Before we start a fast, we must check our motives. There are a couple places in scripture where God is displeased with fasting, and it was all because of selfish heart motivation.
Wrong Motive #1 – Desiring attention from people.
This was the problem Jesus addressed when he said we should fast in secret (Matt 6:16-18). Because the Pharisees were making a public display of their spirituality, their fasting was all about getting admiration from others. It was no longer a means of connecting with God on a deeper level, but a matter of pride. They weren’t after God’s glory, they were after applause. This is why Jesus cautions us to fast in secret.
While it’s important to keep our fasting private rather than putting on a show to get people to think highly of us, we don’t have to hide. Almost every fast mentioned in the Bible was a group of people getting together to seek God – no one hid what they were doing. That scripture was merely Jesus cautioning believers to be careful about their motives. As John Piper says, “Being seen fasting is not the same things as fasting to be seen.”
Wrong Motive # 2 – Getting God to give us what we want.
God is never obligated to bless us or fix our problem, though He often will when it gives Him glory. If our sole plan is to do whatever God wants just so He’ll give us what we want, then God will not honor our fast. While there is great power in seeking God through the humility of fasting, it’s not a guarantee. Fasting is not the action we take to earn God’s favor.
So many times in scripture God talks about seeking His face (connecting with Him and getting to know Him) and not His hand (the blessings he passes out according to His promises). By fasting, we ought to be seeking Him, and not what’s in His magic Santa bag. We must want Him more than we want the good things He can do for us. As He asks in Zechariah 7:5, “was it for me that you fasted?”
Wrong Motive #3 – Thinking of ourselves rather than others.
Isaiah 58 is an incredible scripture, and I wish I had time to break it down in detail here, but we just don’t have space. (See John Pipers book Desiring God for an in-depth breakdown of this chapter.) To sum up this scripture, God is challenging the religious traditions of His people who were fasting regularly under the law. They blubbered that God was not listening to them and wasn’t honoring their sacrifices. His answer was simple: You’re focused on yourselves rather than connecting with God or helping others. In verse 3 He said “You seek your own pleasure.” We must be careful that we’re not fasting to seek our own pleasure, but we’re putting others first every day.
Fasting changes our hearts, makes us more focused on God’s Kingdom rather than our own agenda. If we fast and yet remain hard-hearted towards the needs of others, then there’s something wrong deep inside us. When we are desperate for Him to move in our lives, we must be giving and loving toward others. Helping those in need weakens our selfishness.
So what should our motives be? Simply that God be glorified in our life, no matter how uncomfortable we are. In our desperation for help, we humble ourselves, and He answers.
God “rewards acts that confess human helplessness and that express hope in God, because these acts call attention to his glory.” John Piper
For more blog posts on fasting: