By: John Piper
Carl Lundquist was the president of Bethel College and Seminary for almost 30 years. He died about four years ago from skin cancer. In the last decade of his life he devoted a lot of energy to studying and promoting personal spiritual devotion and the disciplines of the Christian life.
He even established what he called the “Evangelical Order of the Burning Heart” and began to send out a letter of inspiration and encouragement. In the September 1989 letter he told the story of how he first began to take fasting seriously.
My own serious consideration of fasting as a spiritual discipline began as a result of visiting Dr. Joon Gon Kim in Seoul, Korea. “Is it true,” I asked him, “that you spent 40 days in fasting prior to the evangelism crusade in 1980?” “Yes, ” he responded, “it is true.” Dr. Kim was chairman of the crusade expected to bring a million people to Yoido Plaza. But six months before the meeting the police informed him they were revoking their permission for the crusade. Korea at that time was in political turmoil and Seoul was under martial law. The officers decided they could not take the risk of having so many people together in one place. So Dr. Kim and some associates went to a prayer mountain and there spent 40 days before God in prayer and fasting for the crusade. Then they returned and made their way to the police station. “Oh,” said the officer when he saw Dr. Kim, “we have changed our mind and you can have your meeting!”
As I went back to the hotel I reflected that I had never fasted like that. Perhaps I had never desired a work of God with the same intensity . . . His body is marked by many 40 day fasts during his long spiritual leadership of God’s work in Asia. Also, however, I haven’t seen the miracles Dr. Kim has.
Dr. Lundquist went on to tell of one of the “Burning Heart” retreats that he was leading when he saw a seminary senior not eating. He asked him if he was all right and learned that the student was near the end of a 21 day total fast as part of seeking God’s leading for the next chapter of his life.
Dr. Lundquist said that in the later years of his ministry he found a modified fast once a week very helpful in his life and work. He wrote in his letter,
Instead of taking an hour for lunch I use the time to go to a prayer room, usually the Flame Room in nearby Bethel Theological Seminary. There I spend my lunch break in fellowship with God and in prayer. And I have learned a very personal dimension to what Jesus declared, “I have had meat to eat ye know not of.”
This is similar to what I have asked the “Fasting Forty” to do during the month of February—fast for a 24 hour period once a week.
“When You Fast” not “If You Fast”
One of the texts that moved Dr. Lundquist in those latter years of his life was the one we are looking at this morning—Matthew 6:16–18. The thing that gripped him from this text were the words in verse 16, “And whenever you fast . . . ” Like so many others, Dr. Lundquist noticed that it does not say, “If you fast,” but, “when you fast.” He concluded, as I do, and as most commentators do, that Jesus assumed that fasting was a good thing and that it would be done by his disciples. This is what we saw in Matthew 9:15—When the bridegroom is taken away, then the disciples will fast.
So Jesus is not teaching on whether we should fast or not. He is assuming we will fast and teaching us how to do it and especially how not to do it.
Hypocrisy: A Danger in Fasting
If fasting is going to be built into our lives as a way of seeking all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19), we need to know how not to do it. That would include physical tips on how not to endanger our bodies, and spiritual teaching on how not to endanger our souls. On the physical side, I will be making available to you a short paper from a medical doctor who spoke to us when I was in Orlando last December.
“They Have Their Reward in Full”
But more important than that is the warning of Jesus about the spiritual danger of fasting in the wrong way. That’s what this text is about. Jesus warns us what not to do and then tells us what to do instead.
He warns us in verse 16 not to be like the hypocrites: “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men.” So the hypocrites are folks who do their spiritual disciplines “to be seen by men.” This is the reward the hypocrites are after. And who has not felt how rewarding indeed it is to be admired for our discipline or our zeal or our devotion. This is a great reward among men. Few things feel more gratifying to the heart of us fallen people than being made much of for our accomplishments—especially our religious accomplishments.
So Jesus says in the last part of verse 16, “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” In other words, if that is the reward you aim at in fasting, that is what you will get and that will be all you get. In other words the danger of hypocrisy is that it is so successful. It aims at the praise of men. And it succeeds. But that’s all.
Why Is This Hypocrisy?
But let’s ask why this is hypocrisy. Here you have religious people. They decide to fast. Instead of concealing that they are fasting they make it plain that they are fasting. Why is that hypocrisy? Why isn’t it hypocrisy to fast, but to anoint your hair and wash your face and not let anybody know that you are fasting? Isn’t the definition of hypocrisy trying to look on the outside different than you are on the inside? So these religious folks are letting reality show, right? They are the opposite of hypocrites. They fast, and they look like they fast. No sham. Be real. If you fast, look like you fast.
But Jesus calls them hypocrites. Why? Because the heart that motivates fasting is supposed to be a heart for God. That’s what fasting means: a heart-hunger for God. But the heart motivating their fasting is a heart for human admiration. So they are being open and transparent about what they are doing, but that very openness is deceptive about what they’re feeling. If they wanted to be really open, they would have to wear a sign about their necks that said, “The bottom line reward in my fasting is the praise of men.” Then they would not be hypocrites. They would be openly and transparently vain.
So there are two dangers that these fasting folks have fallen into. One is that they are seeking the wrong reward in fasting, namely, the esteem of other people. They love the praise of men. And the other is that they hide this with a pretense of love for God. Fasting means love for God—hunger for God. So with their actions they are saying that they have a hunger for God. But on the inside they are hungry to be admired and approved by other people. That’s the god that satisfies them.
