6 “Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, 18 so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” — Matthew 6:16-18
“When you fast…” who is your audience?
by Steve Smith
Matthew 6 speaks to our motivation for fasting. Let me begin by commenting on fasting in general, especially since it’s so often misunderstood.
In the contemporary church, we tend to see fasting as an obscure, if not outdated, Christian practice. But we must realize that Jesus taught and practiced fasting, and we have no biblical indication that it has become an outmoded discipline. In fact, according to Donald Whitney, in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, fasting is referred to in the Bible more often than baptism. So we must begin with the understanding that we are expected to fast.
Our focus passage today says, “when you fast,” not, “if you fast.” Scripture does not dictate the time-frame, frequency, or the duration of our fasts, although several examples are given to us. Fasting is not to be a legalistic burden, but rather a privilege to obey God in a way that brings joy and fulfillment in our walk with Christ.
We’ll deal with several purposes for fasting this week, but let’s start with our motivation. Matthew 6 essentially instructs us to fast for no other motive than to be “seen” by God. That’s not to say we’re to fast to earn God’s favor; we’ve already been fully accepted by God through Christ.
Our fasting is to be done out of obedience, and for one of several reasons, all of which strengthen us or sharpen us in our faith. Indeed, what’s certain in this passage is that we’re not to fast to impress others. If we find ourselves boasting about our decision, we have certainly missed the point.
Now, I must admit, during my recent fast I struggled with whether I should tell anyone about it for fear of violating the command in Matthew 6. Since it was my first significant fasting experience, I shared it with a few people whose spiritual guidance and encouragement I was seeking. And let’s face it, in a close community of friends and colleagues, it’s difficult to hide that fact that you’re not eating for an extended number of meals.
But as with so many other commands in Scripture, I believe the message here is the intent of our hearts, our motivation. We fast for reasons that support our desire to follow in obedience, to focus our prayer, and to grow in our spiritual maturity. Humility is at the center of any growing relationship with Christ.
Using Matthew 6:16-18 as a guide, determine to fast with the following things in mind:
- Why am I feeling led to fast? (Subsequent posts this week will explore several reasons Scripture gives us to fast.)
- Is there some external pressure for considering this, or am I led only by my conversations with the Lord in prayer?
- Am I motivated at all by weight loss? While there can be a spiritual aspect of weight loss that fasting may help address, losing weight should never be the focus of a spiritually-directed fast.
- If I were to be able to embark on this fast in total isolation, where no one else would ever know, would I still do it?
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible® and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.