Matthew 6:16-18

Matthew 6:16-18

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand spent numerous years in prison for preaching the gospel and for saying that communism and Christianity were incompatible.  He spent a very long time in solitary confinement, either being tortured psychologically through complete and utter silence (even the guards put felt on their feet so that he could not hear them) or through having to listen to audio of crude denunciations of Christianity and praises of communism.  His physical torture was also nearly unbearable.  His feet were beaten to the bone and pieces of flesh were ripped from his body.  He bore the scars of that torture for the rest of his life.

Somehow, however, he remained joyful.  He preached sermons to himself and to the air around him.  He trained his mind to think on Christ.  He even forced himself to stand on his bloodied, broken feet and kind of dance around the cell for joy, believing that the angels were dancing with him.

            He was released from prison unexpectedly, and as he left the prison dressed like a scarecrow, with his teeth rotted and in terrible shape, he met a peasant woman on the road carrying a basket of beautiful strawberries.  When she offered him one, he started to take it but then said, “No thanks.  I am going to fast.”  He went home to his wife, and they prayed and fasted as a memorial to the joy he had experienced in prison, asking God for the same kind of joy outside of prison.”[1]

What is this strange thing, fasting, that could compel a just-released prisoner to turn down fresh strawberries?  What can this be?  It must be a powerful thing indeed, for Christian history is filled with God-fearing men and women turning to the practice.  Most importantly, Jesus spoke of it as an accepted and possibly even assumed part of discipleship.

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I. What is Fasting? (v.16a)

Let us first try to define fasting.  In verse 16a, Jesus says, “And when you fast.”  At the least that is an acknowledgment from Jesus that this practice of fasting is valid and helpful for His followers.  At the most, it can be read as an assumption that His followers will, indeed, fast.

But what is it?  I would like to offer you two definitions of fasting, both of which I personally find very helpful.  The first is from theologian Scot McKnight.

Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life.[2]

That is a very carefully worded statement, and one we should consider:  “Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life.”  Have you ever experienced “a grievous sacred moment in life”?  That refers to those moments when our souls are heavily burdened, agitated, or troubled.  Perhaps we stand at a major intersection in life and we see the need for greater wisdom.  Perhaps we are caught in the throes of some besetting sin or habit that is tormenting us and keeping us from walking closely with the Lord God.  Perhaps it is simply a slowly dawning awareness that you are not where you need to be spiritually.  Perhaps it is a crisis in life.  Perhaps it is too much success, and you are being tempted to distort your priorities.

These are grievous sacred moments, and McKnight suggests that fasting is “the natural, inevitable response of a person” to these kinds of moments.  Meaning, when we are thus agitated, troubled, burdened, distracted, in danger, or out of balance, fasting is something that the people of God should naturally consider.  It is therefore a response.  It is something we take up in reaction to something that is happening to or within or around us.

I like McKnight’s definition because it highlights our need.  We fast because we need something:  peace in our minds, hearts, and souls.  I also like John Piper’s definition because he highlights exactly what it is that we need.

As an act of faith, Christian fasting is an expression of dissatisfied contentment in the all-sufficiency of Christ.  It is an expression of secure and happy longing for the all-satisfying fullness of Christ…It is a hunger for God awakened by the taste of God freely given in the gospel.[3]

Fasting, then, is an effort to have more of Christ so that the spiritual crises we face may be met head on by greater union with Christ.  Fasting is a desire to be fed by Christ.  This is how I would define it:  Fasting is an act of self-deprivation undertaken so that the wounded, distracted, or dulled human heart can be cleared and focused, and thereby enabled to receive the greater gifts of God.

Normally and traditionally, what this self-deprivation looks like is going without food.  To be sure, there are many ways we can fast, and we ought not limit it to food, but I must say that there is something about deciding not to eat for a time that grips and focuses the soul in powerful ways.  In this sermon, I am going primarily to speak of fasting in this traditional way (going without food), though, again, you can fast from anything that might have an disproportionate hold on you.

