Last week, I taught a lesson on fasting in preparation for an upcoming church-wide fast in observance of Good Friday. But there was something I failed to discuss in detail, either in the presentation of the lesson or the manuscript I prepared. It is a common and practical question many people have about fasting: Can I tell anyone that I am fasting?
This question is raised in light of Matthew 6:16-18: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (ESV)
In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the Lord admonishes his disciples not to be like the hypocrites when they give to the needy (6:1-4), pray (6:5-15), and fast (6:16-18). Jesus warns them and us not to do these acts to be praised by people who see what we do for God. God is to be the subject and object of our acts of devotion. That is, what we do should be about God and for God. Our service to God is not to be “an outside show to an unfriendly world,” as they used to say in the church of my youth.
Our self-centered flesh strives to be the center of attention, even when we are doing things in the name of God. Jesus teaches us to combat this sinful tendency by praying and fasting in secret. He even instructs us to hide from ourselves when we give, working to keep the left hand from knowing what the right hand is doing, lest our good works activate our pride. Jesus speaks in such graphic terms to make it clear that our acts of service are to focus on God, not self or others. If we do good deeds to be seen, we already have our reward once others see what we do!
Jesus teaches that fasting and prayer should not be done for people to see you. But he does not teach that it is wrong for people to see that you are fasting and praying. Being seen in fasting and prayer does not cancel out the meaning of your acts or disqualify you from receiving a reward. We know this because giving, prayer, and fasting are all things that happen corporately and publicly in the New Testament. And we know that these were corporate acts because the New Testament writers reported it for all to read. It is not wrong for people to see that you are fasting or praying or giving.
Say you are fasting and someone invites you to eat. Or say someone asks why you are not eating. How should you respond? In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus clearly teaches us not to make a sad, sullen, and spiritual looking face and start explaining that you sacrificing are food for God, in a way that makes more of you than the God you supposedly are fasting for in the first place. Likewise, whatever you do, don’t lie. Do not dishonor God by not telling the truth as you are seeking to honor God by fasting and praying.
I recommend that you simply tell inquirers that you are fasting. If you are planning to fast, it may be best to talk to your spouse and close family members about what you are planning to do. You don’t want your wife to think that you are going on a hunger strike until her cooking gets better, do you? Beyond that, you should try to avoid putting yourself in situations where you will have to do a lot of talking about your fast, if at all possible.
But when and where you are directly confronted with a question, tell the truth. You don’t have to make a big fanfare about it. But be honest. You are fasting. And if this raises further questions, answer them directly and biblically. But do so in a manner that exalts the God for whom you have taken this step of faith, rather than exalting yourself for taking the step of faith.
Above all, avoid being entangled in legalistic rules when it comes to the exercises of your faith. Jesus did not say that you have broken the fast if you tell someone that you are fasting. However, you will break the spirit of the fast when you are more concerned about keeping it a secret from others than you are about feeding your hunger for God by abstaining from food for a season. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,” says 1 Corinthians 10:31, ”do all to the glory of God.”