Fasting is seldom discussed today. Most pastors (present company included) would not count it as one of their favorite subjects, and probably wouldn't speak about it unless it came up while teaching a book or section of Scripture. Fasting is one of the most misunderstood and least practiced spiritual disciplines, or what I prefer to call "spiritual health habits." Most of us act as if the teachings on fasting are not at all important, but Jesus had a different view; He never minimized fasting.
On the other hand, He did correct and adjust the purpose and attitude that the religious attributed to it. In Matt. 6:16-18 He says,
When you do fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17] But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18] so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Jesus was contrasting the Pharisees' hypocritical practices with the genuine spiritual responses He desired of His disciples. The spiritual habits being discussed (giving, praying, and fasting) were practiced by both, but the motivations for involvement and the results were vastly different!
Notice how differently these spiritual exercises are approached. For the hypocrite, spiritual habits are outward and extravagant displays of personal piety. For the genuine participant, these spiritual exercises are to be kept secret when possible and motivated by genuine humility, which will be rewarded by God. Each of these—praying, giving and fasting—is to be approached as an authentic activity for all believers. We are to pray in order to seek God. We are to give that we might serve others. We are to fast in order to discipline ourselves.
These habits impact our relationships with God, others, and ourselves. Jesus took for granted that each would be a regular part of His disciples' lifestyle. He did not say "if" [you fast, e.g.], but "when." He expected His followers to fast, pray, and give. Each also has a caution attached to it. We must be properly motivated or it will turn into sin. With those general principles in mind, specifically we need an adjusting of our attitudes regarding fasting.
In this section of Scripture, Jesus does exactly that! He illustrates the negative approach and then contrasts it with the appropriate attitude toward fasting. His emphasis not only draws attention to the Pharisees' abuse of the practice, but also to our neglect of it today. He shows us that our appearance, aim, and audience will determine the effects of fasting.
The Practice of Fasting
Fasting was a common activity to every Jew in Christ's day. The Jew was obligated to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement, from morning until evening (Lev. 16:31). However, the Jews also fasted without being commanded—sometimes as a nation, sometimes individually. Reasons for fasting varied, including:
- to inquire of the Lord in light of pending decisions or potential actions (Judges 20:26; Esther 4:16)
- to plead with the Lord for the sick (e.g., David, while his first child born of Bathsheba was dying, 2 Sam. 12:26; Ps. 35:13)
- mourning (1 Sam. 31:13)
- to humble oneself before God (e.g., Ahab in 1 Kings 21:27)
- to confess sin and request God's mercy (1 Sam. 7:6; Neh. 9:1; Dan. 9:3)
- to petition God for safety (Ezra 8:21; Esther 4:16)
Fasting is mentioned 81 times in the Bible.
What did fasting entail?
In the Old Testament, the term for fasting has the primary meaning of complete abstinence from food. The word comes from an Arabic term which signifies abstinence from food, drink, conversation and sexual intercourse. A common synonym for fasting is: to inflict one's soul—Lev. 16:29.In the New Testament, the Greek word for fast means...not to eat, and can be used of a voluntary abstinence (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27). Put briefly, it is shunning food for spiritual purposes. (Stephen D. Swihart, The Victor Bible Source Book, Victor Books, Wheaton, Ill., 1977, p. 145).
Fasting is not confined to abstinence from eating and drinking; fasting really means voluntary abstinence for a time from various necessities of life, such as food, drink, rest, association with people... Fasting... does not involve looking upon the necessities of life... as unclean or unholy... Fasting implies merely that our souls at certain times need to concentrate on spiritual matters. (O. Hallesby, Prayer, Augsburg Pub. House, Minneapolis, Minn., 1960, p. 113).
The Scriptures describe four kinds of fasts:
- The absolute fast
This is extended abstention from food and drink and should be done only under a doctor's care. It is not recommended because more than one day can be damaging to your health and eventually fatal, because the body cannot exist without water. Examples: Ex. 34:28; Deut. 9:9; 1 Kings 19:5-8; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9.
- The normal fast
This is the most common. All foods are avoided, but water is taken.
