Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

SermonOnTheMountMatthew 6:16-18, ““And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Something has gone awry in Western society’s relationship to food. If we listen to the media, we hear two contrary messages. On one hand, marketers and advertisers invite us to gormandize. Chomp the chewiest cheeseburgers, wolf the fattest French fries. Guzzle the partiest soda and the hardiest beer. Consume!

Others call for refinement. Satisfy your palate with select spices and sauces. Dine on dainty delicacies. Still others want to ban all the animal fats ladled into tacos, pizzas, ice cream, and steaks. Meanwhile, advertisers promote low-carb, low-fat foods so we can reverse the damage caused by the aforementioned cheeseburgers. Medical analysts weigh the pros and cons in the diet wars. All the while, the honest blessings of broccoli, peaches, rice, asparagus, and beans are oft neglected.

We are the victims of our own success. During the last century or so, we have learned to produce a bountiful food supply. In democratic nations, at least, starvation does not loom. We produce all the food we want, and more. In fact, we hardly know how to manage the abundance. Still, at root, food is a simple thing. Let us begin with a short theology of food.

Food at Creation

God initially gave Adam every seed-bearing plant and fruit tree on the earth. “They will be yours for food” (Gen. 1:29). Later, when God reestablished the human race after the flood, he said, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Gen. 9:3).

In God’s original design, appetites and needs matched. God placed the food and drink that we need within our reach and invited us to take it. He measured our needs and appetites to fit the foods He placed in this world. He provided plants and soil, sun and rain, so we could work and live.

Today, despite the disorder caused by sin, some of that harmony remains. The Bible says, “The laborer’s appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on” (Prov. 16:26). God gave us hunger as a gift. It drives us to work, so we can eat.

Angels do not need to think about the next meal. Neither God nor angels have physical needs; they do not eat, drink, or sleep. We do. The Lord expects us to feed and care for our bodies (Eph. 5:29). We should work, so we can eat (2 Thess. 3:8–10). Like animals, we must eat, drink, sleep, and procreate. Yet, unlike animals, we think about more than food. We belong to the material realm, so we need food, but we also belong to the spiritual realm, so we need more than food.

Food after the Fall

In the beginning, there was no struggle to find food, no problem of scarcity. After the Fall, Adam’s race has had to eat by the sweat of the brow. We battle with weeds and wild animals, blights and droughts. Still, God restrains the chaos, so we can eat. Ordinarily, God feeds the world indirectly. He establishes and maintains structures for this world so that people and animals can find nourishment (Ps. 104; Matt. 6:26). As He governs the world, He has the capacity to prosper a nation’s herds, harvests, and bakeries, or to withhold his blessing, as He wishes (Deut. 28:4–5; cf. Hos. 11:4).

Occasionally people cannot feed themselves. Then their friends and neighbors must come to their aid (James 2:15–18). Indeed, the Bible even says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Rom. 12:20). When necessary, God feeds His people more directly. God sent bread—manna—from heaven to feed Israel in the desert (Deut. 8:3). He also fed the prophet Elijah when he had no food (1 Kings 17:4).

The Bible recommends a certain mind-set when we consider food. First, if we have plenty, we should thank God, enjoy it, and share it. In the Old Testament, God even ordained feasts, so people could celebrate God’s bounty in his presence. Second, we should strive for contentment, whether in plenty or in want. From his prison cell, the apostle Paul said, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12). We should be content if we can meet our basic needs. “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:6–8).

If we suffer want, we are tempted to anger or despair. When Job had lost his wealth, his health, and his children, when only his wife remained, she asked why he clung to his integrity. “Curse God and die.” That is, savor your bitterness; despair and die (Job 2:9).

But abundance brings temptation, too. Jeremiah says that when God gave Israel an abundant harvest, they forgot Him: “They have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek” (Jer. 5:27–28). The issue is not plumpness per se. In other places, God says He makes people rich (1 Kings 3:13; 2 Chron. 32:29) and fat (Isa. 10:27)! Physically, great girth brings great risks. But the prophet is watching the heart, not the waist. He knows the danger of false confidence in stockpiles of food or wealth.

