Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward (Matthew 6:16)
I’m confident we all know the possibility of doing this, so… no, this isn’t what really strikes a nerve for me in this verse. To do things with the wrong motive is a battle I’m very aware of. It is what Jesus assumes, that everyone who is His, will be consistently doing that catches my eye.
He naturally concludes in this chapter that believers can be identified as people who give, pray,… and fast. Notice in verses 2, 7, and 16, He says, “When (not if) you give, pray, and fast, then…”
Does Jesus really see fasting as an important part of the believer’s life? What can possibly be gained from starving ones’ self from… well, not just food? One author defined fasting (simply for me) as “doing without something in order to grow in grace and to appreciate God more.” What did he mean by this?
Basically, there are three types of hunger that every believer encounters regularly. First, we have a physical hunger that includes things like food and other things necessary for survival (by the way, I am told that we are the first generation to ’live to eat, rather than eat to live’).
Second, we have emotional hunger pains such as the need for attention and recognition. I think we can all relate with this hunger. We all have a desire to be noticed, cared for, and loved.
There’s also though the spiritual hunger we’re given at the new birth experience. Unfortunately, the third is usually the neglected hunger… treated much like a bear’s stomach when he hibernates in the winter. It is very possible to spend all of our time feeding our physical and emotional hungers while starving the new creation Christ Jesus has given us.
To further drive home the reality of overemphasizing the first two hungers and neglecting the third, Paul wrote:
“For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Philippians 3:18-19 ESV
Fasting is an opportunity to feed our spiritual hunger. When we neglect our physical and emotional hungers in lieu of our spiritual hunger, we not only appreciate them more, but we also open the door for God to fill those voids with His Word and His will.
We shouldn’t forget though that Jesus began this dissertation with a warning. There is also the opportunity to use fasting wrongly. It can be used for show… to which Jesus declares the reward is in the recognition. In this case, we’re only feeding our emotional hunger.
We can also find ourselves fasting with the motivation for gain from God. While there are times when the Bible calls on us to fast to move mountains, we should not do so to gain approval or self-gratifying wishes. Nor should we fast with the belief that it makes us better Christians or enter into a fast with a holier-than-thou attitude, as though fasting makes us more pleasing to God or better than those who do not fast.
We are perfected in Christ alone. We are pleasing in God’s eyes because of Jesus, not by anything we do. It was His work that made and makes us better Christians. We do not fast to twist God’s arm to work for us, but to humble ourselves so that He can work in us… to transform us into the image of His Son.