When You Fast – Matthew 6:16-18

As he did with almsgiving and prayer, Jesus redefines fasting as a private act of worship. Jesus assumes his disciples will fast since he says “when you fast.” But the true disciple of Jesus will practice fasting in a way which does not draw attention to themselves. Quite a few years ago I had a friend start a ten-day fast. I remember this because he reminded every day (sometimes several times a day) that he was fasting. It is like the old joke, how do you know someone is a Vegan? Talk to them for five minutes.

Spirital FastingWhen the hypocrites fast, everyone knows what they are doing. The hypocrites “destroy (ἀφανίζω) their faces, a verb which means to render something unrecognizable, even “wear a disguise.” The Pharisees “seem to don masks during their fasting” (BDAG). Perhaps they wore older clothes or even sackcloth to appear to be in great distress after a long fast. The hypocrite wants people to know they are fasting so they are thought to be especially spiritual. Just like the one who makes a demonstration of almsgiving or public prayers, everyone knows the person is fasting.

Unlike the hypocrites, Jesus tells his disciples not to look like you are fasting. Jesus says his disciples should not “look somber” of “gloomy” (σκυθρωπός). The only other place this word appears in the New Testament is Luke 24:17, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus looked gloomy after the crucifixion. In LXX Psalm 37:7 (ET 38:6) the verb describes a person who is in mourning.

The person who is fasting should would wash daily, but the hypocritical person might not wash at all in order to appear in more distress. Jesus says, “Clean yourself up and look normal” when you fast. More than looking normal, Jesus seems to advise appearing to be “not in mourning.” Anointing one’s head was done as a sign of joy (Ps 23:4), perhaps more than daily personal cleanliness (it is more special than “use shampoo and conditioner).

Is there really spiritual benefit to fasting? Augustine said “Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.” (Cited by Wimmer, Fasting in the New Testament, p. 114)

As should be clear from the overview of biblical fasting, the practice does have a place in the Christian life as a spiritual discipline.

One important observation about Jesus’s teaching on fasting is that did not cite any examples of people who have fasted in the Old Testament, Moses or Elijah, nor did he put his own experience forward as a model of how to fast. Although there are people who have completed forty day fasts, this is not the normal practice in the ancient world and it is never presented as a model for modern Christians.

It is not the case that a longer fast is “more spiritual” than a short fast, or that a total fast is better than a fast during the day with a small meal in the evening. Like communion, whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.

McKnight offers two very important warnings about fasting. First, churches should be very careful about how the present fasting because eating disorders are dangerous and some people may be negatively impacted by a period of fasting. Second, fasting is not abstaining from some particular activity (such as giving something up for Lent). Even though people go on an “internet fast” or a “TV fast,” this is not at all what the Bible is talking about (McKnight, Sermon, 202).

As Jesus commanded, fasting should be a private practice as much as possible. It is possible for a faith community to use prayer and fasting when coming to an important decision. Like Paul and Barnabas, perhaps a day of fasting and prayer can be used for appointing leaders or commissioning people to ministry.

In addition, churches could consider a day of fasting in response to a terrible event in the life of the community, or even in the life of the nation. McKnight suggest a time of prayer and fasting in response to a natural disaster or terrorist attack. The point would not be an attempt to manipulate God into action, but to focus the attention on God in response to the disaster.

But if someone decides to go through a period of fasting, they last thing they ought to do is announce it for all to hear, or sigh loudly when they are hungry, or go out to lunch and not eat in order to make every one aware of their spiritual discipline.

Those who fast ought to focus on their response to God, not in order to create a spiritual experience. This is not biblical, even though fasting can put one in a psychological place to have a spiritual experience.

I would love to hear from some readers on their own experience with fasting as a spiritual discipline. How does a private fast differ from a public demonstration? How does fasting focus one’s spiritual thinking?

19 thoughts on “When You Fast – Matthew 6:16-18

  1. Fasting was intended to be a private event between you and God. It allows you to get close to God and rely on him for your strength. We should be careful on the way that we fast though. I do not have much experience with fasting (I love eating), but I struggle with the experience that I do have.

