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After the coming of Christ, we find the same practice continued, and making a part of almost every extraordinary season of devotion. Jesus Christ himself entered on his public ministry after a long season of preparatory fasting. And although there is no doubt that his was a case of miraculous abstinence, still the general principle held forth and countenanced is the same. We find also the apostles, in almost every instance of setting apart candidates for the gospel ministry, accompanying the ordination solemnities with fasting. The pious Anna, the prophetess, was engaged in "serving God, day and night, with fastings and prayers." When the Lord appeared to Cornelius, the "devout" centurion, and imparted the knowledge of his will to him, we are informed he was engaged in fasting and prayer. And the apostle Paul speaks repeatedly of his habit of waiting on God by fastings, as well as by prayer, and other means of divine appointment. In short, we scarcely find in all the scriptural record, either in the Old or New Testament, a single example of an extraordinary season of humiliation and prayer which was not accompanied by the abstinence of which we speak.
Now, I ask, can it be supposed that a fact so frequently repeated concerning pious people,—in so great a variety of situations, from early periods of the Bible history to its very close,-could have occurred by mere accident or caprice? It cannot be. That which stands forth sanctioned by the example of the people of God in all ages, and by the Author of our holy religion himself, is surely no human device, but an institution of Heaven.
3. Again, we may infer that religious fasting is a divine institution from a variety of precepts and direct intimations found in various parts of Scripture, especially in the New Testament.
And here I shall say nothing of the fixed periodical fasts solemnly enjoined under the ceremonial economy; as all grant that these are superseded by the new dispensation, and that no specific days have been divinely appointed to succeed them. But it is remarkable that, even under the ceremonial economy, besides the stated fasts, occasional ones were ordered by the express command of God. Thus Jehovah proclaims to the people of Judah, by the prophet Joel, in a day of great political and moral desolation Sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord your God, and cry unto the Lord." But there are more than intimations to the same amount in the New Testament. Take, as an example of these, that remarkable passage in our Lord's sermon on the mount. Moreover, when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance; for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily, I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, (evidently taking for granted that they must and would fast)—anoint thine head and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." Again, our blessed Savior, in speaking of some of the higher attainments in Christian character and power, says" But this kind goethi not out but by prayer and fasting." And again; when some persons asked him, "Why do the disciples of John, and of the Pharisees fast often, but thy disciples fast not?" he replied-" Can the children of the bride-chamber fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with
them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and THEN SHALL THEY FAST IN THOSE DAYS." And, accordingly, as I have already hinted, we find a number of striking examples of fasting, on occasions of special prayer, after our Lord ascended to heaven, and before the close of the inspired history. And the apostle Paul, in the seventh chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, in speaking of Christians withdrawing for a time from the ordinary concerns and relations of life, gives it his sanction, and assigns as a reason for it, "that they may give themselves to prayer and fasting."
But the duty of religious fasting will be still further illustrated and confirmed, when we consider,
II. In the second place, the BENEFITS which may be expected to result from the proper performance of this duty.
And in reference to this point, it behooves us to be ever upon our guard against the dictates of a vain superstition. For, as the practice of fasting for religious purposes has probably been in the world ever since the fall of man, and we have every reason to suppose was thus early received from the Author of our being; so this practice began very early, like every other divine appointment, to be perverted and abused. The Heathen evidently considered it as highly meritorious, and as purchasing for them the favor of the deities whom they vainly worshipped. And some of the ancient heretics, supposing that there was, as they expressed it, a certain "malignity in matter," and that the less they had to do, in any shape, with material objects, the better,-taught their followers to consider abstinence, as far as possible, from all aliment, and especially from animal food, as in itself constituting the highest merit in the sight of God, and as one of the most important and essential of all duties. Hence they imagined that the more any one mortified, enfeebled, and emaciated his body, without destroying life, the nearer he approached to moral perfection. But not only did the early heretics fall into the grossest superstition on this subject, the great body of professing Christians, very soon after the apostles' days, began to pervert the practice of fasting to superstitious purposes. Christians, in fact, began very early to be corrupted by Gnostic dreams, and Pagan habits. As early as the close of the second century, they seem to have commenced the practice of observing Wednesday and Friday of every week as days of fasting. Not long after, we find them observing one great annual fast, to commemorate the death of the blessed Savior. This fast was kept, after its commencement, for different periods of time, by different persons; plainly showing, as indeed many of them confessed, that it had no divine appointment for its origin, but was a mere uncommanded invention of man. Some kept it for one day; but the more common practice was to keep it for precisely forty hours, because they supposed it was just about forty hours from the time of our Lord's death until he rose from the dead. And hence it was called, in the ancient calendars, the quadragesimal fast, or the fast of forty. This time, however, as early as the sixth century after Christ, was extended, by human superstition, to forty days, instead of forty hours; and the reason assigned for this change was, that the Savior himself fasted forty days and forty nights. Of this annual fast, as well as of all the Fridays in the year, the Romish Church has long been in the habit of making a most superstitious use. The more serious and devout among them make themselves, without any divine warrant, the perfect slaves of
this observance, and consider eating meat in Lent, or on Friday, as a mortal sin. Still more servile, if possible, is the rigor of Mohammedan fasting. The votaries of that imposture consider periodical abstinence from food as forming a large part of the duty of an exemplary Mussulman, and perhaps, next to the pilgrimage to Mecca, as the most important part of the price of heaven. And, in conformity with this delusion, the whole of their month Ramadan, the ninth in their year, is a great fast, during which the law of their religion is that no one shall eat or drink, or suffer the least particle of aliment to pass his lips, from the commencement to the termination of light, on each day.
