Scripture: “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. 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 6:16-18 ESV
Observation: This last of the three warnings against the ostentatious practice of spiritual disciplines addresses fasting. Whether giving, praying, or fasting, Jesus cautions his disciples not to make a public display to garner the attention and praise of others. In the context of fasting, he warns explicitly against purposely looking gloomy. Instead, we should maintain a healthy appearance that will not draw attention to ourselves.
As theologian Michael Wilkins notes, fasting in ancient Israel entailed more than abstaining from food (as is the focus today in our secular world). It carried a deeper spiritual meaning. Wilkins identifies four types of fasts (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p. 281):
- Normal fast. Abstain from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water—usually to prepare for some significant event. Jesus fasted for forty days in preparation for his temptations from Satan and the inauguration of his public ministry (Matthew 4:1–2; Luke 4:1–2).
- Partial fast. Partial diet restriction but not total abstention. For three weeks of mourning, Daniel ate no meat nor drank wine and applied no lotion to his body (Daniel 10:3).
- Absolute fast. Abstain for a short duration from all food and water to urgently discern God’s leading. Esther neither ate nor drank for three days during a national crisis (Esther. 4:16), and at Paul’s dramatic conversion, he also abstained from eating and drinking for three days (Acts 9:9).
- Private and corporate fasts. Israel congregated for corporate or public fasts, such as on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:37), for national emergency (2 Chronicles 20:1–4), or for seeking God’s guidance in prayer (Ezra 8:21–23).
Some sectarians, like the Pharisees, practiced fasting twice a week, as Jesus denotes in his parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). They usually fasted on Monday and Thursday because legend had it that Moses ascended Mount Sinai on those days. Thus, they self-aggrandized with the notion that they emulated Moses’ stalwart ascent to God and his holiness. And they would even sometimes sprinkle ashes on their head as a sign of contrition.
Takeaway: As with almsgiving and prayer, Jesus’ disciples were to fast in secret with sincerity, seeking an audience of one: God the Father. And like the other spiritual disciplines, their goal was to achieve greater intimacy with their Creator. Likewise, God would reward them with growing spiritual righteousness in this life and perfection of holiness in the afterlife (see 6:1-4).
Still, three questions remain as we seek to understand how fasting applies to our lives today. First, is fasting mandatory? The short answer is, No. In chapter 9, we read of an incident involving John the Baptist’s disciples. They question Jesus about why his disciples fail to fast when they and the Pharisees observe fasting. Jesus replies using a metaphor of a wedding. Likening himself to the bridegroom, he contends that the guests will not mourn (fast) while with the bridegroom. Still, Christ assures John’s disciples that his disciples will fast at the appropriate time when he is no longer with them (9:14-17). Thus, while fasting has its place in the maturing life of a disciple, Christ does not command it. Indeed, grace abounds here as in all our spiritual disciplines. For instance, any of us with health issues exacerbated by fasting should pass on this spiritual discipline.
Secondly, is corporate fasting prohibited? No, of the sixteen or so references to fasting in the New Testament, about half are congregational and serve to:
- express sorrow for sin,
- seek community forgiveness,
- focus on kingdom work, or
- discern direction.
But as Wilkins rightfully contends, even corporate fasting must follow the same principles of privacy and sincerity while avoiding attention-seeking.
The last question pertains to “how.” Again, grace abounds regarding the duration and extent of abstinence. What is important is our attitude and intent. We can benefit from a meaningful fast of one meal if we use our time to connect with God through prayer, worship, meditating on Scripture, or even serving others. And the hunger pains act as our alarm clock to remind us to turn our affections toward our holy and loving Father and Son. Indeed, the heart of fasting is intimate fellowship with them.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who fasted forty days in the wilderness to prepare for his mission to live, die, and rise from the grave to bring us eternal life in communion with you, our Triune God. So would you please help us to follow your Holy Spirit’s lead in discerning if, when, and how we should fast so that we might draw closer to you in intimate fellowship? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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