    In my experience with fasting, I did it with my church youth group. We did it for 30 hours and raised support for an organization. We would go around and ask people to pray and donate to the organization for us fasting. I am not sure how I feel about doing this. In one way I feel like it is a positive way to fast because we raised support for organizations, prayed for them, and spent a lot of time focusing on God. On the other hand, we did it in the public because we told people we were doing it in order to raise the support. I am torn on this aspect of it. I am curious as to what others think of this. Feel free to comment letting me know what you think of raising support for an organization while fasting.

    • In response to you Nick, I was thinking about this same thing as when my church fasted together, it was not just between me and God but it was the whole congregation and God. I found it almost to be distracting at times as I would want to compare myself to someone else who might have “slipped up” by eating a snack. In my situation I started fasting not because I wanted to feel empathy with those who were hurting around me, but because I did not understand what it was exactly, and I thought God might reveal Himself in a different way to me through fasting.
      In your experience however, I think that there are multiple different ways in which we can raise money for organizations that do not involve advertising your fasting. As we look back to how the hypocrites made themselves look like they were in worst state then they were actually in to bring attention to themselves, and today we do the same thing as we make it known to the world that we are fasting.
      A thought that also came to my mind is; how do you preach about the power and purpose of fasting without boasting about your own fasting habits? I think the church needs to be encouraged to fast but not for the purpose of gaining anything, but to be reminded of the hurt of others around them. I think it is possible for pastors to share about their experiences of fasting without trying to be seen, however it is a very fine line.

    • I agree with you nick and this has just helped me to understand the purpose and meaning of fasting. While fasting it is not for you to focus on how hungry you may be but what can you fill your mind with besides the thought of food. Prayer and building your relationship with God. Allows your mind to rely on God more to help this need you are craving. This allows you to rely on Gods power to feed you with his love.

    • I agree with you, Nick, that fasting is supposed to be between you and God. Growing you mentally and physically closer to God and to fully rely on Him for your strength. Personally, I have never fasted but I do believe it’s a good tool to use to grow spiritually. And I would also agree with you that I would struggle to answer your question. Being that fasting is supposed to be done privately with God my initial thought is that it probably wasn’t the best idea. However, to raise money for an good organization is never a bad idea and in doing so to point to Jesus Christ and the truth, is also a good thing. I’m not sure how to deal with it, obviously it’s up to God and I think in your case what you did with your youth group as a way to give back to the community and Jesus Christ was not the wrong thing to do. Everything that we do to bring honor and glory to Jesus and point to Him, He is always appreciative of our actions and intentions! Never will He be disappointing in that. No matter what we do, God knows our hearts and if it’s to honor and glorify Him we are doing the right thing. That being said, I think what you did was good in God’s eyes. His Kingdom was represented and the community was given a testimony of His heart and love. And as Christians, that’s our goal in life; to point to Jesus Christ.

  2. I believe that fasting is appropriate for all believers, of all ages, throughout all centuries. Like it is mentioned above, fasting is a personal experience with the Lord. It does not require us to tell everyone to be praying for us because we are fasting. That’s nonsense. And fasting is not some religious work that everyone must check of their to-do list. McKnight writes, “those who convert piety into performance are the least; those who fast properly are the ‘great’” (197). It is not a spiritual disciple that one achieves to be outwardly rewarded or to feel like they have a leg-up in their faith compared to other believers. In my experience with fasting, it was about being deprived of my natural wants/needs and realizing that God will always sustain me. It was a time when I was in intimate contact with the Holy Spirit, requesting for God to fill my need for food with the Word that brings nourishment and life. 1 Corinthians 3:16 says, “do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” I love the reminder that this verse offers. I think we sometimes forget the power we are given by the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. We can initiate the Holy Spirit to action if we are investing in our relationship with God. McKnight writes that “we are body, soul, and spirit… fasting in the Bible is the organic, a unified response of a whole person to a sacred moment” (201). Fasting is a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual experience that urges us to seek out how we must rely on God, because He is our daily bread and our portion forever.