Now, all this is weakly and criminally superstitious. For "meat," as the inspired apostle expressly tells us, "commendeth us not to God; for neither if we eat are we the better; neither if we eat not are we the worse. e." And, therefore, in estimating the benefits of religious fasting, we ascribe to it no mystical charm, no sanctifying power. We have no idea that there is any merit in macerating and enfeebling the body; nor can we regard with any other sentiment than that of abhorrence, the doctrine that abstaining from particular kinds of food ever did or can make expiation for sin, or serve, in any form, as the price of our acceptance with God.
But we consider religious fasting, when properly conducted, as attended with the following benefits :
1. It is a natural and significant expression of our penitence for sin. We may say, perhaps, that the primary design, the most obvious and immediate object of fasting is to mortify and afflict the body, as a token of our penitence before God; as an acknowledgment of our entire dependence upon him for all our comforts, and also of our utter unworthiness of them as sinners. For as few things more effectually destroy the inclination for food than great distress of mind, so there seems to be no more suitable emblem of real mourning for sin, than voluntarily refraining from food. Fasting is also a proper expression of penitence, inasmuch as it carries with it an implied confession that all our comforts, even to a morsel of bread, are forfeited by sin; and that we might justly be deprived of them all, if a holy God "should deal with us after our sins, or reward us according to our iniquities." To which may be added, that the inconvenience to which abstinence from food gives rise, is well adapted to make us feel how entirely dependent we are on the bounty of Providence, not only for our enjoyment, but also for our very existence, from day to day.
2. Another very important benefit of religious fasting is, that by denying. the animal appetite we "keep under the body, and bring it into subjection." The tendency of the flesh in our fallen nature to gain the mastery over our better part, is that great standing evidence of our depravity which the word of God every where recognises, and which all history, and daily observation, with melancholy uniformity, establish. This unhallowed dominion is first broken when the "reign of grace" commences in the heart. But still the carnal principle," the flesh," as the Scriptures call it, has too much influence even in the most pious; and to mortify and subdue it is the great object of the spiritual warfare, from its commencement to the last moment of the conflict. When, therefore, the professing Christian indulges the flesh, and pampers appetite over a plentiful table, from day to day, he nourishes this unfriendly principle, gives it strength, and,
of course, increases its power over his better part. It is undoubtedly found by universal experience, that when the body is constantly gratified by fulness of aliment, it is more heavy, more sensual, and imparts to the mind a more fleshly and lethargic character, than when the appetite has been wisely denied. Hence it will always be found that habitual luxury, in direct proportion to the degree in which it is indulged, is unfavorable to deep spirituality. Probably they were never found united in any individual since the world began. On this principle is founded the importance of that self-denial, which our blessed Savior requires as a distinguishing characteristic of his disciples. Upon this principle rests that great gospel maxim delivered by the apostle; "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." Now, one of the most obvious means of effecting this purpose is to deny the appetite for food. This tends emphatically to "keep under the body;" to restrain animal desire; to counteract sensuality; and to promote a holy superiority to all those "fleshly lusts which war against the soul." Accordingly, it may be asserted, that in all ages, those Christians who have been most distinguished for "mortifying the deeds of the body," bringing it "into subjection,” and “setting their affections upon things above," have been no less remarkable for the frequency and seriousness of their seasons of religious fasting.