Let us first understand, however, that fasting is profoundly biblical.  Kent Berghuis points out that fasting from food is mentioned in the Bible “in about fifty-nine contexts,” forty-six of which “are totally favorable toward fasting.”[4]  In Matthew 4:2, we see Jesus fasting.  In Matthew 9:14, we see that John and his disciples fasted.  In Matthew 9:15, we see Jesus saying that after His ascension into Heaven His disciples will fast.  In Acts 13:2, we see the believers in Antioch fasting.  In Acts 14:23, we see Paul and Barnabas fasting.

II. Why Do We Fast? (v.17-18)

Having explored what this fascinating act is, let us ask the next obvious question:  “Why do we fast?”  There are a number of reasons, but the first must be the one implied by Jesus in our text this morning.

17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

That final statement in v.18 is intriguing, to say the least:  “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  In some sense, then, it is appropriate to say that we fast to receive the secret reward of our Father.  That seems clear enough, though immediately we see the need to qualify what this means.  We do indeed fast for a reward, but the reward is (a) from the Father and (b) given in secret.  Which is to say, the reward is spiritual medicine, spiritual rest.  The reward is God meeting you in that moment of crisis that gave rise to the fast in the first place.  In other words, the reward is the secret gift of God Himself!

This is why this qualification is important:  many see fasting as a means of manipulating God for personal gain.  But surely this is a grotesque perversion of a beautiful act of discipleship.  We do fast for reward…and God is the reward.  In a general sense, I believe that Lynne Baab is correct when she says this about fasting:

Fasting from food demands – and facilitates – an integration of mind, body and spirit that connects with deep spiritual reality…Fasting, at its core, is not a discipline of withholding.  Fasting is a discipline of making space for God.[5]

To put it simply, then, we fast for God.  But this fast for God, biblically, has taken various forms.  In studying the fifty-nine contexts in scripture in which fasting is mentioned, Berghuis concluded that there are six biblical reasons for fasting.

  • Fasting as a sign of sorrow
  • Fasting as a sign of repentance and seeking forgiveness
  • Fasting as an aid in prayer
  • Fasting as an aid in experiencing God’s presence
  • Fasting as an act of ceremonial public worship
  • Fasting as related to ministry[6]

These are all very good reasons, and there may be others.  To my knowledge, I have never quoted Dolly Parton in a sermon, but I am going to change that today.  Dolly Parton was once interviewed by People magazine.  The interviewer was asking her how she stayed sane in show business.  Her answer was very surprising!

The question was, “Where do you ever get such a strong character?”  And Dolly told about her family and her Christian faith.  “I quote the Bible real good!” she said.

            “What about psychiatry?” asked the interviewer.  “So many people find the need to get counseling, especially in the stresses of show business.”

            “No,” said Dolly, “I don’t see a psychiatrist.  I fast instead.”

            “You what?!”

            “I fast!”

            Is that like a diet?!

            “No!” said Dolly.  “I do it to get in touch with God!  Sometimes I’ll…fast 7,14, or 21 days…I don’t drink nothing but water and I don’t ever say when I’m on a fast – Scripture says you’re not supposed to.”  She went on to say that she’s never made a major decision without fasting and prayer.  The interviewer was astounded.[7]

Here is another reason for fasting:  seeking the will of God when facing a major life decision.  I would propose that fasting for God’s will is a more-than-valid reason for embarking on this journey.  Dallas Willard passes on these words from a pastor who embraced the discipline of fasting:

Surprisingly, after the fast is when I began to realize something from the fast.  I came back from the fast with a clearer sense of purpose and a renewed sense of power in my ministry.  The anger which I unleashed at my wife and children was less frequent and the materialism that was squeezing the life out of my spirituality had loosened its grip.[8]

Truly, God often does a mighty work in fasting.  Unfortunately, I suspect that many of us miss the benefits of fasting because we are simply unwilling to do it.

