Reflecting on Jesus’ Teaching about Fasting

Matthew 6:16-18 “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

These verses have been played out by many in the most literal way possible. People often put more energy and emphasis on the keeping of a secret than they do the intention of the fast. It is common to hold to an unspoken belief that no matter how pure the intent nor how long the fast, if someone, even a fellow believer, finds out, they will lose all the blessings and benefits related to the fast.

While in a recent conversation, I came to the realization about the commands and teachings of Scripture. Many Christians’ approach to practicing Christian faith puts an overemphasis on the details without capturing the heart behind it. We develop concepts about God and faith, prayers and blessings more in a theoretical way and less in a relational way. By doing so, we neglect cultivating a relationship with Jesus. Sadly, when we remove relationship from our concept of God, what we are left with is a practice more like pagan superstition, where my blessing must come from precisely holding to the formula. We err in trying to avoid the practice of the “hypocrites” and end up following the example of the superstitious. If our hearts really were about connecting with God on a deeper level through fasting, do you really think he would withhold that connection because people found out about the fast? “Oh Ye of little faith!!” The hypocrites’ motive is always to bring attention to themselves. They superstitious pagans’ motive is to manipulate situations and deities to get what they want. The Christian motive is relational connection with God through Jesus Christ.

Maybe the next time we feel the need to press into God through fasting and we are asked to go out to lunch after church or to dinner one evening with a believer, we try to be less cloak and dagger about the fast. This could resolve potential socially awkward exchanges like:

 

Mike: “Hey, Frank, now that church is over, many of us are heading out to lunch, you wanna come?

Frank: “I think I’ll pass.”

Mike: “You sure? Do you have other plans then?”

Frank: (Who doesn’t have other plans) “I’m just not hungry. Anyway, I have things I need to get done.”

When so much of Christian culture involves hanging out and eating, a person who regularly goes out with the group tips others off that something is different. What if we didn’t have the pressing need to “Keep the secret by any means necessary?”, knowing that the motive of my heart is not to bring attention to myself (which when Frank tried to get out of going to lunch, did exactly that), nor to manipulate God to get what I want. The conversation could be more casual.

Mike: “Hey Frank, now that the service is over, we’re heading out to lunch, you coming?”

Frank: “I’ll have to pass this time, thanks anyway.”

Mike: “You sure! Do you have other plans?”

Frank: “It’s been on my heart to draw closer to God through prayer and fasting. I have allocated some time for fasting and want to hold to that commitment to the Lord.”

Mike: “Ok. No worries. Let’s catch up for a bite when you’re done. I’m glad you’re honoring the Lord that way.”

An exchange like that is not going to rob Frank of his connection with God. He is very clear about his motive for avoiding the group due to his intention. He also didn’t showcase his actions (Which is what the hypocrites do). He didn’t draw unnecessary attention to himself and his friend Mike understands and respects his desire.

Just a small point to ponder for the week!

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