Warm chocolate chip cookies, loaded baked potato, greasy double cheeseburger, classic spaghetti and meatballs, the richest cheesecake, peanut butter straight from the jar, corner-taco-truck tacos, and fresh summer salad. Why is it our cravings seem to be the strongest (and most specific) when we can’t get our hands on the food we crave? Fasting isn’t just the disciplined torture of a stomach growl associated with not eating that craving, but it is the willful rejection of other indulgences in order to fix your eyes on your spiritual cravings alone. In the case of fasting as a spiritual discipline, the craving is God and His Word, and it should be practiced by all Christians.
During Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He explains to His disciples what their lives should look like as Christ followers. As He describes the counter cultural behaviors of His disciples, He corrects the widely misunderstood discipline of fasting in Matthew 6:16:18 and clarifies what it means for His followers.
What You Do
Jesus starts out by saying “And WHEN you fast…” (verse 16). He is assuming that fasting is a given for His audience; and He was correct. In Jewish culture, various types of fasts were commonplace at different times for different reasons, but the law definitely required one fast in particular, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. But for us, fasting isn’t something we just automatically do. It is though, a discipline we’re expected to apply. Fasting is the willing abstinence from all or some food for a period of time.
Now it’s important to realize that fasting isn’t something only Christians participate in. Other religions fast, and some fasts are for health reasons. The type of fast Jesus describes is characterized by the removal of food for the refocusing of our attention on spiritual food. In Scripture the discipline of fasting is always coupled with prayer. Right before this in Matthew 6:5-8 Jesus explains what a Christian does when he prays to God. The two are seen together in Acts 13:3 as they sent some of the first missionaries out from them, and in Daniel 9:3 where Daniel pleads for mercy. Practically, fasting as a spiritual discipline is giving up food at a determined time in order to pray and focus on our God.
What You Look Like
Jesus has something to say about the do’s and don’ts of a person’s appearance while fasting. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (verse 16). “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who sees in secret” (verse 17). It wasn’t strange for a person in the middle of a fast to “look” like they had been fasting.
Have you ever ran into someone you know when you didn’t have makeup on? They’re used to seeing you mascara-and-all so the first question they always ask is, “Are you feeling ok?” The hypocrites would intentionally make their look unusual. The point: we should look normal to our friends when we fast. Extra makeup, ironed clothes, just a normal day.
Jesus makes it clear that our fasting should be in secret and for the sake of our private and very personal relationship with the Lord. We don’t fast to seek the approval of our spiritual mentor or to impress the guy who “is looking for a girl who loves Jesus.” And we definitely don’t fast because it’s a great diet plan where people will notice physical and spiritual change. Our heart’s motive should only be to gain the attention of our Father in heaven.
What You Receive
There is a reward mentioned in verse 18 for the person who partakes in the spiritual discipline of fasting in the correct way. The reward is to stand approved by the Father, which contrasts with the hypocrites who stand approved by their audience. Their right behaviors for the wrong reasons is a display of their heart’s lack of understanding that the only approval we need is God’s, when He looks at our sinful state completely covered by Christ’s righteousness through the shedding of His blood.
Part of the reward is also the answer/resolution to the reason you entered the fast to begin with. You should enter a time of fasting with a purpose. Some purposes for fasting are to: strengthen prayer (Ezra 8:23), seek God’s guidance (Judges 20:26), express grief (1 Sam. 31:13, 2 Sam. 1:11-12), seek deliverance/protection (2 Chron. 20:3-4, Esther 4:16, Ps. 109:24), express repentance/return to God (1 Sam.7:6, Joel 2:12), humble oneself before God (1Kings 21:27-29), express concern for the work of God (Nehemiah 1:3-4), minister to the needs of others (Is. 58:3-4), overcome temptation (Matt. 4:1-11), and express love/worship to God (Luke 2:37). Our purpose becomes the focus of our heart and mind during the fast, and the result, the reward.
For the longest time, I was under the impression that fasting was only for the super spiritual (kinda weird) people. The more I grew in my relationship with the Lord and gained confidence with the other disciplines, the more I realized this was not one to just leave to the professionals. So I fasted for the first time. I entered the determined time of my fast asking God to clarify what my life in service to Him would look like. I ended that determined time with a burden for girls to study Scripture and an idea for a website. I will never again question the importance of this discipline. And I challenge you to include fasting as Jesus describes in Matthew 6:16-18 as a distinguishing discipline of you as a Christ follower.
From Jesus’ corrections to cultural fasting here in the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that we are actually supposed to fast, in humility and secrecy, in order to be rewarded for our discipline in seeking first the coming kingdom of God.
Father, You are the only thing that satisfies a hungry soul. I ask that You would show me when to fast, and the purpose for my fast. Please empower me through Your Spirit to cut out distractions in order to turn my attention to You and You alone. I ask your blessing and reward for obedience to Your disciplines.
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Don Whitney (Chapter 9: Fasting…For the Purpose of Godliness)
God’s Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonheoffer (Chapter 16: The Hiddenness of the Devout Life)