Scott McKnight says that he routinely has students coming to him to discuss their efforts to discover God’s will for their lives.  He had one student come to him who was really struggling to find God’s will.  McKnight recommended to the student that he fast for a couple of days, going without food and training his mind solely on God…to which the young man responded that, believe it or not, he thought he might have just figured it out after all.  Then he left.[9]

Do you see?  We want the favor and blessing of God, but we want it on our terms.  To say that we want spiritual growth and Christlikeness but we will not alter the routines that often come to dictate our daily existence is to tell God, in essence, that we expect Him to meet us on our terms.  But what if what is really needed is a willingness among His disciples to set apart what we think we need most so that we can truly hear him.

Tony Evans likens fasting to the man who has a moisture problem in his basement.  He checks all the seals and exhausts all the possible reasons why his basement could be getting wet.  Finally, he calls in a professional.  After assessing the situation, the professional informs him that the problem is, in fact, beneath the foundation.  He tells the homeowner that if he wants to fix the problem, he’ll have to bust up the foundation.

Fasting is a way in which we bust up the foundation, the concrete of our own numbing habits. So often we want to fix the crises we face without busting up the foundation.  We all know that sometimes more than surface work is needed.

III. What are the Dangers of Fasting? (v.16b-c)

The great gifts of God are always open to great perversion and distortion.  That has certainly been the case with fasting throughout Christian history.  As we discuss the dangers of fasting, it will be helpful to see that the Lord Himself acknowledges the fact that it can be done poorly or wrongly.  The key text in this regard is Isaiah 58, in which the people of God ask God why He has not seen and blessed their fasting.

3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.

4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.

5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
 to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,

10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.

11 And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
 and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.

12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;

14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

In short, God condemns empty fasting in this passage, fasting that does not penetrate the heart, fasting that can be carried on while godlessness is being in engaged in at the same time.  This passage warns us against any woodenly mechanical approach to fasting whereby the fast itself is seen as the main thing.  But the fast is never the main thing.  The glory of God manifested in and through His people is the main thing.  To fast while sinning against His glory is a great perversion indeed.

Let us consider some of the ways we fall into this trap.

The Danger of Religiosity

Those who fast are particularly prone to the danger of empty religiosity, of trying to put on an outward display of holiness, usually through a façade of feigned suffering.  Jesus addresses this in our text this morning.

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

It is evident that we should not fast to be seen, but does this mean that there are literally no reasons why we might tell another we are fasting?  We have seen with the Lord’s earlier cautions in the Sermon on the Mount that doing something to be seen is not the same as being seen doing something.  The main problem with the idea that literally under no circumstance should anybody know you are fasting or should you share with anybody that you are is the presence of corporate fasting in Scripture.  In fact, there are twenty-seven corporate fasts mentioned in the Bible.[10]  Obviously, in a corporate fast, everybody knows that everybody is fasting.  Furthermore, there might be situations in which discreetly informing the host of a gathering that you will not be eating tonight, or, of course, informing your spouse of what you are doing, might be helpful.  But the key here is discretion, the kind that undercuts showiness.

What is certain is that we should never fast to be seen!  Such empty religiosity has its own reward.

Physical Danger

There is also a very obvious physical danger to fasting if done wrongly or recklessly.  The very first letter printed in John Wesley’s Journal is written to the father of a friend of his and is dated October 18, 1732.  Here is how it begins:


The occasion of my giving you this trouble is of a very extraordinary nature.  On Sunday last I was informed (as no doubt you will be ere long) that my brother and I had killed your son:  That the rigorous fasting which he had imposed upon himself, by our advice, had increased his illness and hastened his death.[11]

Wesley goes on to show that he cannot be responsible for such, but the accusation itself rests on the very true fact that you may, indeed, fast too much and die.  Research suggests that numbers of Christians, perhaps particularly women, fasted to death from the 13th century to the 18th.  An example would be Margaret of Cortona who was encouraged by her confessor to eat something, but who responded:

