“When” Not “If”
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.
17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
18that 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.
Usually, we read over these three verses just so that we can get to next ones. We just are not a people who spend much time with fasting. Jesus’ point here flows with the previous two sections about the attitude of the heart when giving to the poor, praying, and now fasting. These spiritual disciplines are not about your relationship with others and what they might thing of you. These disciplines are about you and God. He need be the only one who sees you practicing these habits unless you are trying to teach them or mentor another believer. And so we come to fasting. For our people in our culture, who rarely deprive themselves of anything, fasting is a foreign idea. For the people in Jesus’ time, fasting was expected. Notice that Jesus says “when” you fast, not “if” you fast. Fasting was assumed. Martin Luther also assumed that the follower of Christ would fast. He espouses the benefits of it in many of his writings, speaking of it as though the reader already knew all about fasting. Since that is not really true for us, we need to start at the point of whether or not we’re even going to participate in this ancient practice.
The benefits of fasting are really tough to nail down. It is only in experimenting with fasting that you come to recognize the blessings. For us, we can look at our privileged lives and discover many things as the focus of a fast. For Jesus, fasting meant to go without food. That is always a good choice, for food is so basic to our existence. Your body reminds you constantly that you are experiencing something different and that can be used to center your thoughts back around the Lord. If I were to be honest, a fast from my smartphone or computer might serve as a better tool than even food. I have never “fasted” from my phone and that is probably because I already know it would be painful. I would rather go without food!
Whatever the object of your fast the purpose needs to be to bring you back into alignment with God and with reorienting Him into the center of your life. Whenever you consider a fast whatever pops into your mind first as something you might consider giving up for a time might even be something of an idol in your life. (That is only my opinion – but I speak from my own experience.) So if the words “when you fast” serve as something of a conviction for you today, I’m okay with that because they surely do convict me!