When you fast, keep it private.

Matthew 6.16-18.

Believe it or don’t, some Evangelicals have no tradition of fasting. I run into ’em from time to time, and when I talk fasting, they’re quick to reject it: “That’s an Old Testament thing,” and “Jesus never told us to fast.”

True to both. The LORD never commanded fasting in all of scripture. Fasting has always been voluntary; nobody has to fast. But certain churches do promote it. Might be a Daniel fast at the beginning of the year, a Lenten fast before Easter, an Advent fast before Christmas, a partisan fast before Election Day. And peer pressure aside, nobody has to fast. They’re voluntary customs. You can opt out. Don’t even need special permission from the clergy… although every year when St. Patrick’s Day falls in mid-Lent, many a Catholic who wants to get plowed will beg their bishop for a one-day pass.

But the way Jesus talks in his Sermon on the Mount, he totally expects his followers to fast.

Bear in mind his audience was full of Pharisees. Pharisee custom was to fast twice a week… and Jesus may not have expected them to keep that same rate going, but he did expect them to fast once in a while. And according to the Didache, the ancient Christians totally did. 8.1

Jesus himself fasted in the desert. While he was notorious for ignoring customary Pharisee fast days, he never banned fasting. Never declared it a done-away-with custom. It’s in the Sermon on the Mount, remember? “When you fast” means sometimes you’re gonna fast.

And if you don’t—if you never engage in any hardcore prayer practices, which is precisely what fasting is—don’t expect your relationship with God to grow as quickly as it will among the Christians who do fast.

So yeah, Jesus never banned fasting. It’s just when we do it, doesn’t want us to be hypocrites about it. Really that’s his only rule about fasting. One we’d better make sure we follow when we do it.

Matthew 6.16-18
16 “When you fast, don’t be like the sad-looking hypocrites
who conceal their faces so they look to people like they’re fasting.
Amen! I promise you all, they got their credit.
17 You who fast: Fix your hair and wash your face,
18 so you don’t look to people like you’re fasting, except to your Father in private.
And your Father, who sees what’s private, will repay you.”

Sad to say, a lot of Christians don’t follow this rule, and do let everyone know we’re fasting. Like our families and fellow Christians. And sometimes pagans, like coworkers and waiters and anybody whom we tell, “Oh I can’t eat that; I’m on a fast.” Well aren’t you the holy one.

Jesus wants us to keep our mouths shut about it. Because it’s nobody’s business that we’re fasting. It’s a private matter, between us and God, and that’s it. You keep it as confidential as if you just soiled your pants: Tell nobody unless you absolutely have to. Got it?

Oh, I’m serious. So’s Jesus.

When we fast, we don’t eat; we pray. Instead of that mealtime, we’re talking with God.

So if you’ve gone to a restaurant with your friends, but you’re on a fast, and have to tell the waiter, “Just water, please,” and sit there sipping your water while everybody else in the room is eating a proper lunch… um, what’re you doing there? You’re supposed to be off by yourself, praying!

I’ve made this mistake myself. ’Cause I didn’t understand the practice or the point of fasting; I just figured during the fast time I’d generally pray more often and more fervently… but all my friends were going to a restaurant after church, and I wanted to hang out with them, and I don’t need to eat; I’ll just have water.

Just water? I didn’t want food? Was I feeling okay?

“I’m fasting,” I explained.

Nope, didn’t keep it private. And I figured that was okay. I was being honest, right? What am I supposed to do, lie?

But properly, what I was supposed to do was pray. Somewhere else. Not in the restaurant.

What about fellowship? What about socializing with my Christian friends? Well it never occurred to me—and never occurs to a lot of people who go to restaurants with their friends and just sip water—is that we’re skipping socializing too. To the ancient Hebrews, same as to the people of Jesus’s day, and same as to Christians today, mealtimes are social occasions. People didn’t just eat on the job; they stopped, sat down (or in Roman times, lay down), and ate together. And talked. Maybe dysfunctionally, but they talked. Socializing’s part of it. Always has been.

But when we fast, we’re not doing that. We’re going elsewhere. To pray.

And if you’re absent from the meal altogether, how’s anyone gonna ask you, “Aren’t you eating?”

Yeah, they might ask, “Where were you?” and you can honestly tell them, “Somewhere else.” Seldom will people press you further. Meanwhile you kept your fasting private. As you should.

(Now I should also remind you Christians aren’t to fast on feast days. Which means if you’re fasting after church, you’re probably doing it wrong: If Sunday is your Sabbath, eat! Go eat with your friends. Go ahead and socialize. Save your fast for the rest of the week; God wants you to take a break, so do.)

So most of the time when Christians go to restaurants and don’t eat, it’s because they don’t understand how fasting works, or the point. They don’t realize we’re meant to replace our mealtime with prayer time. (And don’t realize we’re not to fast on Sabbath.) They don’t know any better. So don’t be hard on ’em; cut ’em slack, and correct them gently.

But yeah, there are those Christians who know exactly what they’re doing, and are being the very hypocrites Jesus told us not to be. These folks wanna be seen not eating. Seen depriving themselves. Wanna show off what good Christians they are. “Setting a good example for others,” they might tell themselves—but that’s rubbish; they’re totally playacting.

Don’t you do that. It does nothing for your prayer life. Like Jesus said, such people “got their credit”—they grow no closer to God, because that wasn’t their goal at all. It was to look pious. Nothing more.

Don’t even let ’em know you’re fasting.

Your fasting should be exactly like all your other prayers: Kept private. Kept between you and God. Kept secret. Don’t let anyone—or let only a very, very few trusted individuals—know what you’re up to.

I’ve heard various Christians say, “Well, we can make an exception for all-church fasts.” If everybody else in your church is fasting, and everybody knows there’s an all-church fast going on, they figure it’s totally fine to let slip we’re participating.

I respectfully disagree.

Because Jesus’s audience had Pharisees in it. Remember, Pharisees fasted twice a week. Every Monday and Thursday, without fail, they went hungry. And looked it, which was part of the problem.

Now if you didn’t look it—if you fixed your hair and washed your face like Jesus instructs—would people know you were still fasting? Probably. It was a fast day. You just weren’t suffering as hard as they were—or pretended to be.

But Jesus didn’t want us to draw any attention whatsoever to something which is meant to be personal and private between us and our Father. Even if everybody’s doing it, and everybody knows everybody’s doing it, it’s still not their business. It’s only between us and our Father.

It’s not their business for a number of reasons. Primarily it’s because they’re not the fasting police! It’s not for them to pressure us: “You’re fasting, right? You should fast. Everybody else is. What, don’t you wanna grow closer to God?” And so forth. They really don’t understand this is a private matter… nor do they understand they’re not helping. They’re turning it into an obligation.

Immature Christians likewise don’t understand a fast is not a form of corporate worship. By corporate I mean something Christians do together. We do not fast together. We might pray together in any other way, but fasting is actually not a prayer Christians are meant to do as a group. It requires us to withdraw from others, same as we’ve withdrawn from food, and pray. Alone. Just the individual Christian and God.

Other forms of prayer groups are totally fine. Fasting groups are not. Because they all too quickly turn into groups where people start griping about how hungry they are—and instead of praying and seeking God, we’re feeling sorry for ourselves, and talking about how once this fast is over, we’re totally gonna indulge. I confess I’ve done this way too often. Don’t repeat my behavior.

Step away from your fellow Christians, step closer to your Father, and resist all the temptations to wail or brag about the situation. There will be many, and they will undermine your devotion. So keep it as private as you can.