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16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
— matthew 6.16-21
Ah, Lent…the time of year where Lutherans look at their neighbors sideways and think, “Is there something I should be doing?” Many Christians have vague feelings they should be giving something up or doing something more for their faith this time of year, but they’re not always sure what it is they should be doing, or why.
There’s a good reason for feeling like that. The Christian Church has traditionally done several things to mark the season of Lent. One is fasting. Different people define fasting differently. When we talk about fasting, we usually think of not eating or drinking anything at all – like doctors tell you to do before surgery. That’s not what the Church has practiced during Lent in the past. Fasting used to mean you ate less – not that you ate nothing. Sometimes people skipped meals, or they ate less for each meal than they normally did. Sometimes they didn’t eat certain foods, like meat, eggs, or butter – hence the foods that many people avoid or “give up” during Lent now. Sometimes people speak of “giving something up” for Lent. They might cut back on watching TV, spending time on the Internet, or going shopping for fun, for example, or even stop entirely. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about when He talks about fasting. Fasting is supposed to be just eating less and letting yourself be a little hungry for a spiritual purpose.
The problem with fasting, and the negative idea many people have toward fasting, is due to the fact that over time, a lot of people placed too much emphasis on Jesus’ words here and forgot about the parts of the Bible that teach that we can’t earn anything from God and that His grace is a gift to us. After a while, men made fasting a law. They called it a sin to eat certain foods on certain days, and the rules began to run amok. Sadly some still do insist that eating certain foods on certain days is a mortal sin to this day – which causes a lot of confusion for people.
Let’s get one thing straight: eating or not eating certain foods, in and of itself, does nothing to bring you closer to God. Absolutely nothing. Paul says about things like fasting in I Corinthians chapter 8, “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” We also dare not forget that fasting done as a good work, or to earn God’s favor, is flat wrong. Scripture clearly teaches that the only way to do anything that pleases God is through faith in the blood of His only Son, shed for you. The only way to be right with God is to trust that Jesus died on the cross to pay for your sins and rose to life to assure you eternal life. That’s it. Any other way is trying to earn it, and that will never work. Nothing done outside of you will save you; only trusting in Jesus will save you.
God cares far more about what’s in your heart, not what’s on your plate, during Lent. True fasting, as with anything Christians do toward God, must be interior first. Your motives are the important thing when it comes to fasting. If your heart is not right through faith, nothing you do outwardly will please God. It’s this interior-first aspect of fasting that is the hardest, because really all it is is faith, and trusting in God with all your heart is the hardest thing for us to do. True faith only comes from God. Without faith, fasting is worthless. This is a big part of why fasting has fallen into misuse and gotten turned into a law over time – because people lack faith, not because fasting itself is bad or sinful.
We’re tempted to ask: if it doesn’t get me anything from God, then why do it? And that right there was what Jesus was talking about when He says, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.” Jesus is talking about fasting here, but really what He says can be applied to anything religious people do. Whatever you do, Jesus says, don’t do it to impress other people. Don’t do it for show, or it’s worthless.
To underscore that, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” Take a moment to let what Jesus is really saying sink in. It’s not that these hypocrites knowingly fast – or do whatever religious things they do – just to look good, although that certainly can be the case. It’s that these hypocrites sincerely think they’re doing service to God by fasting, by making a long face, by denying themselves certain foods on certain days or what have you – and then they get to Judgment Day, and they find out oops, they were never serving God at all with what they were doing. Everything they did was for themselves, when they thought it was for God. Jesus says, “They’ve already gotten everything they’re going to get out of that when people paid attention to them.” Those kind of good works –those without faith – receive no approval from God.
Thinking you can get rid of sin by fasting shows that you don’t really understand your own sin, how serious it is, or what it took for you to be forgiven. Sin is deadly dangerous and it took Jesus’ holy, precious blood to wipe it away. Mere food can do nothing to deal with sin, either way. Only trusting in Jesus gets rid of sin. Once that’s in place, we can decide what we want to do.
