Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.Matthew 6:16-18
The modern Jesus that we have become so accustomed to stands in stark contrast to the true Jesus of Scripture. We cling to the passages of Scripture that expound upon His miracles and lift up those that demonstrate His grace and mercy. Yet we temper the strong words of judgement and warning and often skip over those passages that make us look at ourselves in a manner that requires repentance of our behavior. And today’s passage is no different.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is purposed for our spiritual and our physical health. When we fast for our physical health it is to allow our bodies time to expel the waste and toxins that weigh our bodies down. When we fast for our spiritual health, it is to expel from our hearts the attitudes and behaviors that weigh our spirits down. But if we do so in a spirit of self-centeredness, seeking to draw attention to ourselves – we’ve completely missed the point.
I will be honest and admit that fasting is not a discipline that I have taken seriously within my personal spiritual walk. Unfortunately it shows as I have a personal weakness for food. Unfortunately, for years I have lacked discipline in the kinds of food that I eat, choosing foods that are high in sugar, highly processed, cheap, and more often than not – delivered. It has been a symptom of gluttony and slothfulness. As a result, over the years I have allowed my body to expand from the 150 lbs I weighed when I graduated high school 30 years ago to where I am now “more than twice the man” I used to be. But I’m working on it. As of this morning, after two weeks, I am down 8 lbs. and still moving forward. I will never get back down to what I was in this picture, nor should I want to be that grossly underweight. But it is going to take intention, discipline, and determination to get the body that God has given me to steward into a condition where He can use me more effectively in this world.
The same attitude of gluttony and slothfulness can also play out in our spiritual lives as we actively gorge on entertainment and activities that distract us from the spiritual disciplines of obedience to God’s word. We also passively and lazily waltz through our Christian life without being intentional about our spiritual diets, content to have our spiritual experience delivered to us instead of getting up and doing the work that God calls us to do.
And when we fast, be forewarned. Don’t find yourselves going around complaining about how fasting makes you feel, drawing attention to yourself. In the days of Jesus, it wasn’t that uncommon for those who were fasting to take the practice for granted and just go through the motions, but neglect their personal hygiene so that others might see how “spiritual” or “holy” they were. In fact, there were many examples of different monastic figures who would take different vows to deny themselves of some earthly pleasure in order to show the world how set apart they were, often at the expense of their own health, leading to their own personal demise. Even the modern practice of Lent has taken on a watered-down, pseudo-ritualistic meaning as parishioners take a 40 day vow to abstain from some menial, often non-sacrificial pleasure like chocolate or coffee, yet still enjoy their drunken Saturday nights and feasting. As a result, the hypocrisy of the practice undercuts the heart of the discipline.
And Jesus wants against such an attitude of self-aggrandizement. If the purpose of your fasting is to simply say, “Hey look at me! I’m taking part in this ritual.”, then you’ve completely missed the point. When we draw attention to ourselves by participating in a discipline that in intended to draw our attention to the Father, we short circuit the power and intent of that discipline.
But when you are intentional about your spiritual practice and focus your attention on the Father and His will, His favor will rest upon you. His authority will be imparted unto you. His grace will be imputed to you. His strength will sustain you. And His vision will transform your vision within your heart.