are many people that can’t do that. When I was a missionary, we were forbidden from fasting from water during the hot Arizona desert summers. Some people have health conditions that mean that they cannot fast without endangering their health. I don’t believe they are excluded from the blessings of fasting. I believe God can inspire each of us to temporarily give up something in the spirit of fasting, and that he will bless everyone that seeks to do something in that spirit, even if it’s not the same strict number of days that someone else does.

Can we apply this principle to a social media fast? Some people’s jobs require them to use social media. I don’t think President Nelson means to tell people that they can’t work for a week and a half. Just as Jesus healed people on the Sabbath day in violation of the strict letter of the law, a person who decides to fast from social media might be inspired to use social media to minister to someone during the fast. And, like I noted above, President Nelson did not say that the ten days starts now. A person might plan their fast in a few weeks or months. Remember, “[t]his social media fast can be just between you and the Lord.” If you decide to judge someone because you see her on social media during the next ten days, you’ll miss that, and you’ll violate the spirit of fasting.

“That ye break every yoke…”

Jesus teaches in Matthew 6 about the inward looking aspects of fasting. But Jesus was not speaking on a blank slate here. He is speaking against the backdrop of the Old Testament prophets, who taught about the outward looking aspects of fasting. In Isaiah 58 Isaiah teaches, like Jesus later would, that fasting is not a performance, “a day for a man to afflict his soul,” to theatrically “bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread ashes under him.” He rebukes Israel for fasting “for strife and debate.” I don’t know exactly what that looked like in Isaiah’s time, but I can see that judging or criticizing another person for not fasting, or for insufficiently fasting, from social media, is one way to engender “strife and debate.”

Isaiah rebukes Israel for fasting because they selfishly want make their prayers more likely to be heard by God, and thought that fasting would make that happen: “ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.” He teaches that the fast that God has chosen is not an act of selfishness focused inwardly on what God will bless you with, but an act of worship focused outwardly on liberating God’s children from sin, poverty, and oppression. Fasting, as Isaiah teaches is “to loose the band of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free,” to “break every yoke,” to “deal thy bread to the hungry,” to “bring the poor that are cast out to thy house,” and to clothe the naked.

I love that in our church we have a tradition of not just fasting, but accompanying fasting with a fast offering. It’s a tradition that tells us, literally, to put our money where our mouth is. And it’s important guard against letting fasting become what Isaiah preached against: just a way to supposedly make our prayers more likely to be heard. Fasting without consecrating that which we would have eaten to liberating god’s children from poverty and oppression is not truly fasting; it’s just going hungry.

And in the same way, taking a break from the contention and strife of social media is not really fasting if we’re just spending that time with the contention and strike of cable news and talk radio, for example. If we want to make it a fast from social media, and not just a break from social media, we ought to accompany taking a break with doing something to fight oppression and poverty. I’d even suggest that if we can, we might consider donating a “social media fast offering” of money or time to some worthy cause.

Conclusion

As I said, I think taking a break from social media will be a good thing for me. I still like the idea of a periodic social media Sabbath, but with more reflection, I also like the idea of thinking of it as a fast, because making it a fast challenges me, in the spirit of Isaiah, to make it not just a passive break focused on improving myself, but an affirmative consecration of time to liberating others from poverty and oppression.

 

Comments

  1. Funny you should write this. A friend in my ward texted me about a service need. After I texted her back the answer, she responded, “I am on my 10 day fast.”

    Like you why not invite everyone, at one time to do a fast, as it suits them. And which “social media” should we use. Does email count?

    I too appreciate the need to take breaks from things, even technology. Plenty of psychologists and life coaches suggest it. For me having a church leader set it out as a goal for me is off putting. Knowing my crabby side, I will probably over engage just to make my point.

  2. Nothing prevents me from doing it of course, but if I choose not to, nobody will judge me for it. But because women were asked to, there are reportedly already women being judged for being on social media now even though nothing in President Nelson’s invitation said that the fast had to [begin] immediately. That’s wrong. Absolutely wrong.

    Amen. A million times. Thank you for an excellent post.

  3. A few years ago while we were studying 1 Corinthians 14, I made the comment that the manual specifically has us skip versus 34 and 35, which says “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

    And I said besides Paul being quite sexist, it’s important to note that we should make sure to not just ignore it, but call it out as wrong. We don’t believe this and we don’t teach it even though it’s in the scriptures.

    And I got flack for it. I was not to call prophets or scriptures wrong.

    So when we get leaders telling us to not to talk too much (Elder Ballard 2014) and now this social media fast, without any massaging of the message, it can feel like we are leaning into this erronous teaching about that we as women should not be permitted to speak.

