Series: Student Ministry: The Sermon on the Mount

I was once in a church service listening to a sermon when the pastor mentioned fasting because it was in the text. His comment struck me as completely wrong. He jokingly said, “Not that we do that.” Then he laughed. That is far from the expectation of Jesus. You will see that Jesus both commends fasting and expects His people to practice it and forbids fasting for attention. Far from being insignificant or not practiced, Jesus upholds fasting as a good thing that Christians should do.

Fast Toward God, Not Others (Matthew 6:16-18)

What Is Fasting?

Fasting is practiced often throughout the Scriptures but what is it? Fasting is giving up of something for a spiritual purpose. It is giving up eating food entirely (Daniel 10:2-3), or certain foods (Daniel 1:8-14)for a period of time, or abstaining from some activity for a designated amount of time (Exodus 19:15; 1 Corinthians 7:5). Sometimes it was a day. Sometimes it was weeks. But it was not a giving up of food that would harm the body. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those who would become ill due to fasting from food would not fast in times of corporate fasting. It is also important to note that just skipping some meals is not fasting in the Biblical sense (Colossians 2:23). That is just being hungry.

John Piper gives what I think is the best definition of fasting that I have seen. He says,

“Half of Christian fasting is that our physical appetite is lost because our homesickness for God is so intense. The other half is that our homesickness for God is threatened because our physical appetites are so intense. In the first half, appetite is lost. In the second half, appetite is resisted. In the first, we yield to the higher hunger that is. In the second, we fight for the higher hunger that isn’t. Christian fasting is not only the spontaneous effect of a superior satisfaction in God; it is also a chosen weapon against every force in the world that would take that satisfaction away.”

John Piper, “A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer”, Crossway Books, 1997, P. 14

Elsewhere he says,

“Fasting is not a no to the goodness of food or the generosity of God in providing it. Rather, it is a way of saying, from time to time, that having more of the Giver surpasses having the gift.”

John Piper, “A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer”, Crossway Books, 1997, P. 44

So, fasting is the giving up of something to have more of the Giver.

I can imagine this in a number of ways. Let’s suppose that you decided to fast from television and your phone for one week. If, rather than look at your phone and television you stared at the ceiling you wouldn’t be fasting. You would be staring at your ceiling, which probably causes less brain damage but that is another topic. Yet, if you give up your phone and television to grow closer to God and have more of Him then you are fasting.

Another instance might be the giving up of meat for a week. I shudder at the thought of it. I’d rather not eat anything than to not have meat for a day. Yet, let’s suppose that I do this. If I just not eat meat then I may have lost some weight but I wasn’t fasting. However, if I deprive myself of God’s gift of bacon and spend time in prayer to deepen my satisfaction in God and away from food then I have been fasting.

Christians are not obligated to fast at certain times. Yet, Jesus does discuss Christian’s participating in fasting.

When You Fast

The fact that something is not practiced often in our churches does not mean that it’s not supposed to be. In fact, Jesus’ attitude toward fasting is quite telling. He simply opens up the discussion by saying, “When you fast”. Think about this. There is no idea in Jesus’ mind or thinking that fasting was going to be done away with. He just says “when you fast”.

We live in a society that does not prize giving up things. We have to have the best home, vehicle, television, newest phone, gaming system, video games, you name it and we have to have the best and have it now. Our society does not prize going without. Yet, as Christians we long for a different home. In a self-indulgent culture such as ours maybe we should give up our phone for a time, television, certain foods or food (done safely of course and with the permission of your parents). Maybe we need to do without sometimes to remind ourselves that this is not our home and we are longing for something greater. We are longing for the one who made and gave all of these gifts.

Don’t Fast Like A Hypocrite

A common theme throughout the Sermon on the Mount is that of hypocrisy. We are not to give alms like the hypocrite, we give in secret not so everyone can see. We are not to pray like the hypocrite, we don’t pray for the praise of others. And here we see the same thing. We don’t fast for the praise of others.

Jesus says that when we fast we are not to let everyone know that we are fasting by the pitiful shape and look of our faces. You go about your day as normal. In dry climates putting oil on is sometimes necessary. I believe that this is still a custom in some arid climates for the protection of skin. Jesus is saying, bathe and put your oils on, don’t make yourself look disfigured for everyone else’s attention. Do this in secret.

Fasting is toward God and not toward others. Fasting is not done so that we can earn the applause of those around us. It is done so that we can find our satisfaction in God and not the things around us.

God Will Reward Your Secret

So similar is the teaching here with that of prayer and the giving of alms. If you give in secret than God will reward what you have done in secret. He sees you even if no one else notices. But if you seek the applause of others then your reward is the applause of others and God will not be giving you any additional rewards for what you have done. In this case, you will have deprived yourself of something that you really wanted for an applause from the people you looked really sad to impress. It’s so weird when you say it out loud.

Concluding Thoughts

Are Christians supposed to fast? Yes. What is the purpose? To grow in our love and dependence upon God. Since it is toward God and not others we do not make a show of it.

That seems pretty simple. The text is straight forward. Now, it is for us to apply this to our lives.