  3. Fasting is a tricky subject to talk about with the modern church since it is a lost spiritual discipline. Not many people within the church fast anymore, and fasting from one item for lent is not the same spiritual discipline. I have had friends in high school look forward to lent because it was “dieting season” as they called it. They could go on a diet and would be more likely to succeed because their family was participating too. There are two things that can be learned from this; one, fasting is not an excuse to diet. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that involves food, not cutting out carbs. Second, fasting can be a communal activity. Fasting does not always have to be alone, as it can be done in a group of people or an entire church. Esther shows this when she, her maids, family and friends all fast together in great time of distress (Esther 4:16). However, fasting is not for seeking glory from man. Fasting is usually a response to a tragic event, as seen in the book of Esther. Fasting is a disciple that was used to show repentance and gain closeness to God in time of grave disaster and danger. By the time of Jesus, fasting was not a sacred event that happened in response of an event, rather it was a requirement amount the religious elite. Monday and Thursday were the fasting days of the week. Nowhere throughout the law does it state that fasting must occur twice a week. Rather, Pharisees took it upon themselves to fast frequently. The reason the Pharisees began to fast frequently is because they wished to seek earthly glory by being seen as “more holy” to the general public. This is why they took great care in announcing their fasting. As McKnight states, “Fasting has been abused in the history of the church… as people used it to enhance their reputations” (p. 199). It is important to respect the act of fasting and remember that it is a holy act to please and respect God.

  4. Reading this section of McKnight has truly helped me understand fasting. In my home growing up no one in my family ever fasted, and the only time I heard about it (besides in the Bible) was when someone mentioned our pastor was taking a sabbatical and that he would be fasting. As far as I understood, a sabbatical was a time where that person was isolated and disconnected from the world and only spent their time in God’s word and praying. The only other experience I had with fasting was last year when my church (different from the last church mentioned), called the congregation to fast as they were in a time of making decisions for the church and trying to raise money to expand. We would fast on Thursday’s and then meet for worship that night. I guess my overall understanding was that we should fast when we want to totally depend on God to come through in something. McKnight instead suggests that we should not focus on what we get out of fasting, but the focus is on responding to sacred and grievous moments in life (194). This paints a beautiful picture of how we are to morn with those who morn as Romans 12:15 states.
    When I fasted I was often very conscious of how hungry I was and used every moment I thought about it to pray. I think this is the right thought as when we can feel just slightly as those who are going through situations in real life when they have no access to food, or who are going through a season of grief we are reminded to pray for them and walk alongside them.

    • mary, im glad the reading gave a new view on the subject. I also liked how you put the examples of the two churches, that really puts it in persepctive, that not everyone knows or understands exactly what fasting is.

  5. Fasting has a colorful history(McKnight, 193). Fasting has been seen as something the church does to gain benefit, to be more spiritual. Really, we fast to grow in our relationship with God. It has been said that those who have fasted haven’t felt that higher level of spirituality. When in all reality, fasting is just one way to suppress the way of the flesh, and bringing fourth our spiritual needs. Fasting isn’t just something you do, just to say you’ve done it, but rather something the holy spirit moves you to do. “John Wesley, fasted[not for the flesh but rather for God] in that he was filled with strong anxiety about the wrath of God”(McKnight, 194). Fasting is entering into what seems to be another realm, to experience the things Jesus experienced when he fasted. In Israels time, fasting occurred when Gods glory was dishonored. By the time of Jesus it was something that occurred weekly, something of the pharisees (McKnight, 195). intention is everything. If one fasts in order to gain of the flesh, then it has no meaning other then being of the flesh (McKnight, 197). Be careful, for God knows our hearts.

