When you fast, do not look sombre

16 “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

Prayer and Fasting doing battle with Envy in a Bulgarian fresco. By Edal Anton Lefterov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Prayer and Fasting doing battle with Envy in a Bulgarian fresco. By Edal Anton Lefterov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

I work in an environment where men are significantly outnumbered by women. I’m aware that this may sound incredibly sexist, but when I sit down for lunch, one of the most common topics for discussion is dieting. It seems that at any given time at least a couple of my colleagues are on a diet. The current diet of choice seems to be the 5:2 diet, which I believe involves eating normally on five days of the week, whilst fasting (or semi-fasting at least) on the other two days. Fasting is something of an alien concept to me. Whilst at university I participated in something that could be described as a meal-fast; we skipped a meal and donated the money that we would have spent on food to a charity working in Africa, whilst also meeting for prayer time when we would have been eating. That’s as far my experience of fasting goes.

It’s interesting, therefore, that during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers how they should fast. Jesus takes it for granted that his followers will fast, saying not if you fast but when you fast. He identified fasting as part of the Christian experience. Fasting is not a common experience for Christians today, however. Perhaps, in the light of these verses it should be something that we do far more often. A quick flick through the Bible shows that in both the Old and New Testaments, fasting was a common feature of a Godly life. Fasting seems to have been particularly linked with prayer. We see in the book of Daniel that he records, ‘so I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes’ (Daniel 9:3). In Luke’s gospel, the prophet Anna ‘never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying’ (Luke 2:37). The prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch are recorded as praying and fasting: ‘So after they had fasted and prayed…’ (Acts 13:3). When Paul and Barnabas selected leaders for the churches in Acts, ‘with prayer and fasting, committed [them] to the Lord’ (Acts 14:23). Clearly there is precedent for fasting. No doubt it helps a prayer to focus their mind on their prayers, whilst also demonstrating personal self-discipline and commitment to seeking God’s will through prayer.

Should we choose to adopt fasting in our own faith life, Jesus offers some clear guidance in the verses above. Just as we must ensure that our giving and our prayer are focused on God and not intended to be outward signs of piety, intended to encourage people to look our us and our religiosity in awe, so we should not seek to draw attention towards ourselves as we fast. We should not be dramatically somber or disfigure our faces, to make it plain that we are fasting. People who fast in this way are hypocrites who have received their reward in full. Instead, we should keep our outward appearance exactly the same as usual and avoid making our fasting obvious to those around us. If we fast in this discrete fashion, our Father in heaven will see us and reward us.

I wonder if, like me, you’ve been challenged by these verses? I wonder if you will consider fasting from time to time? If we aspire to be like Christ, we could do far worse, since he, after all, fasted from time to time. If we wish to deepen our prayer life, fasting could be beneficial. We must ensure, however, that our fasting is not intended to draw attention to ourselves, but purely to deepen our relationship with God.

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