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Over the next few days, I want to talk to you about fasting. “Throughout Scripture,” writes Richard J. Foster, “fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.” I will discuss those purposes later, but today I want to focus on what Jesus says about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. There we read:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men 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.”
The “hypocrites” Jesus refers to are the Pharisees, who practiced fasting regularly. We get a hint of how regularly in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, where the Pharisee proudly informs God, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18.12), probably on Monday and Thursday.
Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with fasting twice a week. If such fasting helps you draw closer to God, then by all means go ahead and do so. (On the other hand, if you have medical problems—such as diabetes or an eating disorder—and you choose to fast, you should do so only with your doctor’s permission and under medical supervision.) The problem arises when fasting becomes a badge of spiritual honor that you proudly display to others. What Jesus warns against in the Sermon on the Mount is fasting to be seen by others rather than to be seen by God alone.
The basic purpose of fasting and other spiritual disciplines is to draw closer to the Spirit of God. You cannot do this wholeheartedly if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder to see whether people are noticing how spiritual you are. That’s the problem with the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. He stands up in the middle of a crowd and prays aloud about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” His spirituality consists of comparing himself to others, and by that standard, he comes off pretty good.
Of course, the real standard is the glory of God, against which we all have fallen short (Romans 3.23). The tax collector understands this perfectly: “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (Luke 18.13). When he says this, the tax collector is standing “at a distance,” away from others, not wishing to draw attention to himself, alone.
If we take Jesus’ commandment about fasting literally, no one will ever know that we are fasting. True fasting begins, it seems, when we fast our need for the attention of others. But God will notice, and that’s what really matters.