Hungry for Our Reward

Fasting and prayer are not easy. That’s why the hypocrites loved to show them off. But this passage shows us how this whole principle of “your best life later” applies to the spiritual disciplines. We embrace their difficulty, trusting in our Father’s reward in the future.

Chris Hutchison on February 21, 2021
Hungry for Our Reward
February 21, 2021

Hungry for Our Reward

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Passage: Matthew 6:5-6, 16-18
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Almost 80 years ago, C.S. Lewis preached a sermon called “The Weight of Glory” where he observed that, “If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love.”

He then went on to point out the difference between “unselfishness” and “love.”  Love is focused on securing good things for others. “Unselfishness” simply focuses on not having something yourself. Lewis went on to say, “I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self- denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.”

In other words, Lewis is pointing to what we have been seeing in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus calls us to some hard things, but at each point He promises us a staggering reward in return.

Lewis then addressed this fact that many Christians are uncomfortable with this. They seem to think that it’s bad to do something out of a hope for a reward. It’s bad to desire something good for yourself. And he said that this is nonsense. This fear has nothing to do with Christianity.

“Indeed,” he said, “if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” [C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” accessed here: https://www.wheelersburg.net/Downloads/Lewis%20Glory.pdf)

Here’s the big idea. Jesus promises us rewards for following Him. And this was not a new invention. Hebrews 11, looking back over the history of faith, recognizes that God’s people whad always been enabled to obey Him in radical ways because of the reward that they looked to.

After speaking heroes like Noah and Abraham and Sarah, Hebrews 11:13-16 says “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:13–16).

Further down, in verse 24, we read, “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.

He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:24–26).

And how can we miss the example of Jesus Himself, who, according to Hebrews 12:2, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).

So if you’re listening this morning and you are a Christian, let me ask you, how is your walk with God going? How is your obedience going? How is your discipleship going? And if your answer to any of those questions happens to be, “not great,” could it be that the missing piece is this understanding of rewards?

Are you trying to live life as a Christian just because it’s what you should do, when that’s not how God designed it to work? Are you fooling about with mud pies instead of the staggering joy promised you in the gospel? And could you use another reminder this morning that Jesus promises us incredible rewards for following Him?

Last week we asked similar questions as we considered the matter of giving. Jesus told us not to be like the hypocrites whose generosity had become a performance. Today, in the two passages we’re considering, Jesus applies this same teaching to prayer and fasting. These passages have a lot to say about why and how we pray and why we fast.

Right in between them is the Lord’s Prayer, which tells us what we should pray for. That is what we’ll be going next week.

But today is the why and the how, and so let’s dig in as we turn to verse 5 together.


“Not Like the Hypocrites”

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.” Why? “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5).

Prayer was a big part of Jewish religious life. By the time of Jesus’ day, it was common for them to offer prayer at set times each day—first thing in the morning, then in the afternoon, and finally in the evening, similar to what we see in Daniel’s life (Daniel 6:10). Prayer was a part of the normal rhythm of their days.

Often people would go to the temple to pray. Think about Acts 3:1 which says, “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.” That was about 3:00 pm. Instead of coffee break, they had prayer break.

But the Pharisees weren’t content to just go pray in the temple with everybody else. They wanted to be seen. And so this reference to praying on the “street corners” suggests that these smart Pharisees planned their outings so that they happened to be on the street corner when the set time of prayer came, and, oh well, they had to stop and pray right then and there with everybody bustling about them. What a great chance to show show how much holier you were than everybody else as you prayed for everybody to see.

Jesus also mentions “synagogues” here. Jewish synagogues were kind of like their churches, where they’d gather on Sabbath to hear God’s word, and prayer was a big part of their gatherings as well. And the Pharisees just loved being the ones to pray in those settings.

Jesus says here that they “love” to being those public places and pray, “that they may be seen by others.” That was their goal, because they were “hypocrites.” This word for “hypocrite” points to the fact that they were doing something supposedly for God but it was really for other people. They were supposedly talking to God but really they were using the opportunity to impress other people.

We don’t see much street-corner praying in our day. But I have seen my share of Instagram posts where people have artistically arranged their Bible and their prayer journal and a cup of coffee and snapped a picture to tell everyone how blessed they were with their time with God that morning. I have met people who just love to let others know just how much they pray. I’ve met plenty of religious leaders whose public prayers are nothing short of a performance.

And Jesus says this about those who pray to impress other people: “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5b). So everybody sees them and thinks they’re so great. Yay. Good for them. That’s all they get.