An Alternative Way of Fasting
In verses 17 and 18 Jesus gives an alternative to this way of fasting—the way he wants it to be done. He says,
But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face, 18 so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
Now there are all kinds of public fasting in the Bible, including the New Testament, for example, in Acts 13:1–3 and 14:23. If someone finds out you are fasting, you haven’t sinned. The value of your fast is not destroyed if someone notices that you have skipped lunch. It is possible to fast with other people—for example: our staff fasting together on a planning retreat to seek the Lord—it is possible to fast like that and NOT to fast “to be seen by men.” Being seen fasting and fasting to be seen are not the same. Being seen fasting is a mere external event. Fasting TO BE SEEN is a self-exalting motive of the heart.
Jesus’ Test of the Reality of God in Our Lives
So Jesus gives us instruction that will test our hearts. He says to us when we are fasting, don’t make any effort to be seen. In fact, make efforts in the other direction—not to be seen. Fix your hair, wash your face so that as far as possible people will not even know that you are fasting.
But he goes beyond this and says, that your goal is to be seen by God not man. “But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face, 18 so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret.” Fast to be seen by God in secret.
What Jesus does here is test the reality of God in our lives. O, how easy it is to do religious things if other people are watching—preaching, praying, attending church, reading the Bible, acts of kindness and charity, etc. The reason for this is not only the commendation we might get, but more subtly the sense that the real effectiveness of our spiritual acts is on the horizontal axis among people, not the vertical axis with God. If the kids see me pray at meals, it will do them good. If the staff sees me fast, they may be inspired to fast. If my roommate sees me read my Bible, he may be inspired to read his. In other words, we feel that the value of our devotion is the horizontal effect it has on others as they see us.
Now that’s not all bad. But the danger is that all of our life starts to be justified and understood simply on the horizontal level for the effects it can have because others see it happening. And so God can become a secondary Person in the living of our lives. We think that he is important because all these things are the kinds of things he wants us to do. But he himself is falling out of the picture as the focus of it all.
So Jesus tests our hearts to see if God himself will be our sufficiency—when nobody else knows what we are doing. When no one is saying, “How are you getting on with the fast?” No one even knows—no one but God! Jesus is calling for a radical orientation on God himself. He is pushing us to have a real, utterly authentic, personal relationship with God. If God is not real to you, it will be miserable to endure something difficult with God as the only one who knows. It will all seem very pointless, very inefficient because the whole range of horizontal possibilities will be nullified because no one knows what you are experiencing. All that matters is God and who he is and what he thinks and what he will do.
Jesus’ Promise to Those Whose Focus Is God
Which brings us to the last part of verse 18 and the promise Jesus makes about what God will do for those who focus vertically on him and do not need the praise of other people to make their devotion worthwhile. He says, “And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
The word “repay” in the NASB (New American Standard Bible) is probably a little too mercenary. It seems to suggest a business deal: We do the work of fasting and God pays up with wages. That is not necessarily implied in the word that simply means “give back” or “make a return.” In some places it may be money. In others it may be justice. In others it may be God’s gracious response to an act of faith and prayer. That’s what it is here, I believe.
God sees us fasting. He sees that we have a deep longing that is pulling us to fast. He sees that our heart is not seeking the ordinary pleasures of human admiration and applause. He sees that we are acting not out of strength to impress others with our discipline, but out of weakness to express to God our need and our great longing that he would act. And when he sees this, he responds. He acts. We have seen him acting in these last weeks of fasting in some remarkable ways. People who have been hard to the gospel opening up. People closed off to reconciliation opening up. People long lukewarm and indifferent awakening to the greatness of God and their salvation.
What Is the “Reward” Jesus Promises?
But what is the “repayment” or the “reward” that Jesus promises from the Father here? Might it be “the praise of men”? We would make a dupe out of God if we tried to use him in some roundabout way to get what we really want instead of him, the praise of men. That’s not the reward he gives.
Might it be money? The very next verse (v. 19) warns against laying up treasures on earth (whether God gives them or not) and says to lay up treasures in heaven—where there is no earthly currency except faith and love.
No, the best place to find out the reward of our fasting is to look here in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, the prayer that Jesus just taught us to pray in Matthew 6:9–13 begins with three main longings: that God’s name be hallowed or revered, that his kingdom come, that his will be done on earth the way it’s done in heaven. That is the main reward God gives for our fasting. We fast out of longing for God’s name to be known and cherished and honored, and longing for his rule to be extended and then consummated in history, and longing for his will to hold sway everywhere with the same devotion and energy that the inexhaustible angels show sleeplessly in heaven forever and ever.
For sure he gives us many, many specific things through fasting. And it is not wrong to seek specifically for his help in every area of our lives through fasting. But these three petitions: hallowing his name, seeking his kingdom, and doing his will—these give the test to see if all the other things we long for are expressions of these. Do we want our sons and daughters saved because this would hallow God’s name? Do we want North Korea to open for the sake of the advance of the kingship of Jesus? Do we want upright leaders in government because God’s holy, revealed will for his creation is at stake? Do we want Bethlehem revived and awakened with divine power and love and joy because it glorifies the name of God and advances his kingdom and brings about his will?
This is what Jesus is calling us to—a radically God-oriented fasting. So for the sake of your own soul, and in response to Jesus, and for the advancement of the kingdom of God’s great saving purpose to glorify his name, join the “Fasting Forty” and fix your hair, and wash your face, and let the Father who sees in secret see you open your heart of yearning to him with fasting. The Father who sees in secret is brimming with rewards for your joy and for his glory.