Food as an Idol

In a way, food is simple. We should eat to live; we should not live to eat. But there are problems. Our mastery of our bodies is imperfect. They do not do what we ask. They crash into people and drop dishes. We also eat when we are not hungry. If we look closely, we can see that the root problem may be idolatry. Calvin said that the human heart is a factory of idols. When we lose contact with the Lord, we put other things in His place. We can take anything that is good and make it into an idol. Food is no exception. We turn to it for the benefits that God provides.

  • We eat to find peace. We eat to medicate ourselves, to overcome feelings of anger, depression, and loneliness. We eat when we need comfort. When we do not or cannot find proper comfort, we eat what some call “comfort food.”
  • Abundant food can be a token of strength, wealth, prosperity, and self-sufficiency. Today one farmer, equipped with good seed, land, and machines, can feed one hundred people. That farmer and that farmer’s nation can become proud. We can think, “Behold the work of our hands and all that we have provided for ourselves. Do we still need the help of God?”
  • Food can become the source of joy and meaning. It is fine if food is one source of pleasure and meaning. But what if we eat all that we need, then continue to eat for the physical pleasure of it? It is good to find joy in a shared meal. Some love to prepare food for others; others prefer that chefs prepare it for them. But there is a problem if we live to eat, rather than eating to live.

Whether we are obsessed by food, sex, sports, or possessions, we fight the same battle with the idols. How can we win the spiritual battle? We gain insight from Jesus and His ways with food.

Jesus and Food

Jesus ate and drank freely. He was popular throughout much of his ministry, so He was in demand as a guest at banquets. In His desire to reach everyone, He often attended them. He mingled, ate, and drank enough that critics called Him a glutton and a drunkard. It is safe to assume that Jesus enjoyed a good meal, as we all do.

Jesus ate with the prosperous, but He also fed the hungry. Once He fed bread and fish to five thousand people when they followed him to a desolate place and had no food (Matt. 14:13–21). On another occasion, He fed four thousand in a time of need (Matt. 15:29–39).

Jesus enjoyed food and knew our need of food, but food was no idol for him. He fasted for forty days and forty nights to prepare for His mission. Matthew says, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Indeed He was. When I fast, I can persuade myself that I am hungry after forty minutes, not forty days. Tomatoes are the size of pumpkins, apples and oranges the size of beach balls when my hungry eyes spy them in the kitchen. Why did Jesus inaugurate His ministry by fasting? Why not gather His strength by eating and resting? Scripture answers: He gathered His strength by fasting and praying.

The apostles understood, as should we, that Jesus set a pattern. A time of prayer and fasting preceded the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas for their mission of preaching the risen Christ to the Gentiles. Acts says, “After they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). Paul and Barnabas did the same thing in turn for the next generation of leaders: “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23).

Why Fast? Curbing Our Appetites

Fasting was a well-established practice in Israel. Moses fasted on Sinai when God established his covenant with Israel. Jehoshaphat the king, Esther the queen, Ezra the scribe, and Paul the apostle all fasted in time of need, as they called on the Lord.

We fast to follow Jesus when He says, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). There was a saying in the city of Corinth, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1 Cor. 6:13). That is, if the body has an appetite for food or for sex, it must be satisfied, and the sooner the better. The materialist says, “If we have a drive, a desire, and a way to fulfill it, we should. Self-denial is pointless, even absurd.” We fast, in part, to show that we are not animals. We are not slaves to our appetites. More than that, we fast to show that we have a hunger that exceeds our hunger for food.

Jesus assumes that His disciples will fast. He says, “When you fast,” do not do it to impress men with your piety. Fast so that only God sees you, “and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:16–18).

But why should we fast? According to John Piper, we fast to nourish our hunger for God and to reduce our hunger for the world. We ought to fast because our physical appetites are so intense that they threaten to overwhelm our hunger for God. Piper writes: “The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but mindless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime time dribble of triviality we drink in every night.”

