What Jesus Says About Prayer and Fasting
It’s Oscar season, and one of the biggest awards you can get is the best actor/actress. It’s given to the person who does the best job performing in a leading role. Sometimes they do such a great job that you forget you’re watching a movie. There were actors in Jesus’s day too, but they used religion and spirituality as their theater. They did an incredible job of convincing others that what they did was real.
But Jesus was not impressed. In fact, his harshest words were for those who used spirituality as a means of performing for other people. Matthew 15:8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'” What he said there was so harsh that the disciples came to him after to say that he had offended the Pharisees.
We aim to honor Jesus with our lips, but according to God, honoring Jesus with your lips is no indicator of the proximity of your heart to Jesus. There is not necessarily a correlation. This behavior is the greatest threat to your spiritual life. Not lack of knowledge, not lack of spirituality. The greatest threat to your spirituality is a distant heart from God. This is what the enemy is trying to do to you – to cut you off from Jesus.
How can we, as followers of Christ, cultivate hearts that are close to God?
We engage in practices or spiritual differences that bring us closer to God. Jesus describes 2 of those practices in this text. These practices are so important, and how we engage them is also important.
Matthew 6:5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
For context, if you were a devout Jew in Jesus’s day, you prayed three times every day. The synagogue was not just a place you go to once a day but a public facet of community life. The hypocrites made sure they were as public as possible in open spaces in their acts of prayer. Jesus says their issue is not their physical location but the location of their hearts. The motive of their hearts is to be seen by others. It’s easier to pin that on Pharisees, but how many of us have engaged in religious behavior not out of love for God but to manage what others think of us? Reading the bible, praying aloud, going to church, or lifting your hands in worship not out of love for God but to be seen by others.
The hypocrites want the applause of people, and they got it. But the applause fades, the audience leaves, and there is nothing left. Jesus says that’s it. They got what they wanted.
What’s the alternative for us?
Matthew 6:6 “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Jesus says to go to a private space to pray. He isn’t saying to never pray in public; He himself prayed publicly. He is not giving a law. He is addressing the motive of the heart. Why were the religious leaders praying? To perform for people. Jesus says His followers pray for a fundamentally different purpose. To be with God.
Where your attention on God is, is where you will find Him. Having your full, undivided attention on God is much more difficult in a crowded space with people around you. But when you are alone with God, you can be more present. God is always present, but where are you present with Him?
The reward is God Himself. When you truly seek God, you find Him. He is better than any blessing you could ever ask for. What we need most, not necessarily what we want, is a deeper experience of God. We don’t pray to God for stuff or status; we pray to God to get God.
Matthew 6:16 “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.”
Fasting feels so out of left field for us. We don’t do it as often anymore, but for Jesus and His followers, it was a deeply important and meaningful practice. Fasting is not the same as abstinence or a diet. The biblical practice of fasting is the denial of something, typically food, for the sake of spiritual focus or activity, such as prayer. Sometimes people fast as a response to grief or conviction. Fasting is also a way of cultivating a deeper dependence on God. It is a way of showing that God is all you need and expressing it in a physical way. This culturally feels weird for us as we have largely separated body and spirit, but for 2000 years, most Christians fasted.
If you were a devout Jew in Jesus’ time, you fasted twice a week. The hypocrites were making their appearance look gloomy and disheveled so that everyone would notice they were dedicated to a fast.
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 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.”
Jesus says that your goal is not to draw attention to yourself but to draw your attention to God. Our version today would likely say wash your face, brush your teeth, brush your hair, and turn your attention to God.
Prayer and fasting were spiritual practices that had been twisted from God’s intention. Jesus doesn’t throw them out, but He clarifies them. Prayer and fasting are not for public performance but private practice. What people see of your spiritual practices should be an overflow of your private life with God. It should never be for performance. When we mix spirituality and performance, it results in toxicity and is not the way of Jesus.
When it comes to our practice, it should be…
The only way to fail at practice is not to do it. God doesn’t want perfection; He wants you.
Make a practice of regular, intentional, imperfect times with God.
Try spending just 10 minutes 3 times a day in prayer to be with God. Set a timer on your phone for morning, afternoon, and evening.