- The partial fast
The only illustration of this type of fast is in Daniel. He did not eat meat or drink wine for 21 days—Dan. 10:3. On this type of fast, all desirable foods, meats, and specific drinks are avoided.
- Special action fast
Here attention is focused on obedience to God's commands with respect to those who are oppressed, hungry, and needy. As we deny ourselves, we give ourselves to others who have needs (see Is. 58). Some of us need this fast. We've been involved in special activities that benefit us, but avoiding the needy around us. The Lord calls this a sin. We may need to reacquaint ourselves with the needy for a period of time. From then on, our everyday concerns should include others' needs as well as our own.
The Partners to Fasting
Noting the context of Matthew 6 and taking into account the special action fast of Isaiah 58, it is clear that fasting in and of itself has no spiritual value. That's why it is third in the list of spiritual disciplines. Fasting should be accompanied by a giving and praying heart; we will not be blessed by God just because we deny ourselves food.
Prayer and fasting are coupled together. This is not so much a regular practice, so that whenever we pray we fast, but as an occasional and special arrangement, so that when we need to seek God for some particular direction and blessing, we turn aside from food and other distractions to do so... the evidence is plain, that special enterprises need special prayer and that special prayer may well involve fasting. John R.W. Stott, Christian Counterculture, InterVarsity Press, p. 137.
When we link these three disciplines together, we see fasting as an outgrowth of, or partner to, the first two. It is not a singular spiritual health habit.
The Correcting of the Hypocrites' Approach To Fasting
v. 16—When you do fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
The Pharisees knew the benefits and commands concerning fasting, but as with their prayer, evil lurked within the good. This is revealed in their aim for fasting.
That which God had designed to enable and focus their prayers was seriously soiled by sin. For the Pharisees, fasting became a means to get God's attention, like a bargaining chip in their hands. They thought God would be so impressed by their efforts that He would grant their requests.
This isn't new. Man has always thought that by inflicting pain upon himself he would compensate for his sin and/or impress God to give him what he asks. Man desires to earn his own salvation. The message of God's grace—unmerited favor—is foreign to the old nature that seeks to do something good enough to get God's approval. "I've lived a good life; I've not harmed my neighbor; I've paid my taxes; I go to church. Surely God will overlook my sin" is its claim. The message of the cross, however, is that Jesus alone is our salvation, for our righteousness is a pile of filthy rags. Without God's grace, we're lost! Be careful not to use fasting as a means to get your prayers answered. Don't try to obligate God to bless you. His blessings are a matter of grace, not a reward for our works. As we have already seen, the Pharisees' aim was not only to get God's attention, but men's. Their fasting was a show with a human audience. Jesus denounced this in Matthew 6:16: "When you do fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting." The Greek word used is theathenai; that is, they were in a theater performing for an audience. Their religion was a public spectacle, with fasting as a way to parade their piety (see Luke 18:8-14).
Many even today seek to draw attention to themselves—if not in fasting, then in their worship or service (Matt. 6:1). While it is impossible to prevent some of our good deeds from being seen by men and women (in fact, Jesus even encourages it in Matt. 5:16), the difference is in the goal: the only legitimate one is that others will praise the Father in heaven. Therefore, carry out your righteous acts in a way that won't draw attention to yourself. In your spiritual disciplines (prayer, giving, praise, fasting), make it your aim to draw attention to God.
Jesus did this throughout His ministry. People very seldom praised Him for His good deeds; their attention was drawn to God, and they praised Him for what Jesus did (e.g., Luke 19:37). With the Pharisees, however, their righteous acts weren't what people noticed; it was their appearance.
"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting." Picture these guys. They looked somber. They looked the part of spiritual martyrs doing their duty for God, and they did it by disfiguring their faces. The word disfigure means literally "to make to disappear, or render invisible/unrecognizable." So, what they did was neglect their personal appearance, or they covered their head with sack cloth, or perhaps smeared their faces with ashes in order to look pale, melancholy and so outstandingly holy (John Stott, Ibid, p. 139).
