When you fast

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

People who fast give up something voluntarily for a time. Generally, when we think of fasting, we think of giving up food, or at least some kind of food. Fasting can also meaning giving up an activity, such as video games or surfing the Internet. Some fasts are performed for religious reasons; others are done for medical reasons. Fasting often has a goal for this lifetime: a healthy body, or a clearer mind, or a better way of life.

Jesus assumes that we will fast for religious reasons. He assumes that fasting is part of our relationship with God. Jesus warns us not to fast to impress other people. He tells us to keep our fasting a secret that is known only to us and to God. Jesus could easily have added that fasting for other reasons, such as our own health, should not be confused with fasting for God.

Perhaps some of us would benefit from fasting. We might lose weight and improve our health. Such a fast is not rewarded by God, except in the way that his creation functions to reward our fasting with health benefits. If we fast to break a bad habit and gain control over our lives, that fast is also not rewarded by God aside from the rewards we receive through his creation. When we fast for worldly reasons, we are not fasting for God. Our goals may be good, and we may achieve them; but when we achieve those goals, we have received the only reward we will get for fasting.

We fast for God to show him that we love him. We fast for God to show him that nothing is more important to us than he is. When we choose to fast for God—whether we choose to go without food for a day or television for a week or chocolate for a month or alcohol for the rest of our lives—we learn self-control. By saying no to a desire, we learn to say no to temptations. We do this for God, as part of our relationship with him. We are not trying to improve ourselves or impress other people.

Some people treat their fasting as a way of bargaining with God, doing something for him that will force God to do something for us. Such an attitude reveals an unhealthy relationship with God. Some people try to force others to fast along with them, delivering a group message to God by their fasting. Such fasting is also not done in the spirit of what Jesus teaches regarding the privacy of fasting.

Fasting teaches us about Jesus—that is its greatest reward. When we give up something for Jesus, we remind ourselves of all that Jesus surrendered to rescue us. All glory belongs to him, and he is in charge of the universe. Yet he left his exalted position to live among us as one of us. Then, as one of us, he sacrificed his comfort, his freedom, his health, and even his life to pay for our sins and to claim us for his kingdom.

If our fast reminds us of what we want, we receive—at best—only worldly rewards for our fasting. When our fast reminds us of Jesus and his saving work on our behalf, then we receive an eternal reward. We have faith in Jesus. We have fellowship with him. Those gifts are worth far more than any other reward we might gain from fasting. J.