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When was the last time you fasted?
Have you ever fasted?

In Old Testament times fasting—abstaining from food for a specified time—was a common religious practice. Even though there was no direct command from God to do so, voluntary fasting for religious purposes was regularly undertaken.

A main reason why believers of old engaged in fasting was that they wanted to show in an outward way the sorrow they felt within their hearts for having transgressed God’s commandments.

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others 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. (Matthew 6:16-18, NIV)

Fasting was also practiced for a variety of other reasons—as a sign of mourning, as a way to express gratitude to God for His mercy, or as a way to show dependence on God for help in time of need.

Fasting was practiced frequently in Jesus’ day too. Unfortunately, for many it had become a mere outward exercise with no inner spiritual content. The Pharisees, for example, fasted regularly but only because they wanted others to notice and admire their rigid self-discipline. Jesus roundly condemned such fasting as hypocritical. Instead, He taught His disciples to fast in such a way that only their heavenly Father would see them. He encouraged the people who chose to fast to do it in a way that was thoughtful and reverent—for the praise of God and not for personal glory.

What about today? Should we Christians be encouraged to fast? If so, how and when should we do it?

Fasting is a practice that Scripture neither commands nor forbids, so it falls into the category of things we are at liberty to do or not do. Some Christians may find that fasting serves a beneficial purpose—for example, as a devotional aid to focus their thoughts on the Lord and the blessings He offers in His Word. Others may not find the custom of fasting to be spiritually beneficial. They may decide to utilize other tools besides fasting as devotional aids.

In any case, whether we make the choice to fast or not to fast, the Savior would have us draw lessons from this portion of Scripture for our lives as His people. He teaches us to resist the natural tendency to merely “go through the motions” in our faith-lives.

For example, when we attend worship services, Jesus encourages us to do it for His sake—because we love Him who loved us first, and not for the purpose that others might see us and think well of us.

Or when the Savior’s Word is presented in the Bible lessons and sermon, the Spirit prompts us to listen with ears attuned, seeking prayerfully to apply the Word to our lives and in this way to bring glory to His name.

And when we read our Bibles, we do so with the earnest plea that the Holy Spirit will use the words He inspired to fortify our faith in Jesus, to increase our love for Him, and to bless us with the strength we need to deny ourselves, taking up our cross and following Him.

Above all, what the Savior lays on our hearts in this section from His mountaintop sermon is that we keep in mind throughout our days of pilgrimage the “true fast” He looks for from His disciples on a daily basis: godly sorrow for sin and faith that He freely forgives sin for His mercy’s sake.

In the words of the hymnwriter:

Not the labors of my hands

Can fulfill Thy Law’s demands;

Could my zeal no respite know,

Could my tears forever flow,

All for sin could not atone;

Thou must save, and Thou alone.

(TLH #376:2)