“But When You Pray.”

But Jesus’ disciples aren’t to be like this. We must not be like these hypocrites. And so what should our prayer look like? It looks like verse 6.

“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).

I want to point out four elements in this passage that are worth noticing:

1: “When You Pray”

First, there’s this phrase “when you pray.” Not if but when. Jesus does not imagine a prayer-less disciple. His disciples pray. It’s what we do, just as much as children speak to their Father.

Notice here that Jesus does not critique the regular times of prayer that His Jewish disciples practiced. When he says “when you pray,” they probably would have thought: “when I pray at the regular times of prayer.”

Many Christians struggle to “find time to pray.” And right there is our mistake. You don’t “find time” for important things in your life. You make time for them. And I think we could learn a thing or two from these Jewish brothers and sisters of ours who just put regular times of prayer into their schedule and build the rest of their day around that.

And notice that it was more than one time of prayer each day. How many times have you had a great time in God’s word in the morning but by the time supper rolls around your heart is in a totally different spot? What difference would it make if you took a deliberate 3-5 minutes of prayer before lunch? And instead of listening to the radio on your drive home, you had a sticky note in your car of things to pray for and you took those few minutes to seek God’s face?

Those are some suggestions, but the big point here is that disciples of Jesus pray, and I’m just adding that we probably won’t do that unless we are disciplined and deliberate with it.

2: “Pray to Your Father”

The second point is that prayer is the communication of children to their Father.We see that in the phrase, “And pray to your Father who is in secret.” One of the wonderful themes of the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus, as the son of God, has invited us to share this relationship with Him. We speak to our Father.

Yes, we will probably need to carve out deliberate times to pray, just like I have to carve out deliberate times to be with my children. But when we do pray, it’s like a child to their Father. We come believing that He loves us and is ready to listen like a dad with his kids.

And maybe your dad wasn’t like that. Maybe he was grumpy or distant and you were afraid to talk to him. But your Heavenly Father isn’t like that. He loves you, so much more than you can fathom. And so we pray as a child with their father.

3: “Go Into Your Room”

Third, Jesus tells us where to pray. “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”

As opposed to the street corners or even the synagogue, Jesus tells us to pray in secret. In your room, with the door closed. Who will be with you in there? Nobody, except your Father who is in secret. Who will see you in there? Nobody, except your Father who sees you in secret.

Prayer is talking to God. And Jesus encourages us to keep it that way, and to resist the temptation to make it a performance, by praying in secret.

Now let’s pause here and ask an important question. Is Jesus saying that all of our prayer should be personal prayer, and that we should never pray in front of other people?

And the answer from Scripture is a firm “no.” Jesus is not saying that all prayer must be personal prayer. What Jesus is saying is that personal prayer must be personal prayer.

Remember the hypocrites in verse 5? When they were praying on the street corners, they weren’t having prayer meetings with friends out there. They were talking to God, but doing out for everyone to see. And contrasted with that, Jesus tells us to pray in our rooms alone with our Father.

Jesus is not necessarily talking about times when people are supposed to be praying together. And what we see in Scripture is that there are times when public prayer is not only appropriate but important. Jesus did this several times (Matthew 11:25, Mark 8:6, John 6:11, John 17:1). And not just by accident. John 11:41: “And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me’” (John 11:41–42).

In the book of Acts we also see many cases of the Christians gathering and praying together (Acts 1:24, 3:1, 4:24-30). Do you remember 1 Timothy 2:8? “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” So yes, there are times where public prayer, prayer with others, is not just ok but is important. Public prayer is not wrong—when it’s appropriate.

But even there we must be careful. We can’t be like the hypocrites in the synagogues who were just dying to be asked to pray so that they could be seen by others. Have you ever done that at a prayer meeting? Tried to use phrases that you know will get the “mmm-hmms” and “amens” of the people who are there?

When we pray in public, we need to remember that we are still praying. We are talking to our Father and not trying to impress the people around us.

And I’d also suggest that we can learn a great deal about the condition of our heart by comparing how often we pray with others compared to personal prayer. If the only times you ever pray are when you’re with others—at at a meal or a small group or a prayer meeting—than something’s probably off. Our life should be filled with the kind of prayer that Jesus describes here: alone, behind a closed door, with nobody seeing but God.

And why? What is the result of this kind of private prayer, for God’s eyes only?

4: “Your Father… Will Reward You.”