Instead, Jesus counsels us that when we fast, we should put oil on our heads and wash our faces. These were actions that went along with being happy or joyful. What Jesus means is, fast in a way that nobody knows you’re fasting. Don’t make a big deal out of it; let it be between you and God. You don’t have to hide it totally. Jesus’ words here don’t mean that if we fast, it should be totally secret or it’s wrong. Whether other people know about it or not, do it based on your faith in Jesus as your only Savior and Deliverer from sin. Then it can be helpful and a God-pleasing fruit of faith.
Once you understand that this cannot possibly earn God’s favor, “Why do it?” is still a valid question. There are a number of good reasons that Christians have fasted in the past. One time you may have fasted and not known it at the time could be if you stopped eating, or ate less, during a time of stress. During times of emotional upheaval or anguish or doubt, you just might not feel like eating – so you don’t. That kind of spontaneous fasting isn’t wrong, certainly. It’s even mentioned in the Bible. In Psalm 102, the psalmist is describing how miserable he is, and he says, “My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food.” Fasting that way can sometimes help people get through a rough patch in their lives, and they don’t always realize they’re doing it.
That’s not exactly what Jesus is talking about in our gospel. He’s talking more about intentionally fasting. You might wonder, “Why in the world would someone intentionally let themselves be hungry, when the good Lord made so much good food for us?” It’s a fair question. A little bit of hunger can sharpen your mind and make it clearer. We’re all familiar with that sluggish, sleepy, torpid feeling that comes after Thanksgiving dinner, where we eat too much. The opposite is true, too. Not eating for a little bit can clear your head. That ties in with another purpose for fasting: so you can study God’s Word and pray better. When it comes time for our personal devotions, we can all use some more focus on God’s Word. We can all use some more attention when we pray. (I know I can.) Our thoughts wander so easily, and it seems like they wander harder whenever we try to concentrate on God’s Word. How many times have you sat down to pray, and gotten out about one and a half petitions before your thoughts wander and you lose interest in the whole thing? Fasting can put a sharper edge on your concentration.
Fasting can be a good discipline for your sinful flesh. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that our faith is only spiritual. It’s not – it involves all of you, your body as well as your soul. Your body as well as your soul is affected by sin, and Jesus redeemed both your body and your soul. It can help you keep your flesh down. A lot of people have problems in their lives because they can’t control their cravings. Doctors sometimes tell people to eat less, eat better, or give up smoking or drinking, even knowing that the patient won’t listen. In extreme cases a person who can’t control their cravings becomes addicted to something. Fasting can be a good exercise in saying “no” to what your body wants you to do, so you can deal with sin and fight off temptation better.
Fasting can also be a confession of faith that man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. It can be a way to acknowledge that God, not the food you eat or the work you do, is the source of your life. You’re reminding yourself that you rely on God first and foremost when you fast.
Fasting can be a little reminder of the great pain Jesus went through to save you. It works well for that because hunger is constant. You can think, “Why am I hungry right now? Oh yeah, I’m fasting – Jesus suffered a lot worse for me.” That little pang of hunger reminds you that you don’t get what you need, you die, and Jesus is what you need most of all.
Maybe the most important thing to remember is that we are free in Christ. We are free not to fast, and we are also free to fast if we want, as long as we keep the proper motivation. Either way, there are no laws. We shouldn’t dismiss fasting out of hand as “that’s something only Roman Catholics do,” and we shouldn’t judge those who choose to fast. We shouldn’t pressure those who feel uncomfortable with the idea of fasting or make them feel like they’re lesser Christians. Nobody, least of all me, is saying that you must fast. If you don’t want to or you have an uneasy conscience about it, then don’t do it. If you do want to try fasting, maybe an easy way is to skip breakfast on certain days, or eat less for lunch. Don’t go back for seconds at supper. I haven’t ever intentionally set out to fast. Maybe someday I will, I don’t know, but I know that if I choose to or not, I’m still a child of God and loved by Him for Jesus’ sake. You are too, regardless of what you eat. Those who repent find forgiveness in Jesus – that’s the most important thing of all this Lent, and always. Amen.