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. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Matthew 6:16-18

The first eighteen verses of Matthew 6 speak collectively of our positioning as loyal subjects before our sovereign King. We’ve covered these in smaller bites, but together they make up an important course of the feast we know as the Sermon on the Mount. All that we do as kingdom citizens is to be done before God and – intentionally – not before men.

Importantly, Jesus did not say, “…if you fast”. Fasting is not an optional discipline for the serious Christian; it is assumed. Furthermore, Jesus speaks of fasting in exactly the same way He speaks of doing good works and praying, thus highlighting the importance of fasting in the normal Christian life. Lastly, we discover that the very same consequences are reserved for those who fast to receive worldly benefit: the charge of hypocrisy and loss of heavenly reward.

These are sobering considerations. The discipline of fasting has been lost to much of the church and confused by most of the rest (myself included). Frankly, I think we have made fasting too difficult, causing some to struggle unnecessarily and eventually give up on it altogether. We also have too many man-created prescriptions and plans for fasting. In my humble opinion, we should focus more on motivation than form and procedure, and trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the details.

There was a time in my life when I fasted food on a fairly regular basis. Then I stopped. I don’t remember when, but it was some time ago. I had a good reason for laying down the discipline; I had allowed it to become a legalistic ritual. My motivations were wrong, so I quit.

Of course, I planned to correct my motivations and return to fasting; but it just didn’t happen. I believe I know why, and I am not happy about it. Perhaps it will help others to consider my failings.

For me and you, what follows is (sadly) an ongoing confession. Several years later, I continue to struggle to appropriate God’s grace for this important discipline. I trust the Father’s forgiveness and His cleansing from my unrighteousness (1John 1:9). Like you, I want to do these sayings of Jesus, that my house would become a strong refuge and encouragement for others.

Having recognized the fault in my motivation for fasting, I began searching the Scriptures for the right one(s). From the Bible and other Christians, I learned we should fast for four primary reasons:

  1. To show humility and repentance;
  2. To seek God’s face more fully;
  3. To know God’s will; and,
  4. To demonstrate sincerity in something we desire from God.

As you can see, there is a strong connection between fasting and prayer. In a sense, fasting is an enabling discipline for the improvement of our prayer life; and consequently, our relationship with our heavenly Father. Who wouldn’t want that? I was ready to get started.

Being a process-oriented person, I just had to ask God the question, “So then, how would you have me fast?” The Father really likes it when His children ask Him these kinds of questions. His children don’t always like the answer.

In response to my question, the Holy Spirit led me to Isaiah 58, where I discovered a challenging – even threatening – answer: fasting to please God is simply the first step toward a radically different life. Looking back, it seems I was unwilling to take that step.

This is an important point: I did not consciously decide, “You know, I am just not ready to please God with my fasting.” It was a decision I did not know I was making. It was a decision I regret.

I do not want that for you. Also, I am older now, more aware of the consequences, and ready to give it another go. I pray you will join me. Please read Isaiah 58 and consider the following.

  1. Verses 1-5: The self-centered and hypocritical fasting that Jesus spoke against existed in Isaiah’s day. It is the twisting of a holy thing, and it continues today. We must first put this to death through confession and repentance – you know the drill.
  2. Verses 6-7: The fast that God has chosen sounds much like the purpose of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:18-19) and His teaching (25:31-46). We are His followers; sent by Him as He was sent (John 20:21). Fasting is not only connected to our prayer life, it is an important first step in our walking in the good works God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10).
  3. Verses 8-9a: What great promises for those that will fast to please God!! It is truly more than we can ask or think. The glory of the LORD will go before and come behind. This reminds me of 2Corinthians 3:18; fasting is a tool the Holy Spirit uses for our transformation.
  4. Verses 9b-12: Here we find more of the life that comes with our fasting to please God:
    1. Continual guidance;
    2. Satisfaction of our souls;
    3. Light for the journey;
    4. Strength for the battle;
    5. Becoming a continual spring (of living water); and,
    6. Participating in the rebuild, repair, and restoration of that which has been lost.
  5. Verses 13-14: Fasting leads to surrender in other areas of our life, and it softens us toward the LORD (the meaning of “delight” in verse 14). The Sabbath becomes a fast from our own self-interest, ways and pleasures.

As I write these things, I am shaking my head at myself. How could I so easily dismiss so much blessing?

These promised blessings flow into and through the normal Christian life – the life I so desperately desire for myself and everyone in the Body of Christ. Why am I beginning to fast again? Because failing to do so incurs too high a price, and I cannot become a strong house without doing so.

Humbly yours and forever His,