I remember growing up Catholic and always participating in lent. Lent was something we looked forward to. I can’t remember giving anything up in particular for that 40-day period, but I do remember abstaining from eating regular meat on Fridays. Instead, we’d eat fish. Usually, they were those frozen fish-sticks (nothing to write home about now, but as a kid, since it was something different and we did it as a family, I loved it.) I never really knew what we were doing, I just knew that we did it as a part of our church. I wasn’t aware that we were fasting. In fact, I’m not sure that back then I would have known what the term “fasting” meant. It was just something we did once a year.
In college, I met Jesus and shortly after got plugged into my church. Soon after coming on staff at the church, I began my first extended fast with three other guys from church. For the entire month of January, I ate nothing but fruits and vegetables, and honestly, it was a great, but grueling experience. At the end of the fast, the other three guys and I went and stayed in a monastery somewhere in Michigan. We each had a room in which we used no technology and quietly spent the night reading the Bible and praying. Again, it was an incredible experience. And, especially on that night, I felt very close to God. I learned a few things during this month:
First, I learned that there aren’t many other spiritual practices that do what fasting does: force you to think about and thank God throughout the entire day.
Second, it was possible for me to abstain from meat for an entire month (I know, crazy).
Third, I was beyond sinful; my pride consumed me throughout this month, which was not the lesson I expected to learn, but after we completed our fast, I realized just how wicked my heart was and how desperately in need of God’s grace my soul had been and still is. How did I come to understand this? A look at Jesus’ teachings on fasting will shed some light.
Verse 16, even on a cursory reading, was such a damning verse for me. I wasn’t, in the most literal sense, behaving like the “hypocrites.” But, my heart was in the same space. I was proud of my fast; pleased that I could do something like that. My prideful heart couldn’t help but overflow to the people around me. It wasn’t that it was my only focus; that all I cared about was people knowing I was fasting, but that was a piece of it for me throughout the whole process. I was just like the Pharisees.
If we’re all honest with each other, we’d admit that whether it’s fasting or some other spiritual discipline, we seek the attention of others. This mentality, this temptation, seems to be what Jesus was getting at here. Notice he doesn’t say, “and don’t go out shouting to everyone that you’re fasting.” No, he is speaking directly to those of us that know our need for approval of others is wrong, so we craftily try to get others to notice us without it being obvious. The Amplified translation reads like this: “they put on a sad and dismal face [like actors, discoloring their faces with ashes or dirt].” While we're not putting dirt on our faces, in front of people, we say things like, “Aaah I’m so hungry,” or “I wish I could [eat whatever it is someone’s offering], but I really shouldn’t,” waiting for them to ask us why. We also might ask others to pray for us through our fasting, and although prayer requests aren’t bad, they are if they're couched in the desire for others to know what we’re doing. In these moments, we’re making our fasting a pointless exercise of trying to appear more spiritual. Instead, Jesus prescribes this method of fasting: But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. So, our fasting is primarily about our relationship with God. If we struggle with the pride that forces us to seek human approval through the divulging of our fasting practices, it is best not to tell anyone that you are fasting.
Our fasting, when done for human approval and attention, is like a filthy rag (Isaiah 64:6). It’s akin to acting lovingly toward your spouse so that everyone around you thinks you’re very loving toward your spouse. If your spouse were to find out, he/she would be devastated. With false fasting, God already knows. Not only that, but you would know – even if it were only in your subconscious – that this fasting was a show, which is not what God had in mind for fasting. He wants us to fast to grow closer to him, to depend on him more, not to appear as though we’ve figured that out.
We must do everything in our power to fight this temptation, because not only does it render our fast utterly pointless, it damages our intimacy with God and hurts our conscience before him. What’s important now, I think, is to discuss why we fast.
We fast from certain things (food, drink, entertainment, etc.) to deprive ourselves of things we either need or use too much of in order to increase our awareness of how much we need God. With food, for instance, we deprive ourselves of eating, and we can physically feel the deprivation of it. In those moments, it is a physical reminder that we need to pray to God and ask for sustenance.
When it comes to things like entertainment, we fast for the same reason, but the reminder is different. Again, our goal in fasting is closeness to and dependence upon God. So, when we fast from television, or social media, or whatever form of entertainment, our realization of the deprivation may not be physical – like hunger – but more mental. When we feel the need to scroll through our Facebook feeds mindlessly, that should become a trigger of sorts to spur us on.
Notice in verse 18b, Jesus says, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” What is the reward? Pastor and author John Piper writes, “No, the best place to find out the reward of our fasting is to look here in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, the prayer that Jesus just taught us to pray in Matthew 6:9–13 begins with three main longings: that God's name be hallowed or revered, that his kingdom come, that his will be done on earth the way it's done in heaven. That is the main reward God gives for our fasting. We fast out of longing for God's name to be known and cherished and honored, and longing for his rule to be extended and then consummated in history, and longing for his will to hold sway everywhere with the same devotion and energy that the inexhaustible angels show sleeplessly in heaven forever and ever.”
I believe Piper is correct here, but also that there’s more. What more could our heart desire than to be in tune with the heart of the Father? I think I would take this just a step further and say that when our hearts are desiring these three things, we will experience the closeness that we all desire. When a husband and wife desire and seek after the same things, their marriage will be stronger than ever. It’s when both parties desire different things that the marriage begins to suffer. In the same way, our relationship with our Father in heaven grows more and more intimate the more we desire the same things he does: that his name would be known, that his kingdom would reign, and that his will would be done.
So, how should we fast?
It seems to me that since our priority in fasting is our relationship with God and since Jesus told us to make it appear as though we aren’t fasting, our prerogative should be to fast in secret. Fasting in secret prevents us from giving into the temptation to boast of our fasting and increases the chances of our fast being successful and drawing us nearer to God. Of course, if we desire to do a fast with a group of people, that can be a good idea. That group can encourage you and keep you accountable throughout your fast. However, it’s important to have that group of people pray for you and your relationship with Jesus.
Finally, there is something to be said about a church-wide fast. When a large group of people fasts, some really cool stuff can happen. I don’t believe this passage is a prohibition from large-group fasting either. Rather, we should have a regular practice of secret fasting in which we don’t tell others. By doing this, we can hope to have a purer approach to fasting, and thus experience the reward God might have for us.
Let’s make fasting a regular discipline in our lives and one which we do in secret.