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THE PROPER METHOD OF RELIGIOUS FASTING.
HAVING in the preceding discourse considered the Duty and the Benefits of Religious Fasting, we are now to
III. Consider, in the third place, that METHOD OF OBSERVING A RELIGIOUS FAST which will render it truly profitable.
And I begin this head by remarking, that the frequency with which every individual Christian ought to fast, and the extent to which he ought to carry his abstinence, on each occasion, are questions concerning which no definite rule can be laid down. The word of God prescribes no precise law as to either of these points. The whole subject is left, as the subject of almsgiving is left, to every man's conscience in the sight of God. No one can open the Bible without perceiving that we are bound to give alms to those who need them; that "we have the poor always with us, that whensoever we will we may do them good." But how often, and how much we are bound to give, is nowhere said. Yet I have no doubt that in the great duty of fasting, as well as of alms-giving, where the heart is right with God, and where there is a sincere and humble desire to walk in that course which is adapted to promote our best interest, there will be no material mistake with regard to the path of duty. That degree of abstinence which is salutary and not uncomfortable to one, would be deeply injurious as well as painful to another. The great END of the duty is to be regarded. God" will have mercy and not sacrifice." Fasting, like the Sabbath, was made for man, and not man for fasting. No one, therefore, ought to carry abstinence to such an extreme as to impair or endanger his bodily health; of which there have been, undoubtedly, some mournful examples, both in ancient and modern times. We have no more right to injure our bodies, than we have to enfeeble or derange our minds. Yet this, it must be acknowledged, is by no means the extreme to which the mass of professing Christians, at the present day, are inclined. On the contrary, it is manifest that the tendency in general is to deficiency rather than excess in this important duty. For one who injures himself by the excessive frequency or protraction of his seasons of abstinence, thousands, it is probable, either wholly neglect this self-denying duty, or perform it in a most superficial and inadequate manner.
The abstinence in religious fasting may be either total or partial. When it is continued for a single day only, it ought in many cases to be total; and, with most persons, may be so, not only without injury, but with profit. Of this every one must conscientiously judge for himself. But when the fast is continued through several successive days, as it sometimes ought to be, in a great physical or moral crisis of life; then, it is obvious, the abstinence should be only partial; that is, aliment ought
to be sparingly taken, not to gratify appetite, but merely to sustain nature. The prophet Daniel, in a period of protracted, pious humiliation, tells us, that he "ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine into his mouth." Nor let any one imagine that it is not his duty to fast, because the abstinence of a single day, and even from a single meal, in some degree incommodes his feelings. This is no valid objection to the duty. In fact, as you have heard, one great design of the privation is to " afflict the soul," to humble us under a sense of our weakness and dependence, and to remind us, by a feeling of want, of the purpose for which we submit to the privation. If no such feeling were induced, an important purpose of the exercise would be defeated. Thousands were fully persuaded a few years ago, that total abstinence from that fell destroyer, ardent spirit, would weaken their bodies and injure their health. But no man ever honestly made the experiment, without finding that his fears had all been delusive. No less delusive, be assured, is the plea, that you cannot comply, in an enlightened manner, with the Christian duty of fasting, without injury, either physical or moral. To those who think otherwise, I would sayHave you ever FAIRLY MADE THE TRIAL? If you think you have, MAKE IT AGAIN, in the fear of God, and with humble prayer for divine direction. And imagine not that a mere feeling of emptiness, and even of importunate hunger, must necessarily mark the approach of mischief. So far from this, they are feelings which you often need, for your physical as well as moral benefit; and no injury will be likely to flow from them, when carried to a proper length, unless unguardedly followed by an excessive indulgence of appetite.
The duty of fasting may be considered as devolving on men in all the circumstances and relations in which they are placed. Seasons of devout fasting ought, undoubtedly, to be observed by INDIVIDUALS, in private, with a special reference to their own personal sins, wants, and trials; by FAMILIES, who have often much reason as such, for special humiliation and prayer; by PARTICULAR CHURCHES, whose circumstances are frequently such as to call for seasons of peculiar mourning, penitence, and supplication; by WHOLE DENOMINATIONS OF CHRISTIANS, who have very often occasion to humble themselves before God on account of the absence of his Spirit, and the prevalence of some great evils in the midst of them; and, finally, by NATIONS, when suffering under the righteous displeasure of God, or when sensible that, for their sins, they are exposed to his heavy judgments. Of all these we have examples in the word of God; and if the spirit of the gospel were reigning in the midst of us, we should often see examples of them all at the present day.—But to pursue the inquiry.
