Matthew 6 is a chapter FULL of assumptions. By assumptions, I mean that when Jesus is teaching, He is not saying that giving, praying, fasting, spending, and living are optional. Far from it! He is assuming that you will do all of these things, and then He tells you how to do them well.
The third of these assumptions is found in verses 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. 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."
“…When you fast…”
Jesus assumes that we will fast. That we will have frequent occasions when we will give up food, pleasure, comforts, tv, video games, etc in what we call “fasting”.
He confirms this expectation in Matthew 9:14-15 when He explains that His disciples aren’t fasting because He is physically present, but that once He goes away for a time (being the time we’re currently in), that His disciples (you and I) will fast.
There’s so much to be learned about fasting, but only so much that is covered in this section by Jesus. If you want to study more on fasting, there is a book by John Piper called “A Hunger for God” that speaks on fasting in more depth. You can download the PDF for free on his website (at this link), or you can buy it there as well.
As far as Matthew 6 is concerned, there is only one thing we need to be sure to know about fasting, and that is the state of our heart. Like the rest of these teachings by Jesus in Matthew 6, we see that fasting can be used to glorify and bring attention to ourselves, or it can be used to worship God.
Jesus launches directly into the issue. He says that you should not look “gloomy” or “disfigure their faces” so that others may know that they are on a spiritual quest of fasting. He actually goes to the other extreme and says that you should be “anointing your head” and “washing your face” so that you are taking every effort to hide your fasting from others. He claims that those who have a practice of purposely revealing that they are fasting have already gained their reward from others (praise, and admiration), but that those who hide their fasting are storing up a reward from God Who "sees in secret."
However, as mentioned in the “As You Give” post, we can take this too far. We can avoid contact with others for fear of them realizing that we are fasting. In reality, someone will almost always find out that we are fasting. A coworker noticing that we haven’t been eating lunch, or a spouse who knows you didn’t eat breakfast or lunch. These are not the situations that Jesus is condemning, but rather the heart that chooses to fast in order to have these people realize just how “spiritual” we are for fasting.
Fasting, at it’s heart, is meant to bring a question to the forefront of our minds: “Do I desire God more than these things?” I encourage you, if you have not fasted in the past month, or maybe even ever, to fast for 2 meals. Obviously there are medical things to consider if you are diabetic or have similar life-threatening considerations, but for the majority of us, we skip meals all the time. Jesus is asking us to take pause in our lives and to consider how important and forefront He is in our lives.
This will most likely be a time of repentance of issues in our hearts, but that’s the point. Fasting is not to attain a higher state of spirituality, but rather to show us how lowly and needy we are of God’s grace.
Two things to consider:
1. In Luke 18:12-14, Jesus tells a story:
"There once were two men. One said, 'I fast twice a week'; the other said, 'God be merciful to me a sinner.' Only one went down to his house justified.” (abbreviated)
Let’s learn from the first man’s mistake. He fasted, but in order to gain recognition. The second man had humility and was given mercy.
2. Richard Foster described fasting in this way:
“More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, “I humbled my soul with fasting” [Psalm 35:13]. 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 hunger. And then, we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ."
As you take time to fast, let it be used by God for your personal humbling, and His supernatural healing. God is our good physician, but only those who realize their need get to receive His healing.