Fasting Does Not Slow Us Down

Read Mt. 6:16-18

Many Protestants avoid fasting, thinking it to be a vestige of Medieval asceticism that is somehow alien to Reformed piety.

The third example in this context concerns fasting that is not pretentious. A third time Jesus begins by denouncing the showy spirituality involved. In v. 16, he does not say fasting is wrong. He encourages it in v. 17. What is wrong is to wear a placard saying, “I’m humble; I’m fasting and suffering for God.”

This is what the hypocrites did. When the Pharisees of Jesus’ time fasted, they would appear in the marketplace with hair disheveled and clothes soiled and unkempt. Their appearance would loudly proclaim that they were fasting, and this fast was intended to be a sign of their superior piety. They wanted everyone to notice.

“What began as spiritual self-discipline was prostituted into an occasion for pompous self-righteousness. Some would wear glum and pained expressions on their faces, go about their business unwashed. . . and sprinkle ashes on their head, all to inform their peers that they were fasting. What was once a sign of humiliation became a sign of . . . self-righteous self-display.” (Carson)

But Jesus says, whenever you fast, don’t look downcast, somber, or deprived. For if you fast only to receive public acclaim, then sure enough you’ll have it, but that’s all the reward you’ll receive. That’s your payment in full.

On the contrary, as v. 17 teaches, you are to anoint your head as a sign of rejoicing. And you are to wash your face. Go on as normal, not seeking to draw attention to yourself. Verse 18 begins with a purpose clause, “so that.” Rather than the purpose of fasting being so that men will see, the true disciple fasts so that it will not be obvious or showy to men but obvious only to our Father who is unseen. Again, the omniscient Father is well able to reward this type of sincere worship.

So we have three examples of Jesus’ main point. Have you been examining your motives as we’ve proceeded? We should. Do you ever pray in any way to bring attention to your great piety or spirituality or maturity? Or do you pray with meaningless repetition? “Now I lay me down to sleep” may be fine for the child, but is the same prayer each time for an adult a sign of growth or retardation? Better be sincere and short and unpolished than eloquent and routine. Do you ever give and then tell about your generous giving to bring attention to yourself? Let us be careful and honest. When you fast, do you want everyone to know how dedicated you are?

Jesus could well have given other examples like these:

  • Do you show off your memorization of Scripture verses to prove your maturity?
  • Do you ever boast of suffering for Christ’s sake?
  • Are you ever overheard bragging about your church attendance or length of membership? Or on the flip side, do you trumpet how broken you are for attention?
  • Have you ever paraded your gifts of the spirit as effectiveness in witnessing?
  • Do I preach so as to be recognized as a great man of God?

You see, Jesus tells us that there are many dangers. He doesn’t enumerate them all. He gives three examples and the main principle. That’s why verse 1 begins with a warning: Be careful! “Our Lord is concerned throughout this sermon with our motivation, with the hidden thoughts of the heart,” as John Stott notes. He wants the whole of our spirituality to be done for God alone—not to bring attention to ourselves.

D. A. Carson puts it well:

The thrust of Matt 6:1-18 is humbling. Matthew 5’s demand for righteousness is now complemented by the insistence that such righteousness must never become confused with pious ostentation, with play-acting piety. The question is raised in its most practical form. Who am I trying to please by my religious practices? Honest reflection on that question can produce most disquieting results. If it does, then a large part of the solution is to start practicing piety in the secret intimacy of the Lord’s presence. If our ‘acts of righteousness’ are not primarily done secretly before him, then secretly they may be done to please men. The negatives of these verses are actually an important way of getting to the supreme positive namely, transparent righteousness, genuine godliness, unaffected holiness, unfeigned piety these are superlatively clean and attractive. The real beauty of righteousness must not be tarnished by sham.[1]

We should be a praying, giving, fasting church—but never to be recognized for this spiritual magnanimity, but only out of love for and to please God! The believer wants to be alone in prayer with God. He wants to give only for God’s eye. And we know that, whether in prayer, giving, or anything, we deal with a heart-searching, all-knowing God. He knows our motives as well as our actions, and we wish to please him—not men.

It is the damning indictment of the Pharisees in John 12:43 that they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. Whose approval do you seek today? Let our acts of devotion be done only for the approval of God—not for others lest we usher in a new revival of Pharisaism.

They have received their reward in full.

Your Father sees.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978). 73.


David Hall