Dear Father, I have no intention of making a peace pact between my body and my soul, and neither do I intend to hold back.  Therefore allow me to tame my body by not altering my diet; I will not stop for the rest of my life until there is no life left.[12]

It is said that St. Veronica would only eat meals of five orange seeds, which represented, to her, the five wounds of Christ.  It is said of St. Anthony that he ate one meal a day, after sunset, but often only ate every second or fourth day.  Catherine of Siena may have fasted to death.  Apparently some of her family thought this was more a victory of Satan than a display of devotion to God.

Let us just be clear:  fasting to death does not bring glory to God.  This is suicide, not discipleship.  The point of fasting is not self-induced suffering.  It is seeking God through intentional abstinence from something that has a hold on you.

Be aware of the physical danger of excessive fasting.  Furthermore, I agree with the view that Christians should consult their doctors before embarking on a fast.

The Danger of a Manipulative Theology

Perhaps one of the greatest dangers of fasting is the temptation it can sometimes bring towards a manipulative theology.  I am referring to the books we sometimes see in bookstores entitled, Fasting For…  Again, we fast for God.  True, we might fast so that we might hear God in crisis moments when we feel far from him, and those crisis moments may be linked to individual issues of vocation or finance, but this does not mean that we fast for vocation or finance.  That is, we do not fast to manipulate God to do anything.  We fast because we need God desperately.

It is very important, then, that you not fast for wealth, or for a relationship, or for a promotion, or for a purchase, though, of course, situations surrounding any of these might give rise to crises calling for fasting.  Do you see the difference?  Whatever you are doing in fasting, you must not see yourself as fasting to get God to jump through your hoops.

The Danger of Seeing Fasting as an End and Not a Means

There is also a danger that we might fast because we are fixated on fasting.  In this scenario, fasting becomes an end in and of itself, instead of a means by which our hearts are opened to God.  I am not accusing Adalbert de Vogue of this mistake per se, but I will suggest that this statement of his might be a dangerous statement:

Fasting was no longer a constraint and penance for me, but a joy and need of body and soul.  I practiced it spontaneously because I loved it.[13]

Read charitably, I think I understand what this Benedictine monk was saying:  he loved how fasting opened his heart to God.  Read critically, it almost sounds as if he had come to love fasting as fasting.  If that is the case, he was greatly mistaken.  We fast not because we love fasting.  We fast because we love God.

I rather like how Edna St. Vincent Millay put it when she wrote this about fasting:

I drank at every vine. The last was like the first.

I came upon no wine, So wonderful as thirst.

I gnawed at every root, I ate of every plant.

I came upon no fruit, So wonderful as want.

Feed the grape and the bean, To the vinter and the monger;

I will lie down lean, With my thirst and my hunger.[14]

Consider the possibility that the Lord may be calling you to seek Him through fasting.  Fast for God, and you will meet Him in that holy hunger.



[1] R. Kent Hughes, Acts (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996), p.91.

[2] Scot McKnight, Fasting (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p.xx.

[3] John Piper, A Hunger for God. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), p.44.

[4] Kent Breghuis, “A Biblical Perspective on Fasting.” Bibliotheca Sacra. 158, no.629 (Ja-Mr 2001), p.87.

[5] Lynn M. Baab, Fasting. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.25,27.

[6] Breghuis, p.87-94.

[7] Wayne Brouwer, “Internal Medicine.” Preaching. 12 (Mr-Ap 1997), p.18.

[8] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 38,155.

[9] McKnight, p.47.

[10] Breghuis, p.95.

[11] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley. (Third Edition) Vols. 1 and 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p.5.

[12] Carole Marie Counihan, “An Anthropological View of Western Women’s Prodigious Fasting.” Food and Gender. (Harwood Academic Publisher, 1998), p.107.

[13] McKnight, p.xix.

[14] Quoted in Brower, p.18.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *