“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
In the church circles in which I grew up, we could quite happily skip right over this passage. We didn’t engage with the spiritual discipline of fasting anyway, so we felt these verses didn’t really apply. We heartily embraced the disciplines of scripture reading, prayer and giving, but we assumed fasting was something done only by religious people in Old Testament times or by legalistic Pharisees in Jesus’ day.
But we hadn’t taken close enough notice of Jesus’ words. He didn’t say “if you fast” or “for those who previously, in a different generation, fasted,” but rather “when you fast” – he assumed his followers would continue to engage in this very physical discipline. Nor had we noticed that this was, in fact, exactly what the early church did, missing the example of Paul and Barnabas and the other leaders in the church of Antioch who fasted and prayed as they worshipped the Lord (Acts 13:1-3).
I’ve since discovered that fasting is actually an amazing gift. Putting aside food for a period of time (one or two meals or longer) serves to sharpen the focus of intercessory prayer. As my stomach growls, it becomes part of my petition, reminding me (and the Lord) that I am serious enough about this request that I am willing to inconvenience myself – indeed, serious enough to sacrifice my own comfort.
Fasting can express repentance, personally or corporately. It can give expression to grief and mourning, yearning for things to be other than they are. It can powerfully give voice to the petition, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” It can embody the heart of worship.
It’s especially helpful when praying for the Lord’s strength to battle any seemingly unyielding besetting sin, one that breaks the back of self-control again and again. Fasting requires its own self-control – it requires putting aside one of the body’s key cravings (namely hunger) and pressing through till the end. So, the prayer itself, embodied in the fasting, becomes an expression of the very perseverance and victory that’s needed.
Fasting is a good gift.
But, like all spiritual disciplines, it can all too easily become a source of pride. What was meant as a strengthening help for devotion, can become a stumbling block. Without even being aware, we can let it become a badge of honour, a notch in our spiritual belt, a shining example of our own spirituality.
Don’t go there, Jesus says. Engage in fasting, yes – absolutely. But don’t show off. Don’t look haggard and wan. Don’t whine that you are “Oh, so hungry!” Keep it quietly between yourself and the Lord.
There will, of course, be times when a community chooses to fast together, as the leaders in Antioch did, spurring one another on in commitment and devotion. But in those moments, check your motivation. Keep your eyes on the Lord, rather than looking round the rest of the group. If you’re seeking human approval, that will be the extent of your reward. You’ll miss the blessing of the Father’s pleasure.
For blessing is what fasting brings. Ironically. Who would have thought that the giving up of one of the Father’s good gifts (food) could become an occasion to know the Father himself better?
Father, thank you for the gift of this discipline. Show me how to engage. Keep me focused on you. Keep pride at bay. Draw near to me as I choose to draw near to you. Amen.
Reflect: Will you engage this discipline? Is there a circumstance in your life right now for which the Lord would call you to fast (petition, intercession, repentance, mourning, yearning, worship)? How can you do it quietly, focused only on him?