"Fasting Without Fanfare"
(Delivered Sunday, February 13, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
Jesus has something in common with many unchurched people: neither He nor they care very much for hypocrisy in the church.
But while many people seem to find it surprising to find hypocrisy in the church, it didn't appear surprise our Savior at all. He knew that, because of our fallenness in sin because of Adam, hypocrisy abides in the heart of all of us - even in the hearts of His followers. In fact, our Lord so anticipated it that He devoted a large section of His Sermon on The Mount to the subject. He told His disciples, "Take heed that you do not do your charitable [or "righteous"] deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven" (Matt. 6:1).
We've been studying the "hypocrisy" section of Jesus' great Sermon over the past several weeks. He warns us of hypocrisy in three main areas of spiritual life - all of which touch on the three main relationships we can have. First, He warns us of hypocrisy with respect to our dealings with other people - particularly, when we perform charitable acts (vv. 2-4). Second, He warns us of hypocrisy with respect to our dealings with God Himself - particularly, when we pray our prayers (vv. 5-15). And now, we see that He warns us of hypocrisy with respect to the third main relationship - that is toward our own selves - when we perform acts of personal discipline and self-denial. Jesus said,
"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).
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Fasting is an important aspect of our Christian life. But it's one that we don't understand very well. There have been times, in the experience of our own church, when we have faced a particular challenge or need; and our church leadership has felt led to call the church family to intense prayer and fasting at such times. And whenever that has happen, I've receive phone calls from members of the church family. Rarely does anyone call to ask me what 'prayer' is supposed to be all about; but I've gotten many calls asking me what 'fasting' is all about. "How long are we supposed to fast?" "What am I supposed to fast from?" "Can I still drink coffee?" "Do I absolutely have to fast, or can I just pray?" "What is this 'fasting' thing supposed to accomplish?"
And I will be honest with you; I'm not sure I totally understand fasting either. I have found it to be like a lot of the very profound things that the Lord calls us to do: I don't understand it at first; but I understand it better after I have done it. I have found it to, at first, be more of an act of personal devotion and obedience than of understanding.
I have come to believe that the questions we often have about fasting result more from our culture, and from the nature of the times in which we are living, than anything else. In Jesus' day, fasting was not such a mystery. It was a practice that was woven into the culture. It was expected; and it was a part of almost everyone's life,
In the culture in which Jesus lived, everyone was expected to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement. It was a day in which they were commanded to "afflict" their souls (Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27-32) - that is, humble themselves before God and cease from any work. The Jewish people understood this Old Testament command to mean that they were to fast; and so, it eventually came to be called "the day of fasting" (Jer. 36:6), or by the time of the New Testament, simply "the Fast" (Acts 27:9). And not only this; but the Pharisees regularly fasted twice weekly (Luke 18:12).1
In Jesus' day, people lived with the idea of fasting. But by contrast, to those of us who live in a very prosperous culture - one that thinks of it as a virtue to love one's own self as a first principle of life - the whole idea of 'fasting' and 'self-denial' seems like a very strange thing. We wonder why anyone would want to engage in such a practice. I think the fact that we in our culture find fasting to be so strange says less about "fasting" than it does about our culture.
And therein lies the danger. Because fasting is such a strange thing to our culture, we who feel led to practice it as an expression of our spiritual devotion to God will stand out. And when that happens, it becomes easy to fast with a wrong motive - that is, so as to be seen by men and to be thought of as 'very spiritual' by them.
Jesus' words certainly had application to all His followers throughout the past two-thousand years. But because of the times we live in, we have a particular need to heed the warning that He gives. If we are led to fast, we must be very careful that we do not fast in such a way as to be seen and admired by men. It teaches us a principle that has application to all those things that we do to deny 'self' out of reverence to God - that we must always beware of doing those things so as to be seen by men. Otherwise, we have no reward from our Father for our having done them.
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Let's begin with a very basic matter; and that is . . .
