A week ago today New Life ended a 21 day season of fasting and prayer. Some fasted from a meal a day or a couple meals a day, some only drank juice for the season, some said good-bye to forms of media. The emphasis throughout was for personal spiritual renewal, and we encouraged one another to keep at it, to pray, and to draw closer to God through the act of removing.
But was it the wrong thing to do?
To clarify - did we go about it the wrong way? Fasting isn't wrong, the Bible clearly teaches and encourages it. But is the manner in which we as a church went about it done in a wrong way?
The question was raised, "Jesus says to not let people know that you're fasting. We're letting everyone know, it's even being pushed on our website. How much more obvious can we get that we're doing it? Isn't that wrong?"
The passage that's being referenced in this great question is from Matthew 6:17-18:
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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.
So the honest question is valid - by being obvious that we were fasting were we doing something wrong?
When we bring our good questions to the Bible we have to as much as possible look at the whole message of the Bible, not just a part - not just one verse. Using one verse to back up an idea is called proof-texting, and a lot of damage is done in the name of Jesus by those who do it.
So to bring in some more context, here are some other passages that mention fasting:
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, "The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him." So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. Ezra 8:21-23
Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. 2 Samuel 1:11-12
In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3
You can also read many other passages throughout the Bible that speak of fasting (click here).
The point of showing these 3 texts is to show that there has been a practice throughout the centuries of God's people joining together to pray & fast. Not just individuals but communities of believers participating in the removal of things so as to add more time with Jesus.
So how do we take the community reality of fasting and the "don't be obvious" Matthew 6 passage at the same time?
"so that it will not be obvious" comes from a phrase that means "so it will not be seen." It's the idea of an appearance, an appearance that isn't necessarily connected to an inner reality. Another way of thinking about it would be putting on a costume for a play. It gives you the look of the part, but it's not who you really are.
The Pharisees of Jesus times, the so called religious guys who got it all wrong, were very theatrical with their fasting. For them fasting was an opportunity to put on a religious show through which they would get lots of applause for what they were doing. They wanted to be famous for being spiritual.
Unfortunately, loving God means that we make Him famous - not ourselves. God sees the heart, the secret reality of us all. And that is the point of the Matthew passage. He sees the depths of our hearts and the motives that are connected to our actions. The Sermon on the Mount is the revolutionary teaching of Jesus setting the record straight on what deep spirituality truly is like, flipping the Pharisee's idea of life on it's head. With fasting he basically says, "When you fast - don't do it to put on a show - do it to connect your heart with mine."
I love how Eugene Peterson paraphrases the Matthew passage:
"When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don't make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won't make you a saint. If you 'go into training' inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn't require attention-getting devices. He won't overlook what you are doing; he'll reward you well."
So were we doing something wrong with the 21day fast? No & Yes.
No, because it can be seen from Scripture that people joining together to seek out God is a powerful and necessary thing. Seeking God for spiritual renewal was the reason we were doing it, the motive of our hearts, not to look cool and spiritual. To be part of such an honest, heart focusing season with our church was amazing! The 21 days was a powerful thing for me because fasting is a spiritual habit I never really developed. But over the course of the 3 weeks I really got to a point where my heart and mind were more in tune to the heart of God and His word than previously. Knowing I wasn't alone in that but was joining in with my church family was even powerful. I need to fast more, our church needs to fast more. So no, we weren't doing something wrong.
But also maybe a little bit Yes. Not at the community level but at the individual level. Because maybe some did put on a show. Maybe it wasn't a thing of the heart for some. And that should be a constant reminder to those who do desire to fast. If it is going to be a temptation for you to try and get compliments or attention from people by telling them you're fasting - then keep it a secret. If you desire for people to be looking at you instead of looking to Jesus, then keep your fasting a secret.
May the next 21 day fast not be the next time we exercise such a spiritual habit.
May New Life always be a place of people who are constantly seeking to make Jesus famous.