3. A third benefit to be derived from fasting, when properly conducted, is, that it renders the mind more active, clear, and vigorous. The connection between mind and body, however mysterious, is yet manifest and familiar. And there is, perhaps, no fact in the whole history of this connection which experience more uniformly attests, than that repletion is unfriendly to the highest and most successful mental operations. The seeming exceptions to this law of our nature are so few, and of such a character, as rather to confirm than contradict it. He, therefore, who desires to attain the highest efforts, and the best products of his intellectual faculties, must often abstain, either in whole or in part, from his usual amount of bodily aliment, even though that amount be habitually moderate. Fasting, then, is, beyond all controversy, one of the best preparatives for high intellectual effort. It imparts a degree of acuteness to the understanding, of vigor to the imagination, and of activity and promptness to the memory, which are not experienced in other circumstances, Hence, it is well known, that some of the ancient Pagan philosophers, when about to meet their adversaries in public debate, were in the habit of entering on the conflict fasting, that their intellectual powers might be more awake, acute, and active. Did they cheerfully submit to this privation, for the purpose of preparing their minds for meeting with advantage a fellow worm? And shall Christians refuse to submit to the same privation, for preparing them to wait upon God with alacrity, and with holy elevation of sentiment and affection? If any man be desirous of preparing his mind for the highest acts of devotion; for the most complete withdrawment, for a time, from the world; for being lifted above the vanities and sensualities of life; for collecting and fastening his whole soul on God and heavenly things,— among other means of attaining his hallowed object, let him not omit to accompany them with real fasting. He who neglects this precious auxiliary to devotion, (for so it assuredly deserves to be called,) has not well considered either the structure of his own frame, or the spirit of the word of God.
4. A further advantage accruing from well conducted religious fasting is, that it ministers essentially to the bodily health. Few things are more severely trying and ultimately undermining to the human body than habitual repletion. A statesman and philosopher of our own country, distinguished at once for his talents, his practical character, his vigorous health, and his long life, was accustomed to observe a fast either total or partial, one day in every week; assigning as the reason of it, no religious motive, but that he wished "to give nature a holyday." And he had no doubt of its solid benefit to his bodily health. The practice, I am persuaded, was founded in the clearest and soundest principles of physiology. Truly our nature needs such a "holyday" much oftener than we are willing to yield it. The most enlightened physicians have given it as their opinion, that thousands accounted temperate, and really so in the popular sense of the term, are bringing themselves to premature graves for want of such a frequent respite from the burden of aliment as an occasional day of fasting would furnish. It is plain, then, that any sacred religious habit which secureз such a respite; which tends, in the course of each month and -week, to preserve us from the effects of habitual indulgence and repletion, cannot fail of contributing to the preservation and vigor of our bodily health, as well as preparing our minds for prompt and active application to the most important of all objects.
5. There is one more advantage of frequent religious fasting by no means to be despised. I mean making it systematically subservient to the purposes of charity. Some pious persons, whose pecuniary circumstances -were narrow, but whose love to God and their fellow-men was uncommonly fervent, have practiced fasting, in part at least, upon this plan. They have constantly omitted one meal in a week, and sometimes more, that they might be able to give to those who were still poorer than themselves, what the meal or meals in question would have cost them. I have no doubt that this will strike some wordly-minded, sensual professors of religion as an extreme, and as almost a ridiculous, if not a contemptible effort of benevolence. But I will say, in the language of a narrator of such a case "Such charity, instead of being contemptible, shows a strength of principle and a greatness of soul beyond the ordinary standard; and a self-denial so applied, adds magnanimity to benevolence." And I will venture to say, further, that if every professing Christian in the United States, would consent to omit as many meals in each year as upon every principle he ought, and would honestly throw the value of them, annually, into the Lord's treasury, for sending the gospel to the benighted heathen, and to the destitute every where; not only would his bodily health be petter, his life probably longer and happier, and his soul more richly fed and edified; but were nothing else cast into that treasury, there would be pecuniary means sufficient for sustaining all the Bible and Missionary operations that American zeal and instrumentality could carry on, for the benefit of every part of the world.
Let me entreat you, then, my friends, to lay these considerations seriously -to heart. A duty so manifestly founded on the Divine will, and attended with so many important benefits, cannot be disregarded without both sin and loss. Remember that it involves interests concerning which you are not at liberty to "confer with flesh and blood." And remember, too, that in this whole concern, you have to do with Him who " weigheth the spirits"who "cannot be deceived and will not be mocked."