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)
Perhaps Jesus’s words about prayer and fasting are more relevant than ever. Not that the human heart has changed. Quite the opposite — the heart has been, and always will be, apart from God, “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).
No, the condition of man’s heart hasn’t changed; there are just new ways, with every new app and social medium, for man’s desire for praise to express itself in public. No longer is the reach of our actions simply relegated to the street corner. Instead, in today’s world, the simplest of YouTube videos can make you famous.
Seeking Approval in All the Wrong Places
Seeking approval, and the personal satisfaction that results, is not what Jesus condemns; it is seeking it in the wrong source. John Piper writes,
Even if we do not have a strong sense of merit, we may crave the same result, namely the praise of men. Jesus warns us not to give charity or pray or fast in order to be seen by others. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16). Jesus calls them “hypocrites” because in their praying and fasting they want to appear as if they treasure God, but in fact they treasure the praise of men. (What Jesus Demands from the World, 127)
The same misplaced desire for approval is why Jeremiah rebuked Israel: “Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:12–13).
Craving human praise is a cistern that cannot hold water. That is why Jesus tells his disciples how to pray and fast. Our hearts are so sinful that we can twist the purest of activities — even prayer and fasting — into something that conjures praise from our fellow man.
Find Your Fill in Christ
So how do we kill this desire for human approval? Piper says,
Is not the most effective way of bridling my delight in being made much of, to focus on making much of God? Self-denial and fixation of the self are essential, but O how easy it is to be made much of even for my self-denial! How shall this insidious motive of pleasure in being made much of be broken except through bending all my faculties to delight in the pleasure of making much of God! Christian Hedonism is the final solution. It is deeper than death to self. You have to go down deeper into the grave of the flesh to find the truly freeing stream of miracle water that ravishes you with the taste of God’s glory. Only in that speechless, all-satisfying admiration is the end of self. (What Jesus Demands, 136–137)
Only Jesus is the living water. Only in him will we never thirst. Only when we crave Christ and the approval of the God-man will our bondage for the craving of mere human approval be broken. The Spirit helps us in our weakness and enables us to do the impossible: to say no to ungodliness and to open our eyes to see the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Let Your Light Shine — For Christ
When Christ is supreme, we can handle our fellow man’s approval — or lack thereof — the right way. Then we can say with Paul,
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Philippians 4:11–12)
But being satisfied with all we are in Christ doesn’t mean we should be embarrassed or even shy about being influential. Rather, just the opposite. We should seek to increase our influence, as long as it is focused on showing the worth of God in Christ, not self. Jesus put it this way: “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Jesus commands us that we should bring others to see the glory of God through our actions. This doesn’t mean that we should seek to be known for ourselves, or lay claim to our fifteen minutes of fame, but we should steward the relationships and opportunities God has given us — especially in the seemingly mundane — in ways that give glory to God. And we should seek to cultivate new relationships and opportunities so that others might “see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
When we’ve stared the question in the face — whose approval do you crave? — and done the serious heartwork of renouncing self and exalting Christ, we are free. Free from condemnation (Romans 8:1), free to be fully satisfied in Christ (Psalm 16:11), and free to wield whatever influence we have, however big or small, for the good of our neighbor and the glory of God.