I’ve always assumed that this covering of the mouth was referencing abstaining from food or drink. However, a recent reading of Isaiah 58 led me to another potential meaning that I think has important implications.
In Isaiah’s words, we discover God’s people desiring to draw close to him and say, “Why, when we fast, do you not notice? We afflict our bodies and you remain indifferent!” (vs.3*)
They assumed that making themselves hungry and thirsty would earn them God’s attention. Are we the same in that we feel like enduring a lack of food and water is pleasing to God in and of itself? While I do think that strength can be found in the denial of food and water for a time to help build the mind’s ability to subdue the natural man, I think there are other aspects of the principle that we may be ignoring.
The Lord continues: “Your present fasts are not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is this the manner of fasting I have required, just a time for men to torment themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and making one’s bed of sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day of Jehovah’s good graces?” (vs.5)
If your fasting is filled with sorrow and self-deprivation then the Lord seems to indicate that you’re doing it wrong. How can fasting be a day of Jehovah’s good graces? Note what the Lord says about fasting in our day: “Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.” (D&C 59:14) Fasting equates with rejoicing, but how?
Well, we don’t have to guess because the Lord gives us some specifics:
Is not this the fast I require: To release from wrongful bondage, to untie the harness of the yoke, to set the oppressed at liberty and abolish all forms of subjection?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry, to bring home the wretchedly poor, and when you see men underclad to clothe them, and not to neglect your own kin? (vs.6-7)
No mention is made here about denying yourself of food and water or requiring you to afflict yourself in any way. This is when I wondered about the “cover the mouth” meaning and how it fits with these teachings.
I wonder if “cover the mouth” is less about blocking food and drink from our mouths and more about a shift in focus from ourselves to others. We cover our mouths metaphorically so that we can in turn metaphorically fill the mouths of others instead.
We may not hold people in physical subjection but we can mentally by not forgiving them. There are poor among us that we can help clothe and care for as well as those that are poor in spirit and family members that could use more of our compassion and expressions of kindness that would be welcome from us.
In turn, God promises the following:
Then shall your light break through like the dawn
and your healing speedily appear;
your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of Jehovah will be your rearguard.
Then, should you call, Jehovah will respond;
should you cry, he will say, I am here.
Indeed, if you will banish servitude from among you,
and the pointing finger and offensive speech,
if you will give of your own to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then shall your light dawn amid darkness
and your twilight become as the noonday.
Jehovah will direct you continually;
he will satisfy your needs in the dearth
and bring vigor to your limbs.
And you will become like a well-watered garden,
like a spring of unfailing waters. (vs.8-11)
I don’t know that I want to comment any more on these verses. I have some ideas as to how I can incorporate these principles of fasting more into my own life and I’d like to allow others to do the same. I’m not claiming that one should cease with putting aside food and drink as part of a fast because I still think that it is important.
I’m suggesting that simply refraining from food and drink alone is missing the point. I know that we say that ‘fasting without prayer is dieting’ and we are encouraged to pay a fast offering, and these are good things.
I think we should continue teaching those things but not neglect these words of the Lord concerning the personal obligations we have that cannot simply be delegated or done by filling out a form and a check. There is more we can do to be involved in the lives of others and great blessings in store that will bring us into closer association with God. He promises healing, protection, revelation, light, fulfilled needs, vigor, and more.
The fast the Lord has chosesn is a call to put our own needs on hold and turn outward, not to torture ourselves, but to bless others.
*Isaiah verses are from the Isaiah Institute Translation