This is our fourth point from verse 6 here. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

This is just astounding. We need to step back and soak this in. I know we heard this last week, about giving. I know we’ve been hearing a lot about rewards in the Sermon on the Mount here. I know I opened up this message by talking about rewards. But let’s just take this in: God promises to reward us when we pray to Him in secret.

Here’s just the big question that I had as I meditated on this during this past week: why don’t we talk about this more?

I’ve grown up going to church. I’ve heard so many sermons and devotions and talks about prayer. I’ve read numbers of books about prayer. I’ve been to entire conferences about prayer and have heard from speakers whose entire ministry is devoted to talking about prayer. I’ve been to scores of prayer meetings and have been in many conversations with others about prayer.

Time and time again I’ve heard people address the issue of prayerlessness—how so many Christians find prayer really hard and don’t pray as often as they know they should. I’ve heard this issue of “prayer guilt” being addressed from all kinds of different angles. I’ve head and read as people have tried to answer the question, “why pray?”

And as I reflected on all of that this week, I don’t know if a single time I’ve ever heard someone say, “We should pray, even when it’s hard, because Jesus has promised us a reward. God will reward us for this.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people explain that when we pray for something, sometimes God says yes, sometimes God says no, and sometimes He says wait. But why do we stop there? Why don’t we say: “But even when He says no, He’s promised to reward us simply for the act of asking Him in the first place.”

Why don’t we talk about this? Is it because of C.S. Lewis’s observation—that we think there’s something wrong with being motivated by a reward? Or is it because here in North America we’re so focused on instant results? We want prayer to change things, now, on our timeline, and if it doesn’t, we’re not interested?

I’ve heard people say this kind of thing to me quite often: “I’ve prayed about it, and I still don’t feel any different.” What’s the assumption there? That prayer is kind of like cooking a microwave dinner. You grab something out of the freezer, push some buttons and wait a few minutes, and—boom!—you get your results.

But I just want to ask you today: what would happen to your prayer life if you pushed back against our microwave culture and really believed the promise of Jesus here? If you really believed that God sees you in secret and will reward you for your secret prayer? That even when you don’t get the answer to the prayer that you were seeking, you will be rewarded by your Father for your secret, faithful prayer?

Once again, we should just be astounded here. Just like with giving, prayer is something we’re just supposed to do. We should just do this. But God has graciously promised us a reward for our secret praying before Him and Him alone.

If we believed this, would be not pray?

Now there’s so much I want to say right now about what we should pray for, but that’s going to be saved for next week. Let’s just sum up the four points that we’ve seen in verse 6 here today. First, we will pray. Not if, but when. And we’ll probably need to be deliberate about this.

Two, we pray as children talking to their Father. Three, our personal prayer should be personal prayer—between us and God and not a performance for others. And fourth, Jesus has promised us His Father’s reward when we pray like this.

There’s some more thoughts in summary here, but let’s move on to the discussion on fasting in verse 16.


Fasting

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:16).

Fasting refers to going without food, and it was an important part of Jewish religious life. One day each year—before the Day of Atonement, when the sacrifice was made for the sins of the people—everybody needed to fast. In this setting it was likely a sign of repentance.

Fasting is also connected with mourning and sadness. David fasted after Saul and Jonathan died (2 Samuel 1:12), and we see fasting in those kind of settings numbers of times in the Old Testament.

Fasting often goes hand-in-hand with prayer. Just think of the phrase “prayer and fasting.” Often times we see people pray and fast when faced with something really difficult or really significant. When Ezra was leading the band of exiles back to rebuild the temple, we read, “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21).

When Esther was preparing to go to the king, knowing it might cost her her life, she told Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

Fasting was also a preparation for a time of significant prayer. In Daniel 9, after Daniel was reading Jeremiah and knew the exile was coming to an end, he fasted (Daniel 9:3) before approaching God in prayer to ask for God to do this thing that He had promised.

So what’s going on here? What’s the significance of fasting, and why is it connected to prayer? There’s so much that could be said here, but let me suggest a couple of points.

First of all, in the Jewish understanding of life, eating was not just about providing your body with food. Eating was a part of worship and celebration and covenant ceremonies. Most of the sacrifices offered at the temple were not full burnt offerings; only a part of the animal was offered and the rest was enjoyed as a meal in God’s presence.

So just like eating a meal was so often full of religious meaning, so also not eating a meal had religious meaning. It was a way of saying to God “this is how sad I am,” or “this is how much I want the thing I’m praying for,” or simply, “this is how much I want you. More than food, more than my daily bread, I want you, God.”