  6. Fasting is often unheard of now and is becoming to be more uncommon among Christians and churches. However, it’s still a good practice to keep because fasting allows us to connect better with God and to find what it truly means to depend on Him for our needs both mentally and physically. In the New Testament during the time of Jesus’ ministry He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to spend time with His Heavenly Father and encourages us to do the same in our lifetime. Reliance on God can transform us into a new person; giving us new values and a new outlook on life which can change our lives as a whole. Fasting does more than make you hungry. Its purpose is to bring us closer to God and help us rely on Him more thoroughly and to help us understand His faithfulness and provision over our lives. Our focus during this must be growing closer to God because without that in mind we will fall short of drawing closer to Him and will become weak because knowing the Spirit is to know God and we can’t do that with the wrong intentions. “If one fasts in order to gain of the flesh, then it has no meaning other than being of the flesh. Be careful, for God knows our hearts.” (McKnight, pg. 197). To truly find the Spirit we have to focus on knowing and believing that the Holy Spirit will help and guide us because He is faithful.

  7. I see that a lot people agreeing with Nick’s post, and how he mentions that fasting is a private, intimidate placement between God and that particular person who is fasting. I’m curious to see if within the Islamic beliefs of their routine of Ramadan has the same affect. Matthew 6:5 talks about how those who pray in front of people will receive their reward out in front of those people. This is a demonstration that we as believers should not do things out of the possibility of people seeing what we are doing, to obtain the benefits of getting their acceptance. I think Ramadan is a fast that everyone in the Islamic faith does, and everyone knows, does this idea of Matthew 6:5 applies? I’m not sure but it does make me wonder, because in Ramadan people fast from the same things, Catholics when they do Lent it’s the same diet, but when we fast as Christians, we fast from things we believe are distracting, things love to do, and fast from the routines of the world to hear the lord’s voice and what he might have to say to his children. This challenges God’s children to focus is on responding to sacred and grievous moments in life as mention in Sermon on the Mount (McKnight, 194). We allow ourselves to look into our lives to pick out the dirty specks we have become immune to. The importance of fasting being intimidate more than public, is because we all have different things we go through and only God know how to save us.

    • I don’t think Jesus was redefining fasting as a private matter. Certainly in the Old Testament it wasn’t necessarily private. See for example Joel’s call for a national fast (Joel 2:12-16) in hopes that God would relent in his judgment and once again bless the nation. And I think of the the church in Antioch who engaged in corporate fasting before sending out Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23).

      It wasn’t about private versus public, but about hypocritical show versus a genuine fast that demonstrated a heart for God. Hence the praise for the widow in the birth narrative: “Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer.” (Luke 2:37, NLT)

      “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” (Matt 6:16–18, NLT)

  8. I did many 30 hour famines in high school as a way to raise money for people living in poverty. I honestly think this is not a good example for kids about how to fast. The reason being that you tell EVERYONE that you’re fasting in hope that they give you money. Although their was reason behind this type of fasting the boasting made it of the flesh. McKnight warns against fasting for reasons of the flesh, then it is only for human good, not a real spiritually burdened fast (p. 197). Youth should be taught how to fast for intentional reasons and to fast in private.

  9. To me, when someone fasts, they are taking something before God and presenting it to Him saying that they are going to takt this thing. Whatever it may be and stop doing it for a period of time so that they are able to focus on God without distractions. Some fasts last a week, some last a whole year. Which this is more of a private thing to do with you and God. You are declaring to God that you are doing this to focus on Him. And most of the time it is in private, which is good.
    I haven’t really ever done a hardcore fast, however I am totally all for it. Fasting something can open your eyes up to seeing things that God has been doing all your life that you were too distracted to see in the first place. Now, when we get into the discussion on whether or not public fasting within a church is good or not, I don’t really know what to believe. Sometimes doing something like that in a group with people that all believe in the same thing, it might be easier to do sine there is some accountability there. However, I think the focus could be lost easier as well. Just like our topic on prayer, and if it should be done in private or not, I can’t control someone if they want to do this privacy or in public. Again, it comes down to the heart motive. If you are truly something to focus on God, then by all means do it. But if you are doing it just to show off to your friends then I think that is wrong.

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