Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:16b “. . .be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they
disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.
Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”
Feasting is a natural expression of gladness; fasting a natural expression of sadness. The latter became a legitimate way of voluntarily expressing godly sorrow, but unfortunately, hypocrites began to fast for show, leaving themselves unwashed and unkempt. Donning an air of artificial gloom, their sad, disfigured faces came not from broken hearts, but were merely an act.
Regrettably, this mindset continues. Our church’s drama personnel are not the only members of Second Baptist into theatrical performances for audiences. Such fake pretenders, wanting others to be impressed with their religiosity, receive exactly what they wanted and sought after, but not one whit more.
Matt. 6:17a “But thou, when thou fastest,. . .”
Note again, our Master assumed we would fast. Avoid two extremes. Neither forfeit fasting nor formalize it. Do not forfeit it–though not a ritualistic duty demanded, it is a practice expected. Do not formalize it–it has to be voluntary and spontaneous, or it is meaningless.
Fasting is making a comeback among American Protestants. Bill Bright, President of Campus Crusade, and Ronnie Floyd, Pastor of First Baptist, Springdale, Arkansas, have both undergone forty-day fasts and written helpful booklets on it. Pat Robertson is also emphasizing fasting on his CBN television network.
This renewed interest in fasting is not hard to explain. Our churches are in a grave spiritual condition. Desperate times are calling for desperate measures. The time is ripe for an act which helps us express serious emotion, godly sorrow for our sin.
The Church in America is languishing. After a large Sunday morning offering not long ago, one counter said, “The Church no longer has to say silver and gold have I none.” Another replied, “Yes, but neither can we any longer say, in the name of Jesus rise up and walk.” Sad, but true.
Amos, the most scathing Old Testament prophet, lived in a day of material affluence and spiritual anemia similar to our own. His scorching message should burn into our hearts. May God help us realize the seriousness of this hour.
As we grow more aware of our sin, as our godly sorrow intensifies, fasting will become more common, for it is a natural expression of inner grief. Fasting always comes to the fore during believers’ times of intense emotion. “People who are consumed with concern before God do not take a lunch break” (MacArthur).
Matt. 6:17b-18a “. . .anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear
not unto men to fast,. . .”
Always be our natural self, our godliest and best natural self, but still ourself nonetheless. Nothing in our demeanor or appearance should call attention to the fact we are fasting. Maintain standard practices of grooming and hygiene. Do the regular cosmetic things we do every day.
Jesus is not here saying we should be always happy. We are not expected to be bubbly all the time. However, the general over-all tenor of a Christian’s countenance should be a cheerful and contented disposition. Our faces need to refute the lie that Christianity is dull and boring. Sour, sad Christians hurt the faith, even as sinful ones do.
Matt. 6:18b “. . .but unto thy Father which is in secret:. . .”
It is good to have happy secrets between ourselves and God. When fasting, always keep our eyes focused on God. Beware trying to impress people. Seek to attract as little attention to ourselves as possible. “The sidelong glance will soon become a fixed gaze, seeing nothing else” (Maclaren).
Matt. 6:18c “. . .and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee
Please realize we fast as an aid to devotion, not as a means of earning merit before God. When done properly, fasting helps us focus spiritually and be stronger in prayer. In this way fasting yields godly blessings that are a “reward” for us.
Fasting is not a form of penance, but an earnest self-discipline. In it we seek to withdraw “fuel from a pampered body” (Blair, in Preacher’s Homiletic) and to focus entirely upon the Father’s will, Jesus’ face, and the Spirit’s direction.
At two critical junctures in my life, when deciding to leave one pastorate for another, fasting immensely helped my prayers and sensitivity to spiritual guidance. John MacArthur rightly states, “Skipping a few meals might be the small price we willingly pay for staying in the Word until understanding comes.”
Before coming as your pastor, I applied the principle of fasting in a different way. I was a devotee of country music, and listened to it avidly. As I was seeking to concentrate in prayer on the huge decision looming before me I noticed country songs kept rolling through my mind, breaking my spiritual concentration. I decided to give up country music for a while in order to focus better in prayer. This helped me so immensely that I never took up the country music habit again. I still love it, but rarely listen to it, not because anything is inherently wrong with it, but because this neutral ordinary pastime inexplicably breaks my spiritual focus.
I commend fasting and the other forms of self-denial it represents. Maybe no discipline is more needed among us now. Our lives are reeling into chaos. We must regain control of our time, money, emotions, and wants. Fasting can aid us in all these areas, pointing us in the right way by helping us get a grip on our frantic lives.
On a recent afternoon I was in my study, leaning back in my comfortable blue chair. My body was aching so terribly from exhaustion that if I could have found a pain pill I would have taken it to relieve my misery. The next morning I was in so much bodily pain in the shower that it hurt to turn off the faucet. In that moment I was rebuked in my spirit, “John, you are living in sin. To be this tired can happen only if one is outside the will of God. It cannot be the Father’s will for one of His children to feel this miserable due to a schedule out of control. Something has to go.” Cutting back is especially hard for pastors, because everything we do is good. Yet somehow I had let the doing of many good things become in the aggregate a sin for me.
I fear many of us share my dilemma. If we are neglecting our private time with God, our personal time with spouse and children, or our service time for our church, if we are living life out of breath and on a dead run, no matter how good our activities, they have somehow become for us in toto a sin. It is time to fast, to abstain from food if necessary, but to abstain for sure from lots of our clutter.