Two Instructions from Jesus on Fasting

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:16

The three great religious practices among the Jews were giving, praying, and fasting. Jesus’ own ministry began with an epic forty-day fast. Jesus begins, “Whenever you fast,” because he probably expected his followers would fast, though neither he nor any of the New Testament writers command it.

Jesus offers no technical instructions on when or how to fast, only that fasting should not be for outward show. Apparently, many who fasted made a point of wearing tattered clothing, scrubbing their head with ashes, and stumbling about as though carrying a great burden.

Jesus offers two instructions.

First, when fasting, look normal—and cheerful! “… put oil on your head and wash your face … ”

The oil and water treatment was the everyday norm in Jesus’ day. That’s just what people did before going out. In fact, since oil was synonymous with gladness (Is. 61:3), a person should look not only normal but cheerful!

Second, Jesus taught, when fasting, fast for God, “ … so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.”

We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. Its central motive is fellowship with God.

My introduction to fasting came in my second year of ministry when the idea of a two-and-a-half-day fasting retreat emerged from somewhere. I remember three things: (1) how easy it was to pack for a youth retreat without food, (2) how hard it was to fill up the time that was normally devoted to meal prep, consumption, and cleanup, and (3) how much I hated not eating for two and a half days.

For the past twenty-five years, I’ve tried to make fasting a regular part of my week. It has been a profoundly humbling experience to be exposed to the inward chorus of spoiled, whining, seductive voices that relentlessly try to bully me back to my selfish, self-indulgent, self-absorbed nature. I’m comforted to know that Jesus’ forty-day fast also exposed him to his own temptations (Matt. 4:1-11).

Fasting has helped me feel a certain connection with those who never have enough to eat. It has taught me about the pleasure of food and necessity of a restrained lifestyle. But most of all, fasting has deepened my fellowship with God. Fasting is always uncomfortable for me, so it has helped to memorize several passages of scripture to “feed on” when my stomach grumbles.

“I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” (John 4:32)

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name. (Ps. 63:1-4)

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever fasted? What was it like? What do you discover about yourself when you fast or think about fasting? What do you learn about God?


O Lord, my God,

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. (Ps. 63:5-8)



Dave Peterson is an ordained pastor who is the Director of Community Outreach for The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation and Scholarly Advisor for the H. E. Butt Family Foundation. He is the author of Receiving and Giving, Unleashing the Bless Challenge in Your Life. Dave and his wife, Terri, have four adult children and four grandchildren. Send a note to Dave.


Should Christians (or Christian businesses) tithe? How much money should I give away? Does God want me to take a vow of poverty and give everything away? Will God punish me if I don’t tithe? How do I balance my budget of needs and wants with the biblical command of giving? If you’ve ever asked these questions to find out exactly what tithing means and how it applies to you, you are not alone. We’ll explore the concept of Tithing in this High Calling theme, and we invite you to follow along. Ask questions, offer your insights, and help us keep the conversation going.

Featured image by Sydney Agee. Used with Permission. Source via Flickr.

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