“Your Father who sees in secret.” Matthew 6:18
With these verses, Jesus returns to the theme he had explored earlier in chapter six: the danger of practicing our piety for others to notice. This time he discusses fasting, which is not a popular activity among most Protestant American Christians. Traditionally, fasting is a practice of abstaining from food and/or drink for a period of time for some spiritual purpose, such as intense prayer, to meditate on the fulfillment only God can bring, or as part of the season of Lent before Easter. In the image Jesus paints, some people are abstaining from food and water—an uncomfortable task certainly—and making themselves look outwardly as miserable as they feel, so that people will see that they’re fasting and approve of them.
It’s a truly ridiculous image. Of course fasting isn’t a visible practice normally, unlike types of prayer or giving to the needy, so these people go out of their way to make it one! Their desperation for the admiration of other humans completely undercuts any spiritual benefit that fasting could bring them.
Jesus commends to his followers instead to trust that the unseen God can see them. Notice he doesn’t call fasting ridiculous, which is of note today. There could be sincere benefit to our experience of faith if we were to practice fasting rightly. To do that we would certainly need the help and advice of older believers, perhaps even believers from other generations who are long gone!
Fasting is for our spiritual profit, though this passage doesn’t lay out the details of how. What it does teach is that correct fasting pleases God; why else would he offer a reward for it? And it also implies that even the secretness is part of what pleases him, that we would demonstrate to him that his applause is what we care for above that of our friends or ministry leaders. To do something physically uncomfortable that also has no worldly benefit, without showing off or complaining, but just as a devotion and trust in the Lord—this is a wonderful testimony to him that you believe that he sees you, believe that he takes delight in your pursuit of him, and believe that his rewards are worth it.
Take time to ask God how he would like you to respond to this scripture today. Perhaps it is by learning more about traditional fasting in order to practice it. Maybe it would be assessing whether you are more attached to some type of comfort than you are to running after what pleases God. Or it could be praying that God would mold your heart to long for him more, and to value his view of you more than anyone else’s—even your own