This morning I was reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and came upon a series of verses that have been messing with me. Perhaps they will mess with you, too.
In the middle of His sermon, Jesus brings up prayer and teaches His followers to not be like the hypocrites who pray in public places merely to be seen by others. Then He gives a specific instruction: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). This is an interesting request with a very real promise.
In the following verses, Jesus gives His followers the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13) and continues with fasting. Like His advice on prayer, Jesus says not to make it a show. Jesus clearly explains prayer and fasting are not to be done for the sake of reputation, but for a reward from the Father. Look at the similarity: “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” (6:17-18).
Jesus takes for granted His followers will be regularly praying and fasting (also in John 5:33-39). And His emphasis seems to be on keeping it secret. Jesus says if we pray and fast to be praised by others that will be the extent of our reward. But if we fast and pray in secret, God will reward us.
Jesus is teaching all Christians to keep running secrets with the Lord. We should all enter into times of secret fasting and prayer. My sense is that this is not the way things are. I believe very few set aside regular times for private prayer and fasting, and this can only result in a lack of reward.
Throughout the long history of God and His people, there have been many times of public fasting and prayer, too. First Samuel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel and Acts all include times when God’s people fasted and prayed corporately. When we read about the early days of the church in Acts, they were constantly praying and fasting together. Paul fasted for the three days following his conversion on the Damascus Road. The early churches often fasted before sending out missionaries and selecting leaders. Like them, we should restore the exercise of humbling ourselves before the living God and asking Him to do the impossible.
I wish more pastors and leaders were calling God’s people to fast about the tragedies of our day. We should pray and fast, both privately and corporately, to end abortion, human trafficking, pornography, abuse and many other sinful institutions that exist. This was an automatic reflex of the early church. Prayer and fasting changes things, as John Piper puts it: “The Bible is also crystal clear that you have not because you ask not — had you asked, the universe would have been different.” How many of the catastrophes of our day still exist because God’s people are not on their knees, fasting and praying?