Secret Sorrow and Private Fasting: How Jesus Meets Us in Our Brokenness


“Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

I have to confess: fasting has long been something of a mystery to me. The church context in which I grew up recognized fasting as a sort of prayer intensifier; it was typically used in a context where one really needed something from God or really wanted to draw closer to him (or both). But the rationale wasn’t really explained.

The Bible doesn’t help much. Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 6 is a case in point: he assumes fasting, treats it as a given, rather than explaining it. Clearly, God-fearing Jews in his day practiced fasting on a regular basis.

But why? And should we do the same? And either way … how does Jesus’s teaching here apply to our lives today?

Why Fasting?

Fasting from food (and sometimes drink) is an ancient practice. It has been connected to religious life as long as religious life has existed.

All over the world, people of different religions even today treat fasting as a spiritual discipline. It’s considered a way to elevate the spirit and discipline the body—to reorient oneself to reality in a healthier, more spiritual way.

For Christians, it’s usually connected to times of intensified prayer. Fasting seems to “clear the air,” and the self-sacrifice involved helps us get serious about our prayers and lock our focus more pointedly on God. Some view fasting as a form of worship. It’s also often connected to intercession, on a national, church, or personal level.

In the Old Testament, fasting is likewise connected to prayer. But there’s a further element that’s often overlooked: fasting was usually connected to times of intense mourning.

Sometimes (often) fasting was a way of expressing sorrow over sin. It voluntarily mimics the effects of extreme sorrow, when one is so grieved that one can’t even eat.

This is why in the Old Testament, fasting is usually accompanied by other outward expressions of mourning, like tearing one’s clothes or hair, wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and public weeping and wailing.

Understanding that background highlights something about Jesus’s teaching on fasting: it’s strange.

Public mourning, weeping, and repentance was the whole point of Old Testament fasting. By telling people to hide their fasting, to move it from a public to a personal level and to actually make it look like nothing was wrong, Jesus seems to turn the whole practice on its head.

Fasting for Show

While individuals did fast in the Old Testament, when we encounter fasting in that context it was usually corporate. The nation of Israel fasted to express repentance on more than one occasion (see Nehemiah 9 for a good example). Esther called a fast before she went into the presence of the king, risking a death sentence, to intercede for her people.

God responded with grace and forgiveness—but he was also good at smelling a rat. At times these displays of national “repentance” were just a display. Just as God had no use for sacrifices made without obedience or loyalty to him (Amos 5:18-27), so he didn’t care much for fasts without real repentance.

Isaiah 58 is the classic passage on this topic. Here’s a sample:

Will the fast I choose be like this:
A day for a person to deny himself,
to bow his head like a reed,
and to spread out sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast
and a day acceptable to the LORD?

Isn’t the fast I choose:
To break the chains of wickedness,
to untie the ropes of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free,
and to tear off every yoke? (Isaiah 58:5-6)

Secret Sorrow and the God Who Sees

In Jesus’s day, it’s clear that fasting had become a regular practice among those who considered themselves especially religious. But like prayer and giving, it had fallen prey to a common pitfall: the practice had become about people, and being seen by people, instead of actually reaching out to and communing with God.

Jesus’s advice is given to circumvent that problem. If no one knows you’re fasting, you don’t have to worry that you’ll fast for the wrong reasons. You’re free to fast before God alone.

(I’ve written about this at greater length here.)

The most significant parts of the teaching, to me, are the phrases “your Father who is in secret” and “your Father who sees in secret.”

For us it’s normal to think of religion or spirituality as personal, individual things, but in the ancient world it wasn’t. In the ancient world religion and spirituality were cultural, corporate identities and practices, as much a part of your DNA as your language or the clothes you wore.

By urging us to practice fasting—a particularly corporate and communal expression of worship—privately, Jesus urges us to make worship, prayer, and seeking God an intensely personal and individual thing.

In the process, the content of our prayers changes too. In public, corporate fasting, you repent over the sins of your nation. You seek God for societal shifts, for rain, for peace. You wail and weep and throw dust and ashes in the air so that everyone will see how much your grief should impact them too.

But our lives are just as wrung by personal sorrows. We grieve and mourn things other people don’t know about, things they can’t know about. Even if we try to share certain things, there is a depth of pain, a depth of loss, a depth of regret, a depth of need that no one else can share or understand.

That is where God will meet us. Seek your Father in secret, Jesus says, because he is in secret, and he sees in secret. God knows the depths of our hearts. He searches us out. He sees it all. And he invites us to come to him, to share with him, and to encounter him in our most broken places.

The fast that God has chosen is to break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke. These are the things we are meant to do when we repent—the things turning to God will accomplish in our society. But they are also the things God promises to do, for us and in us, when we go to him with our grief.

Ultimately, what Jesus teaches us here is bigger than guidelines for fasting. It’s about personal faith, secret sorrow, and the God who sees—and who promises that when we come to him, he will not let us down.

(This is Part 69 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)



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