1. WHAT IT MEANS TO "FAST" (v. 16).
If you want a simplest definition, to "fast" means to voluntarily go without food or drink. People often fast for personal health, or for dietary reasons. But in the context of the Lord's instruction in our passage this morning, it refers to voluntarily going without food or drink as a means of personal self-denial before God.
The Bible tells us a lot about the reasons why someone would fast before God in this way. For one thing, it is associated in the Bible with sorrow over sin - and repentance from it. In the book of Judges, when the people of Israel were forced to fight against the tribe of Benjamin because of its idolatry and wickedness, they wept before the Lord and fasted all day until evening (Judges 20:26). Some of the great heroes of the Bible, who led others in repentance from sin, did so with fasting. Nehemiah led the people in confession of national sin by first calling them to assemble "with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads" (Neh. 9:1). Daniel, when he prayed his great prayer of national confession for his people, made "request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes" (Dan. 9:3). God, through the prophet Joel, called the people to repentance from sin; telling them, "Now, therefore . . . turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning" (Joel 2:12); and said, "Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast . . ." (v. 15). When Jonah preached to the Nenevites that God's judgment was coming, a national repentance occurred in which they "proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them" (Jonah 3:5). Even Saul of Tarsus (that is, the apostle Paul), when he was confronted by the Lord on the road to Damascus because of his murderous rebellion against the message of the gospel, repented and "was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank" (Acts 9:9). This kind of fasting illustrates the seriousness with which we are to grieve over sin, and how nothing else - not even eating and drinking - is as important as turning completely away from it.
And not only is fasting associated with sorrow and repentance from sin, but it's associated with a humbling of one's self in general. When someone fasts, they are in effect saying 'no' to their most basic bodily cravings as a way to bring the flesh into submission to God. Fasting is a part of what Paul was talking about when he said, "Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:26-27). It's a way in which we make our bodies our slaves, rather than allowing ourselves to become the slaves of our bodies. And so, David wrote in Psalm 35:13 that, when he heard that his enemy was sick, "I humbled myself with fasting".
Because it is a humbling of one's self, fasting is very often associated in the Bible with intense times of prayer. King David, when it appeared that his infant son was going to die, "pleaded with God for the child, and David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground" (2 Sam. 12:16). Queen Esther, before she went before the king to appeal for the life of her people, asked her cousin, "Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day" (Esther 4:16). Ezra led the people in a prayer to God for protection, "proclaiming a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions" (Ezra 8:21). Even the Gentile centurion Cornelius prayed to the God of Israel with fasting. He received the message of the gospel through God sending Peter to him and his household as a result of such intense prayer; because, as he told Peter, "Four days ago I was fasting until this hour . . ." (Acts 10:30).
Similarly, fasting is associated in the Bible with times in which God's wisdom was sought by the church or when crucial things were about to happen. Jesus, before He began His public ministry, preceded that ministry with forty days of fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). And when the church was ministering to the Lord and fasting, "The Holy Spirit said, 'Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'" (Acts 13:2). In other words, the church was already 'ministering to the Lord and fasting'; and it was in that context that the Lord called forth the first missionaries in the church's history! And then, after the Lord commanded the believers to appoint Barnabas and Saul (that is, Paul) for the mission-work, we're told, "Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away" (v. 3).
Fasting is associated with times of sorrow and mourning. We're told that, after Saul and his son Jonathan died in battle, the people of Israel "took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days" (1 Sam. 31:30). It's also associated with times of denying one's self in order to give service and mercy to others. One of the most interesting passages on fasting in the Bible is found in Isaiah 58. There, God says that the people cried out to Him and asked why He didn't notice it when they fasted. God told them the reason:
"In fact, in the day of your fast, you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high?" (Isa. 58:3-4).
Their act of fasting was accompanied by phony displays of anguish and suffering - artificially 'afflicting their souls'; and hypocritically 'bowing their heads down like bulrushes'; and covering themselves with 'ashes' in a pretense of broken-heartedness. And yet, the whole time long, they harbored evil in their hearts, and acted unjustly to those who were around them. God rebukes their phony fasting, and asks,
"Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?
