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.
A few thoughts for meditation:
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus finished his teaching on sincere worship with a correction for proper fasting. Fasting was a heightened form of prayer, where you would not eat food for a designated period of time, and devote that time instead to more prayer. It was a way to deny yourself and express your dependence upon God and provide more focus to the pressing burdens in your prayers. But this act of devotion and dependence over time became of mark of performance. “Hypocrites” turned the practice into a show to gain human applause, as they did with public giving and prayers. But that applause was the only reward they received for such fasting. God did not bless it or accept it. It was not a pursuit of God but a pursuit of self-promotion.
Jesus then taught the manner of true fasting. Instead of making it obvious to everyone that you are fasting, you should fast in “secret”, just like prayer and giving. It should be done for God’s eyes, not anyone else’s. So wash and dress like you normally do and go about your day without drawing attention to fact that you’re fasting. Obviously, you will have to explain to your family why you are not eating when you refuse the food they offer. But fasting is never done to impress others with your piety. Other than the special times of focused prayer “in secret” you go about your day as normal. Or perhaps you find a way to take a day off from work or get out of town for a period of time to fast and pray without drawing attention to yourself. This is sincere fasting, focusing your desires and attention upon God, not upon people’s approval.
Fasting is not commonly practiced today, at least in the evangelical world. But it is a part of legitimate biblical worship, both in private or public. The OPC Directory for Worship has a short section on fasting (pg. 167). Sometimes fasting was practiced on a more regular basis, which seemed to be the case Jesus had in mind here. But sometimes fasting was done when faced with great needs, public repentance, important decisions, or solemn occasions. In either case, it is a time to draw near to God with focused prayer about our particular concerns. Are you feeling overwhelmed by pressing trouble? Are you remorseful and repentant for some serious sins? Are you desiring to have a closer walk with God or seek to please him in some important matters? Perhaps consider taking some time for fasting and prayer.