“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward! When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” —Matthew 6:16–18
In its simplest form, fasting is denying oneself for a specific period of time something that one enjoys. It can be as varied as food or television, movies or the newspaper, chocolate or chewing gum, shopping or hunting, sweet tea or cookies, or whatever you enjoy most! When it is something we enjoy, quite often we are continuously reminded to pray and seek God’s glory. The purpose behind fasting is to draw attention in prayer to our heavenly Father every time our thoughts turn to crave that which we are fasting from. Fasting provides extra time for prayer, teaches self-discipline, helps us to subdue corrupt desires, reminds us that we can live with a lot less, and helps us to reflect upon and appreciate the abundant provisions from God’s hand. Fasting is also a practice that helps us to reach higher duties.
“Then he said to them all, ‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but loses or forfeits himself?’” —Luke 9:23–25
I think it interesting that Jesus does not begin this lesson with, “If you fast,” but “When you fast.” The Israelites were commanded to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement. Scripture is full of examples of fasting. David, Queen Esther, Jesus himself, Paul and Barnabas, and many others all fasted and prayed. We see this discipline embraced oftentimes prior to major decisions, people seeking to know the will of God or to gain strength for the duty ahead.
Jesus criticizes those fasting for show. When we perform acts for man’s approval, the pay is always worldly in measure. We need not expect heaven’s recompense. Fasting requires contrition and humiliation of the soul.
We are not told how often we are to fast nor directed how to manage a private fast. It is as the Holy Spirit who directs us as He leads us in our hearts. However, we are to remember that when we fast, it is to approve ourselves to God.
“It costs much to obtain the power of the Spirit: It costs self-surrender and humiliation and a yielding up of our most precious things to God; it costs the perseverance of long waiting, and the faith of strong trust. But when we are really in that power, we shall find this difference, that whereas before, it was hard for us to do the easiest things, now it is easy for us to do the hard things.” —A J. Gordon
“Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately.” —2 Timothy 2:15