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Taking all these things together, we can say that fasting is an act in which we deliberately and voluntarily deny "self" out of a reverent fear of God. We say 'no' to the cravings of the flesh for a period of time, in order that our spirits may say 'yes' to something better that God wants from us. It may be a matter of denying ourselves food and drink for a little while, since that is the most obvious and immediate craving of of the flesh. But it may also involve the denial of other things we crave - simple pleasures or activities that, otherwise, would be perfectly legitimate.
It may be that we are moved to do this because of personal sorrow. It may be motivated out of a need to repent of sin. It may be because of a need to give special and intense attention to prayer. It may be because we are seeking God's leading and guidance in a particular area or for an important decision. It may be in order to give our time and energies and resources to the meeting of someone else's need out of love to the Lord. It may even be simply because we love God and want to give ourselves to Him more completely. It may be something very simple and brief (such as skipping a single meal), or it may be something very serious and long-term (such as fasting for forty days). But the key to it all is the denial of self out of reverence to God in a particular situation, and the giving of one's whole being over to God in that situation.
And that leads us to a couple of important points to recognize about fasting. First, fasting is not an end in itself. It is just a means to an end. In that respect, it is different from the other two things that Jesus mentions in this portion of His sermon. The performance of charitable acts, for example, is an end in and of itself. When you do good to someone and meet their need, you have accomplished the end in mind. And the same is true with prayer. Prayer is a matter of talking to God; and when you approach Him in the manner He says, and bring your petitions to Him - leaving them in His care - then you have performed a completed act that was an end in and of itself.
But fasting is not and end in and of itself. For fasting to be acceptable to God, it must have another purpose in mind that God finds acceptable - such as that of humbling ourselves for the purpose of repentance, or sorrow, or prayer; or of denying ourselves in order to give ourselves over to something that He calls us to do. It is best understood as a means to another end. And the moment fasting becomes an end in and of itself, then it slips into the very danger that Jesus speaks of - that of doing something 'spiritual' for the purpose of being seen by men and admired by them.
And another important point to recognize is that there are times when fasting isn't an appropriate thing to do. This, once again, makes fasting different from praying or performing acts of charity. Praying is always appropriate, because the Bible tells us to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). And the doing of charitable acts is always appropriate, because the Bible tells us, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10).
But Jesus taught us that fasting wasn't always appropriate. He was once approached by the disciples of John the Baptist and asked, "'Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?' And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast'" (Matthew 9:14-15). For the disciples to have fasted when Jesus - the Bridegroom - was sitting right there with them would have been very inappropriate.
Fasting not only must have a proper goal, but also an appropriate context. And if fasting is separated from its proper goal and taken out of its proper context, then it becomes a means of drawing attention to ourselves. And when that happens, it is being practiced with an evil motive that God the Father cannot honor.
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This leads us, then, to consider . . .
2. HOW WE ARE NOT TO FAST (v. 16).
Jesus says, "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." This is a picture of self-denial turned into self-exaltation.
I have a copy of the very first volume of the famous "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" books. It was published in 1929 - and along with the famous drawings and sketches are brief articles about the things that Mr. Ripley had seen in his world travels. And the interesting thing is that many of the articles in this early edition are about the things people did as devotees of Eastern religions. They tell of such things as the faquir (holy man) who had sat staring up at the sun every day for fifteen years, until his legs withered and his skin had turned black and his eyes had become blind. Or of the faquir who hung upside-down every day for three hours at a time. Or of the man who had been laying on a bed of nails for fourteen years. There was a man who stood upright, being suspended on a rack by the arms, for a total of ten years. There is another man who held his arms suspended over his head for twenty years.
These amazing religious feats of endurance were done, apparently, as very public events. These individuals could be found doing these things in the market places and along the busy roads. And the sight of such things caused Ripley to write: "Strange is man when he seeks after his gods." But knowing human nature - as the Bible presents it to us - we really have to wonder how much of it all was man seeking after his gods, and how much of it was man seeking after the admiration of other men! They certainly did receive admiration from men! And such a motive isn't found only with the devotees of pagan religions. It's also found of those who call themselves Christians. There seems to be something sinful in us that desires the admiration of others when we deny ourselves before God.