When Jesus tells us what keeps us from entering the Kingdom, from joining Him at His banquet table, He does not mention Satan. He does mention a plot of land, several yoke of oxen, and a newly married wife (Luke 14:18–20). To quote Piper again, “The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are … for the simple pleasures of the earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.”

When Jesus explains why some hear the Word of God, but do not respond to it, he says, “They are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14 RSV). Again, He says, “The desires for other things come in and choke the word” (Mark 4:19). The pleasures of this life are not evil things; they are part of God’s bountiful creation. They are grapes, blueberries, guacamole dip, and hummus. They are football and soccer, silk and wool, comedy and drama, classical music, classic rock, hip-hop or jazz, according to your taste.

Our basic desires or drives are good in themselves, but they get perverted by sin. The problem begins when we form the habit of satisfying desires soon after we feel them. Hungry? Why wait until supper? Why not grab a candy bar, an apple, or a handful of nuts right now? The problem deepens when we declare ourselves content when we have met every craving.

We fast because fasting says, “I do not live for my appetites. I set aside physical desires, so that I may seek God in prayer, that I may desire God and his blessing.” When we fast, we battle the relentless stream of appetites. We demonstrate that we do not live by bread alone. When we fast, the body grows weak, and that reminds us that we do not live by our strength, our provision, and our planning. When we fast, we declare, “Lord, you are my strength.”

How to Fast: Practical Matters

  1. Fast regularly. Jesus assumes His disciples will fast. He says “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (Matt. 6:16). Jesus fasted, and He predicted that His disciples would fast after He left them (Matt. 4:2; 9:15). Fasting has its ups and downs as a discipline. The Puritans loved corporate fasts, but in recent decades, fasting has fallen into neglect. Richard Foster found that not one book was published on fasting from 1861 to 1954. John Wesley wisely observed, “Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.”
  2. Fast prayerfully. Almost every culture has some concept of fasting. Many fast to show sorrow. Others fast to deprive themselves, thinking self-deprivation pleases their gods. Today some fast for their health, to purge and recalibrate their bodies. Such fasting may be beneficial. But Christians fast to dedicate themselves to God and to prayer. We need not pray all day; we need not forsake all regular activities. But we do pray more as we fast.
  3. Fast secretly. Praise from men can be addictive. It is gratifying to be noticed for our accomplishments. Jesus says, “When you fast, do not look somber.… Wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting” (Matthew 6:16–18). If you aim to be noticed and praised by men, you will probably succeed. People of faith will notice and admire your discipline. But the Bible calls it pride and hypocrisy.

Someone may ask, “How is it hypocrisy for people to know what you are doing? What is wrong with letting your deeds show? That is simple honesty.” But the public display of our works poisons the well. When we fast or give away money and seek credit for it, we do it to impress others and not to seek God. We pretend to act for God, when really we act for ourselves and our audience. We are posers, feigning love for God.

  1. However, we may fast corporately, so that believers can join together to pray for a great matter. The people of Israel did this, the apostles did this (Acts 13–14), and in times past the church often did this. As long as the essential motive is to seek God, there is no harm if others discover that we are fasting, especially if they are seeking God the same way beside us.
  2. Fast humbly. There is a proud religion—legalism—that makes its rules and imposes them on others for the glory of exercising authority. It says, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” There is also a self-made religion that features “self-abasement and severe treatment of the body.” These, Paul says, “are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 2:21, 23 NASB). The fleshly indulgence that Paul has in mind here is actually the sin of pride, not gluttony. C. S. Lewis said: “Fasting asserts the will against the appetite—the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride.… Ascetic practices which, in themselves, strengthen the will, are only useful insofar as they enable the will to put its own house in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God.”

Fasting is a means to an end—saying good-bye to the power of our possessions, so that we may give ourselves to the reign of God (Luke 14:33). Apart from that end, fasting can be rebellion, a desire to master the animal self and to secure the triumph of the will.