William Barclay, in his commentary on Matthew, describes the setting:
The Jewish days of fasting were Monday and Thursday market days, and into the towns and especially into Jerusalem, there crowded the people from the country; the result was that those who were ostentatiously fasting would on those days have a bigger audience to see and admire their piety. There were many who took deliberate steps to see that others could not miss the fact that they were fasting. They walked through the streets with hair deliberately unkempt and dishevelled, with clothes deliberately soiled and disarrayed. They even went the length of deliberately whitening their faces to accentuate their paleness. This was no act of humility; it was a deliberate act of spiritual pride and ostentation. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Westminster Press, 1975, p. 235.
What did all this accomplish? They did get the admiration of the onlookers, but that was it. Jesus remarked that they had received their full reward. The practice in and of itself had no spiritual value. Unfortunately, the end result of the Pharisees' fasting was that all spiritual blessings were lost because of improper motivations. How tragic! What a waste! Let's contrast that with the disciples' instruction.
The Contrast is Seen in the Disciples' Attitudes During Fasting
vv. l7-18—But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18] so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Christ's disciples were to put oil on their heads (cologne); to wash their faces; to present their normal appearance so that no one would suspect they were fasting. The disciples' aim was to restrict the observers. They weren't to desire the attention of men, but to view fasting and its symptoms as a means to an end—not the most important thing.
Their ultimate aim was to direct their attention to God and His purposes, to concentrate on Him. That in fact must be our aim in all spiritual disciplines, which are designed to restrict our attention so that we'll concentrate on God. Fasting can do that for us. The act of fasting enables us to lay aside other pursuits, worthwhile as they may be, and focus on God's heart and intention.
Spiritual health habits are valuable because they help us focus on our Audience. True Christians realize they are being watched by God. We can bluff the human audience—which can be wowed by our performance, thinking we're benevolent, prayerful and disciplined—but God knows for sure. Remember, God looks on our hearts, so we'd better choose our audience carefully!
So, our aims include restricting our observers and restricting our attention to God. In addition, the disciples have another aim: to restrict their bodies so that the Spirit can take the lead. Many Christians today don't emphasize their inward relationship to God, but fasting can help them focus on those inward realities.
The body wants its needs and cares to gain preference. The body wants to be pampered. The body, however, needs to be adjusted by fasting, so that the spirit of a man will take the lead. Fasting reverses the normal pattern of our life. Normally we starve our spirits and feed our flesh. We feed the body regularly, but we feed the spirit irregularly and sparingly, denying the spirit while we cater to the body. So fasting and prayer reverse the process, denying the body and concentrating on the spiritual needs of our lives.
It's obvious that the spirit is often weak because it hasn't gotten the attention it needs. We say: "I'm too tired to pray; I'm going to bed! I can't go to that small group; it will mess up my breakfast. I can't sit and study my Bible; I have too many things on my mind!"
Who's getting the attention then? The body gets the best of treatment, and spiritual needs are left to times convenient for the body. This will eventually hurt us. We can't cater to the old man and the flesh and expect to have spiritual health.
For the disciple, there is also another aim for fasting: to humble themselves before God. 2 Samuel 12:16 says that David pleaded with God for his child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. Sometimes this type of fasting is because of present and/or past sins. In the Old and New Testaments, when people were deeply distressed because of their sin, they would fast.
- Nehemiah assembled the people and called for a fast—Neh. 9:1.
- Jonah's preaching sponsored fasting in Ninevah—Jonah 3:5-9.
- Daniel sought the Lord with prayers and fasting—Dan. 9:3; l0:22-3.
- Saul fasted after his conversion—Acts 9:9.
After we have failed the Lord miserably, it is good to have a season of fasting and prayer. This will reorient our attention to God and give us a chance to strengthen our wounded spiritual lives.
Sometimes we humble ourselves before God in fasting, not only because of past sins, but also in light of future needs. Fasting and prayer are excellent helps to us when we need discernment about the future.
- Queen Esther fasted before she approached the king—Esther 4:16.
- Ezra proclaimed a fast before leading the children of Israel back to Jerusalem—Ezra 8:21-23.
- Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness before His public ministry began—Matt. 4:2.
- The church at Antioch fasted and prayed before Paul and Barnabas were sent out on the first missionary journey—Acts 13:2-3.
Fasting and special prayer, then, should be a regular exercise before any special activity or decision.
