Matthew 6:16-18, “16 “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.”
“When you fast.” Jesus says “when” rather than “if” two times in three verses because he assumes that fasting will be a regular part of life for those who follow him. Since this is so, he wants his beloved disciples to avoid something and to wholeheartedly embrace something else when we fast. So, let’s begin by clarifying what fasting is, and then let’s look at Jesus’ warning and invitation in turn.
What is Fasting?
To give a literal definition, fasting means to deny oneself food or water or other necessities or pleasures of life for a season. Fasting is putting aside the good things of life so that we can feast on the great things of life. Fasting is making space in our lives so that we can give ourselves more intensely to prayer and worship and the Word of God.
And if you’ll think about this with me for a moment, you’ll see that we can only fast from things that are good. For instance, we can’t fast from stealing or gluttony or coveting or lust—we have to repent from these things. So, the only things from which we can fast are good gifts from God. In fasting, we choose to set aside the good gifts of God for a season so that we can feast on the great gifts of God, like prayer and worship and the Word of God.
Now, someone might say, “I’ve experienced the pain of fasting. I’ve experienced the pain of going without food and the pain of crankiness and negative emotions and lack of energy and backlash and so on. How can you say, then, that fasting is feasting because from my experience fasting is painful?”
I too have experienced the pain of fasting, every single time I have fasted—whether long or short. There is a pain in letting go of the good things of life. There is a pain in denying oneself. There is a pain in cutting the ties with things to which we are very much attached, even if we’re rightly attached to them. There is a pain in realizing that some of the things we thought were necessities or gifts from God are in fact in that category of things from which we must repent.
There is a variety of pain in every fast, but the point still remains: the pain of fasting is not about the pain of fasting, it’s about discovering the joy of living when the great things of God have first place our hearts and habits. The pain of fasting is about letting go of our way of life and embracing His way of life. The pain of fasting is about dying to ourselves, not just for the sake of dying to ourselves, but for the sake of becoming more like Jesus Christ! The pain of fasting is about learning that, even though we need certain things in this world to survive, and even though God has given us certain things for our enjoyment, we are much more in need of prayer and worship and the Word of God.
So, to fast is to declare to God that we desire him more than anything else in our lives. To fast is to feast on God—when it is understood and practiced rightly.
A Loving Warning and Invitation
With this in mind, Jesus lovingly warns his people away from fasting in a certain way. He says, “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” (Matthew 6:16). Jesus is teaching us not to be self-centered when we fast. He’s teaching us not to fast in order to get attention from others. He’s teaching us not to exalt ourselves by parading how spiritual we are. He’s warning us away from hypocrisy, and he’s doing this because he loves us. Again, fasting is denying ourselves some of the good things of life so that we can feast on the great things of life like prayer, worship, and the Word of God. Fasting is not about itself, and it’s not about the person who’s doing it, rather, fasting is about God.
For this reason, Jesus continues, “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 is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18). Jesus is teaching us to be God-centered when we fast. He’s teaching us to fast by faith. He’s teaching us to fast in the sure knowledge that God knows us, loves us, sees us, and will reward all who call upon his name in truth. He’s inviting us deep into the courts of true worship, and he’s doing this because he loves us. He wants us to understand the profundity and implications of the truth “that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Indeed, fasting is feasting on God by faith. It’s desiring God more than food and drink. It’s a way of praying, of calling upon his name with great earnestness and saying, “God I need you, I want you, I long to understand and do your will—and I want these things more than I want to satisfy my fleshly hunger.” When we fast in this way, and for these reasons, we can have a full assurance that God will both hear and answer our prayers according to his will, in his time, and in his way.
So, Friends, let’s fast. Let’s deny ourselves the good things of life for a meal or a day or a few days. But when we do this, let’s care for our appearance and do whatever else we can not to draw attention to ourselves. Rather, let’s do everything we can to thrust our attention toward God. Let’s feast on God. Let’s call upon his name. Let’s sing his praise. Let’s delight in his Word. Let’s submit ourselves to him and pray for the power to understand and do his will in the world. As we fast in this way and for these reasons, our Father will surely help us, hear us, and bless us for the glory of his name and the joy of our souls.
Charles Handren is pastor for Adult Ministries at Cross of Glory Baptist Church and an author residing with his wife Kimberly in Wayzata MN. His wife Kimberly (1991) is a Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher, and his daughter, Rachel (1994), owns and operates a dance studio in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles enjoys reading, cycling, hiking, and traveling. He holds degrees from California Baptist University (Riverside, California) and the American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, California), and is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.