Hypocritical Fasting

Now we probably shouldn’t be surprised by now that the scribes and Pharisees and religious hypocrites also fasted, and that they had turned it into a religious performance to impress other people.

The Pharisees actually fasted two days out of every week. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector? “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week…’” (Luke 18:11–12).

And when they fasted, they wanted everyone to know that they were fasting. They wanted everyone to be impressed with their super awesome religious performance. And so, as verse 16 suggests to us, they would look gloomy on those says. They would “disfigure” their faces, which could speak about not washing or shaving or not using oil on their hair like they normally would. Basically, it means making themselves look different so that everybody knew they were fasting.


“But When You Fast”

But Jesus tells His disciples that they must be different. And that comes in verse 17 and 18. I want us to notice three points from these two verses.

1: We Will Fast

Number 1, notice that Jesus assumes His disciples will fast. Verse 16: “And when you fast.” Verse 17: “But when you fast.”

He underlines this in an interesting conversation in Matthew 9:14 and following: “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast’” (Matthew 9:14–15).

Jesus here is acknowledging the connection between fasting and mourning. The disciples of John fasted in anticipation of the Messiah for whom they longed. And Jesus says that His disciples can’t fast then and there, because the Messiah is with them! The long-awaited one is there!

But Jesus points to the days in which we live when He says, “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

Jesus speaks about the fact that He will have disciples who continue to follow Him after He has been taken away, and assumes that His disciples in those days will fast as they carry out their mission and long for His return.

This is confirmed by the book of Acts. “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1–3).

And after that journey, where they planted some of the very first Gentile churches, we read that “when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).

Jesus expects His disciples to fast, and the practice of the early Christians confirms this. Jesus doesn’t tell us how often to fast or when to fast, but He assumes it’s something we’ll do as we await His return and go about the mission He’s given us.

2: Keep It Between You and God

Just like with prayer, Jesus tell us that fasting must be something that happens between us and God, and not as a performance for others.

“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” (Matthew 6:17–18).

Putting oil on their head and washing their face was something they did on a regular basis. Jesus is telling them to just go about their regular business and to look normal. Don’t let your fasting be seen by anybody except your Father who sees in secret.

3: God Will Reward You

Finally, the same promise is given as was given for giving and for praying: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

In our fasting we are not aiming for a clap on the back from others. We are aiming to please our Father. And we can fast with the knowledge of His reward.


For Us

So what should we do with this today, especially this part about fasting? Maybe you’ve assumed that fasting was an Old Testament ritual like animal sacrifices, something that we don’t really do anymore. And I hope that today has shown you otherwise.

We are not commanded to fast. But Jesus assumes that we will. And I want to recommend it.

The next time there’s a specific burden on your heart, or something that you’re praying for with some intensity, try a fast. You can do it with your family or just on your own. Start with just skipping a meal. Then maybe try for a whole day. Don’t tell anybody. And see what happens.

You will be hungry, and that’s kind of the point. And I’d suggest that the hunger serves as a reminder to pray and set your focus on the Lord.

These days I probably should add that fasting does have a medical component to it, and you probably should do your homework or talk to your doctor if you plan on fasting for any length of time, or even if you have some underlying medical conditions.

But wouldn’t it be sad to go throughout your whole life without ever using this tool called fasting, which is a big assist to prayer and something God has promised to reward us for?

Second, pray. Remember the wisdom of the Jews who built it into their daily schedules and routines. If you don’t pray much on your own, start. Pick a time and put it in your daily routine, however you do that. It will probably be hard to get started, although I’m hoping next week helps.

But be motivated not just that you’re doing the right thing, but that God has promised to reward you. Believe that and act on that.

Fasting and prayer are not easy. That’s why the hypocrites loved to show them off. But this passage shows us that this whole truth of “your best life later” applies to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting. We embrace the difficulty, on our own before our Father, trusting in His reward in the future.

Finally, let’s connect the dots and remember that giving and fasting and prayer are not the only areas where we can show off. Let’s distance ourselves from all forms of religious showing-off. We all know ways to play the part and do the right things for the wrong reasons.

And when we do that, we might impress people. But that’s it. Jesus, in this passage, promises us so much more.

So let’s give up the mid pies of religious performance, and embrace the “holiday at the sea,” to use Lewis’s phrase, the much better reward offered us by our Father, as we walk by faith and not by sight.

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