Matthew 6:16-18 (NIV) “When you 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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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.”
In Jesus’ day, many people fasted to prove the sincerity of their devotion to God, or in an attempt to strengthen the power of their prayers. (See Daniel 9:3 and Esther 4:16 for examples where both were involved.)
Fasting was rarely prescribed by God, although there were times when He commanded the Israelites to “deny themselves,” usually when a judgment on them was being weighed. But in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees would often fast twice a week as a sign of the sincerity of their devotion to God (see Luke 13:11-12), and in order to strengthen their prayers. Unfortunately, some of them also fasted to demonstrate their piety to the people who would see them, hoping to receive their praise and admiration.
Just like those who gave to the needy conspicuously in order to receive praises from people, and those who prayed loud and gracefully worded prayers in order to receive praises from people, Jesus gave no kudos to those who fasted conspicuously in order to receive praises from people. Some would go out with sad and drawn faces, looking pale and emaciated so that others would notice. Others would stumble slightly as they walked along, and when offered help, would wave it off with a weary smile and a weak, “No, no, I’m fine. I’m just a little weak from fasting is all.” And off they would wearily shuffle, leaving in their wake a sea of admirers, all deeply impressed by their piety and devotion to God.
But, as in the other cases, this kind of fasting does nothing to impress God, earns no favor with Him, and in fact damages their relationship with Him, since their actions are designed to only LOOK as if God is their focus, when the real focus is on gaining the admiration of people.
Jesu’s advice to those who crave the attention of people over God’s approval is not to give up on fasting, but when they do it, to do it in such a way that it is actually acceptable to Him. If I want the effort of my fasting to be received by God, I need to fast before God, not before people – basically to do it in a such a way that nobody besides God will ever find out that it even happened. I need to dress normally; walk normally, with no weary stumbles or shuffling that will attract attention or prompt questions; and smile. If I do those things, no one besides God will know what is going on, no one but God will praise me, and no one but God will think highly of me for fasting.
Fasting is fine if I want to do it. It can sharpen my mind and open my spirit to God in wonderful ways. But it is not necessary to fast in order to win God’s approval, or He would have commanded it in His word. Instead, if we want God’s approval, obedience, not fasting is the key. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” (Isaiah 15:22) Even the sacrifice of fasting.
Father, as in all other things, help me to keep You as the center of all that I do. Help me to never crave the approval of people, but to always align myself with Your will, so that any approval or praise that I receive comes from You. Amen.