  1. Fast creatively. If a diabetic cannot fast for physical reasons, he or she can lay aside television to devote herself to God. Some people eat a slice of plain bread when they fast. It cuts their hunger, so they think about food less and remember their goal. The issue is broader than food. Fasting includes “abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some spiritual purpose.” We could “fast” from any physical blessing that threatens to become our first love. One person could fast from televised news for a week and devote that time to God. Another could fast from shopping for anything but food.

The Goals, Motives, and Rewards of Fasting

God tested Abraham when he took Isaac to the mountain. The test demonstrated, both to God and to Abraham himself, that Abraham loved God more than anything. When we fast, it leads us to ask: “Do I love God? Do I hunger for him? Do I long for him? Or have I been content with his gifts?” Fasting makes us consider what we do with our unhappiness. As Foster says, we use “food and other good things” to cover up the sins inside us. If pride or sensuality, if “anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first, we will rationalize that our anger is due to our fasting.” But eventually we will realize that the anger is ours, and that knowledge can lead us to seek healing in Christ.

This revelation of anger and bitterness questions us. Will we cover our distress with food? Will we eat fine fare so that the good feelings balance out the bad? Or will we take our hunger to the Lord? He is the bread of life. Every meal points to him. He is the One who truly satisfies our longings. When we drink from His well, we never grow thirsty.

Fasting may seem a little strange, even to Christians, if the desire for the Lord has dimmed. Why might a believer not desire God? “Because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.” But our appetite for God can awaken if we deny ourselves some pleasures of the world, even honest ones.

There are several motives for fasting. First, since fasting shows sorrow, especially over sin, we fast to repent, to mourn, and to humble ourselves before God. Second, we fast to seek God’s blessing. When we fast, we deny ourselves our ordinary means of strength and ask God for strength. Finally, we can fast to identify with the needy. Isaiah says the fasting that God sees is this:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free …

… to share your food with the hungry

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter. (Isa. 58:6–7)

What counts, Isaiah says, is humility, repentance, and kindness to the oppressed. But praise from men can be a powerful thing, and sacrificing a meal seems remarkable. The desire to be noticed is understandable, but deadly. Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled” (Matt. 23:12). To fast in order to be seen is to exalt oneself. Genuine fasting is self-abasement. If genuine generosity seeks the good of the poor, genuine prayer and fasting seek the Lord. True giving, fasting, and prayer are all, by their very nature, self-forgetting and self-denying.

Jesus says that the Father rewards fasting: “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:18). This is important, but easily misunderstood. Jesus does not say that fasting earns a reward from God. Rather, God grants a reward. If we fasted for a reward, fasting would become a business investment: we sacrifice for God, and He gives back, with interest. At worst, that would be manipulation. At best, it would pollute an act of devotion by giving it a selfish twist. Fasting is not a spiritual discipline presented to God for proper recompense. The reward the faster receives is God Himself. When we fast properly, we love him more and love the world less. By fasting, we learn to seek first the kingdom of God.

Heavenly Feasting

This talk of self-denial, seeking God, and rewards in heaven (Matt. 6:1) may not make a great deal of sense to a skeptic or a doubter. Let me address skeptics for a moment. It is agreed that all men die. If there is a God—and even doubters suspect that there is—then when we die, we may meet him. The Bible asserts that we do indeed encounter Him when we die. To all who love Him, to all who trust in Christ Jesus for their salvation and long to see Hm, He says, “Come,” to dwell with him forever. To the rest, who do not trust him or seek him, he says, “Depart from me.” If you do not love the Lord in this life, you will not love Him in the next.

Before He died, Jesus promised His disciples that he would eat with them again (Luke 22:16). That meal, which comes at the end of time, is called the wedding feast of the Lamb. In heaven there will be no more hunger and no more of the cravings that we battle. But there will be feasting in the presence of Christ. For then our strongest hunger will be satisfied by the Lord himself.

So then, let us fast from time to time, as the Lord leads. Take time to pray about an important matter. Remind yourself that He is your strength. Teach yourself to long for larger and more lasting pleasures—for the feast where the Lord Jesus is host.