    And it doesn’t help that they not only said this, they showed us that women’s voices weren’t wanted with only 1 woman speaker in the general session.

    So while I appreciate your theological meanderings on the subject of fasting academically, for me, overall, as a woman this social media fast is too disempowering, to think about when, how, or why I do it.

  4. Bro. Jones says:

    EmJen: yikes. I taught that GD lesson and I dove right into it. Turned it into a discussion of what came from Paul versus what came from God versus what our current practices are. Nobody complained. I’m sorry you got flack for it.

  5. Maybe I don’t understand President Nelson’s words with the same cultural overtones as some others. It would not have occurred to me that an invitation was a request or a direction, let alone a commandment against which others should measure and judge my response. He didn’t even add R.S.V.P., asking for no accountability except to oneself about impressions received. It would not have occurred to me that the invitation was primarily about [undefined] social media rather than primarily about ” media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind.”
    Here’s the direction I did notice: “Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast [assuming you accept the invitation].” Given the Handbook 2 instructions on use of social media and lds.org on Social Media Helps for Members, it would not have occurred to me that the positive and good uses suggested there were included among “media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind.” Maybe I understand the predominant Mormon culture and Mormon-speak less and less as I age.
    In the meantime, I’m considering fasting from at least those general conference talks “that bring negative … thoughts” to my mind. :)

    Thanks so much for your comments on fasting. Among other things, I had previously completely missed Isaiah’s teaching contrary to what I have often heard from modern church sources. I’ll think on that some more.

  6. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I have to ask: what does the Correlation Committee actually do anymore? Is there any critical review of Q15 remarks? I don’t mean correcting small errors, either; I mean, someone saying, “Are you aware of the implications of what you say–and what you don’t say–on the daily lives of millions of people?”

    Or would that be considered evil speaking of the Lord’s Anointed?

  7. Pretty much everything said about gender at this conference appalled me. Inviting the women of the church to do a social media fast, but not the men, was just one instance of sexism among many. As many things directed at women in the church are, it’s infantilizing. The implication seems to be that women are using social media in childish and inappropriate ways and must be protected from their own worst impulses. Men apparently use social media for important, manly things. (Admittedly only inferred by me, not stated.) Most of the communication in my struggling ward takes place via social media, so, if it’s taken as something that must be done immediately (as many people seem to be taking it), it cripples us for the next two weeks or so.

  8. jaxjensen says:

    “I have to ask: what does the Correlation Committee actually do anymore? Is there any critical review of Q15 remarks? I don’t mean correcting small errors, either; I mean, someone saying, “Are you aware of the implications of what you say–and what you don’t say–on the daily lives of millions of people?”

    For instance, Pres. Nelson gave the message that “Embracing such nicknames in the past may have been the result of not wanting to offend others, but President Nelson warned that in doing so “we have failed to defend the Savior Himself, to stand up for Him.” (taken from lds.org) did anyone think to tell him “the message there is that the past two presidents also failed to defend Christ since they spearheaded a movement to embrace “Mormon” themselves?? Seems if someone had said that to him perhaps he’d have toned down the ‘it is the work of Satan’ parts.

  9. Billy Possum says:

    It’s funny – I never thought of the requested fast as a limitation on women’s speaking until EmJen’s comment. In that frame it almost looks repressive.

    Great post, JKC.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Speaking of negativity, the way these discussions are going I probably need to fast from BCC for a while. Also, if you are fasting from social media, how do you know others aren’t?

  11. > if you are fasting from social media, how do you know others aren’t?

    This is the age-old Mormon theological problem known as “Kimball had his eyes open during the prayer!!!”

  12. Thank you bro. Jones for mentioning the fruitful discussion you had in GD class.
    We don’t need any anger, by now most people should be aware that every word that comes out of a prophets mouth isn’t doctrine. Paul may have said those words and yet we don’t know if they were a literal translation.
    We believe,”as far as it is interpreted correctly”
    We don’t teach that women should be quiet.
    Our GA’s repeated over and over how much they need womens voices, ideas and strength.
    Let’s choose to believe them!
    When a prophet makes a suggestion, don’t you think it’s a good idea to follow it?
    A fast is quiet, reverent and personal. We choose it, or not. No big deal to anyone else, but what if, just what if it turns into a big deal to those who quietly do it.
    If we believe we belong to a church that is led by a prophet of God, and he has given us a challenge, why not choose to do it?
    I can only see good coming from it. Writing down thoughts as we take a break from social media and dive into scripture reading. Why not?

  13. My guess is that in 6 months the men will be asked to do the same thing… there seems to be a pattern…

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