Another aim in fasting is to sponsor self-control over one's appetites. Paul believed in this strongly, indicating that subduing the body is necessary to control its appetites.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25) Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26) Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27) No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
Paul is not suggesting masochism (finding pleasure in self-inflicted pain); nor is he suggesting we sleep on a bed of spikes. We are not to punish our bodies, for they are God's creation and temples of the Holy Spirit, but Paul is calling us to discipline them so that they obey us. Fasting can help us succeed. The aim of a disciple in fasting might be to deliberately go without, so that he might share with those who don't have, i.e., the undernourished.
- Have a day of fasting and send the amount of money we would have spent to those who need it
- Cut back on our food bill so we can share with others
- Take from our abundance by sponsoring a needy child, giving to a food bank, sharing in benevolence.
One of the great tests of our lives is what we regard as essential. We must guard against being at the mercy of the luxuries of life. It's not evil to have things, but we must hold them lightly. Fasting and prayer will help us to focus on real needs and necessities.
Another aim might be to focus our prayer on the needs of others—2 Sam. 12:16.
Questions About Fasting
Let's answer some practical questions about fasting.
- How long should the fast be?
The duration of a fast depends on the type of fast undertaken, the need at hand, and the person fasting. The Bible has a number of fast periods: one day, three days, seven days, 14 days, 21 days, and 40 days. Duration is relative to the factors involved in the person's situation. God may lead some on a one-meal fast, others on a one-week fast. He may lead you on a partial fast, like Daniel. He may lead you to restrict your food budget and resources and give to the needy. The point is, the longevity of the fast does not determine its success or spirituality. We must be sensitive to God's leading and act accordingly.
- Are there safeguards we should observe while fasting?
Make sure you aren't acting foolishly. If you have a physical condition or ailment that might be negatively affected by a fast, undertake this discipline only under a doctor's care. On the other hand, if you are physically healthy, don't pamper yourself when a concentrated time of prayer and fasting is needed.
- How about starting and ending a fast?
Start gradually. Don't gorge yourself and then stop the next day. Decrease your intake gradually and increase your prayer. End a fast the same way: gradually. Don't abruptly end a fast and pick up your regular eating habits. Begin with liquids/soups and gradually begin to eat larger portions of food. I broke a fast one time with a chili burger, and I thought I was going to die!
What result from fasting will ultimately count the most? Your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. The unseen God will see that your heart and motives are right. Let me ask: What's the eternal recognition and praise of God worth to you? Think about that for a moment. What are the rewards that come in this life to the one who lives a fasting lifestyle, one of self-denial and focus on God?
Isaiah 58 gives a wonderful list:
- new light/insight/illumination
- increased testimony
- special divine protection
- answers to prayer
- continual guidance
- satisfaction in drought
- Our life will bubble like a spring
- Our life will be as a watered garden, producing much fruit
My prayer is that you will carefully choose your audience in your spiritual disciplines. Jesus watches our hearts today as He watches people putting gifts into the treasury while here on earth. As we pray, give, and fast, God is with us in the secret place. Remember, God hates hypocrisy, but He loves the reality of honest and willing sacrifices.
Reflect and Share Questions
- What has been your experience in fasting?
- Lessons learned?
- Any funny experiences?
- Answers to prayer?
- When do you seem the most motivated to fast?
- What scares you about fasting?
- What attracts you to fasting and prayer?
- Which of the fasts mentioned here do you think you might want to try in the future? Why? When?
- Why is prayer a needed partner to fasting?
- Go over each of the aims for fasting; discuss/meditate on why each is important to you, to your small group, or to the church.
- Can you think of a good reason for your small group or the church to fast together? What safeguards should we take?
- Do you think you need to fast now?
- What are your reasons?
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- Intro: Eagle Flight to Higher Heights
- Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines
- Journal Writing
- A Spiritual Checkup
- A Worship, Prayer & Listening Experience
- The REAPER
- The Garden of Prayer
- Our Pattern Prayer
- How to Pray Persistently
- A Person, Not a Procedure
- How to Spend an Hour In Prayer
- How To Spend a Day In Prayer
- Time Out with God: Meditation
- You Can Memorize Scripture
- The Adjustment of Fasting
- Planting a Garden of Praise
- Prayer Training