Look at what Jesus says. He assumes - it would appear - that we will, at times, fast: "Moreover, when you fast . . ." Given all that the Scriptures say about fasting, it seems natural to expect that there will be times when we feel moved by God to fast. But when we do so, as Jesus says, ". . . Do not be like the hypocrites" - that is, those who do what they do in order to be thought of as something that they're not.
Jesus once spoke of this with respect to the religious 'professionals' of His day: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:27-28). Others would see them and think of them as holy because of what they saw on the surface; but in reality, they defiled those who walked by them unknowingly. God knew the truth about them - that they were hypocritical. He always knows what's really in our hearts.
How did Jesus say that hypocrites performed their fasts? Their phonyness isn't found in whether or not they refrain from eating. Instead, He said that it was in the way they carry themselves before others when they fast. He said that they walk around with a "sad countenance". They affected a pathetic, drained look as a way of drawing attention to their suffering. In fact, some of the Jewish writings describe how some would often darken their faces with ash in order to accentuate the visible display their misery. Jesus even uses a play on words; saying they "disfigure" (aphanizousin) their face in order to be "seen" (phanõsin) by men. You could say they "disfigure" themselves to be "figured" by people in a certain way.
And Jesus' warning is that those who do such things in order to get the applause of men have all the reward for it them they're going to get. They have the attention of men - which was what they were after; but they will receive no reward from the Father.
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I believe that there are times when the Lord would have us fast. There are important times in life, or important circumstances that come our way, that require us to deny ourselves and give particular focus to God. But this is a warning to us against doing such things with evil motives. It warns us against doing them pretentiously before God with the intention of being seen by men. It's a warning against putting our private devotion to God - or even our deep emotions before God - on display for public appreciation and approval.
And I have to say that I believe this can even apply to times of worship. There are times when people seek to draw this improper kind of attention to themselves when they sing or when they pray in church. They can pretend to be deeply moved emotionally, or deeply impacted by something spiritually. Now, we should be careful of this. We can't see into one another's hearts; and so, we shouldn't judge one another's motives without cause. Emotions are real things; and I believe that if there's any place in which real emotion ought to occur, it would be in church! But I can't help but feel that people sometimes display emotions in worship that they don't really feel. As a pastor, I have seen many 'crocodile tears' shed on the sanctuary floor. And I have to ask who it is that we're seeking to impress when we do that . . . and why? May our emotions and feelings be real and genuine in God's house; and may God keep us from anything artificial when we present our worship to Him.
And this leads us, finally, to . . .
3. HOW WE ARE TO FAST INSTEAD (vv. 17-18).
Jesus says, "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face..." These were typically actions associated, not with fasting, but with feasting. To clean up and care for yourself gives the exact opposite impact of disfiguring your face in a public display of agony because of fasting.
Now we also have to be careful of this. It would be very easy to slip into the opposite kind of hypocrisy - that of making a display of our self-anointing and self-washing to show how much we are avoiding making a display of our misery. Our hearts are very sinful and deceitful; and we have to be on guard all the time.
I believe the key to all of this is to simply forget about yourself and to forget all about other people. And the way we forget about ourselves and others is to keep the Lord always in sight. The Bible tells us that "man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). He sees what truly goes on within us. And so, Jesus says that we're not to display an affected misery when we fast, but to do what we would normally do to care for ourselves and clean up our outward appearance before others; "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."
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Let's let God search our hearts in this area. Let's allow Him to teach us where we have pretended to suffer for God in the sight of others in order to gain their admiration or attention. Let's instead learn to forget about ourselves completely at such times, and to keep God always before our thoughts.
Let's learn to make this our practice in all our acts of spiritual devotion: not just fasting, but also in the giving of alms, or in our prayers. Let's do these things before the sight of God alone - and not before the eyes of men. Then, our Father who sees us in secret can honor and reward pure acts of devotion to Him.
1The Didache states, "And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do you keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day" (J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, eds., The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987], p. 232).
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