In delineating the METHOD in which a religious fast ought to be kept, let it be observed
1. First of all, that it will be outwardly kept in vain, unless the heart be sincerely engaged in the service. Let Pagans, Mohammedans, and nominal Christians, flatter themselves, as you have heard, with the dream that the mere physical observance of abstinence, independent of the state of the soul, will recommend them to God. But let us remember, that the character and exercises of the inner man are every thing here. Yes, my friends, in fasting, as well as praying, the engagement of the heart is the great and essential matter. There is no piety in merely abstaining from food, aside from the spirit and the purpose with which it is done. It is in
this case as in the observance of the Sabbath. A man may shut himself up from all the world on that day; or he may spend the whole of it in the house of God; and yet, if his heart be all the time going after the world, he does not sanctify the Sabbath at all, in the most important sense of the term. So it is in the case before us. We may keep multitudes of fastdays, with all the external exactness of Popish, or even Mohammedan rigor, and yet be nothing the better for them;-nay, instead of receiving benefit, may contract guilt by them all. A holy God might, and doubtless would, still say unto us, as He did, in substance, to his professing people of old-"Is this such a fast as I have chosen ? Have ye fasted to Me, even to Me, saith the Lord ?—This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me ;their appointed fasts are an abomination unto me; I am weary to bear them." The primary consideration, then, in keeping a religious fast, is that the whole soul be truly engaged in the work; that while we use the outward symbol of humiliation and penitence, we labor to have our minds deeply occupied and affected with the humbling realities which we express with our lips. A heartless and hypocritical prayer, in any circumstances, is a virtual insult to Him to whom it is addressed :-but a HEARTLESS AND HYPOCRITICAL FAST seems to be a DOUBLE INSULT, because offered under the guise of double solemnity and humility. In searching, therefore, for the characteristics of an "acceptable fast," we must begin here. The more deeply, feelingly, and constantly the heart is engaged in the service, the more pleasing to God, and the more profitable to ourselves will it ever be found.
2. While the state of the heart is every thing here,—a real abstinence from aliment is also essential to the proper and acceptable performance of this duty. Such a remark as this may appear to many unnecessary; and I should certainly so deem it, were there not some serious persons who adopt, and endeavour to inculcate, the strange notion, that nothing more is implied in the duty in question, than "fasting," as they express it," in spirit:" meaning, by the phrase, mere moral abstinence, or "abstinence from sin." Hence, those who adopt this opinion suppose that a regular and acceptable gospel fast may be kept, while the animal appetite is fully indulged as usual, provided there be an effort made, for a season, greater than usual to shut out evil, and to maintain a spiritual and devout frame. In this sense they interpret that solemn passage in the fifty-eighth chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah ;-"Is not this the fast that I have chosen-to loose the bands of wickedness, &c.?" In this pointed appeal it is manifest we are to understand Jehovah not as saying, that “loosing the bands of wickedness" includes every thing that belongs to a religious fast; but that true penitence, and moral reformation, form, as we have before intimated, its best accompaniment, and its most essential fruits. I am constrained, then, to consider the notion which I am opposing as a mere evasion, and not a very plausible one, of a plain Christian duty. It is nothing less than egregious trifling with the heart-searching God, and cheating ourselves by a miserable subterfuge. We might just as well talk of giving alms "in spirit," or paying our debts "in spirit." No, my friends, real abstinence from food is, no doubt, intended in all the examples and precepts which are given us on this subject in the word of God. And we "rob Him," and "wrong our own souls," when we shrink, from the literal self-denial implied in the ab
stinence in question. In fact those who decline submitting to the literal privation of food of which we speak, not only contravene both the letter and spirit of Scripture, when describing an acceptable fast; but they entirely give up some of the most important benefits to which, as we have seen, this privation is naturally subservient.
3. It is important to the proper observance of a religious fast, that we retire, during its continuance, as much as possible from the world, shut out its illusions, and endeavour to break its hold of our hearts. One grand object of observing such days at all is, that we may occasionally come to a solemn pause; that we may break the spell which is so apt to bind us down to the grovelling pursuits of time and sense; and take an honest retrospect of our infirmities, failures, and sins. It is of the utmost importance, therefore, that in solemnities which have such an object, we should sacredly withdraw, for the time, from all worldly cares and allurements; that we should put a firm negative upon every appetite and passion which might tend to drag us down to the dust of earth; and try to get away from the snares and entanglements of this passing scene. With the utmost propriety, then, when a public fast is proclaimed, it is commonly recommended that all servile labor and recreation be laid aside. This is no less important to the spiritual observance of the day, than as a testimony of outward respect. And quite as indispensable is it, when an individual or a family resolve to fast in private, that every occupation be as far as possible suspended, which may even remotely tend to draw off the mind from an entire and unreserved devotion to the appropriate exercises of the day.
4. Days of religious fasting are to be devoted to a deep and heartfelt recollection of our sins, and unfeigned repentance for them. It is true, indeed, that in all seasons of special as well as ordinary prayer, our mercies as well as our sins ought to be recollected and acknowledged. And, therefore, in celebrating a religious fast, thanksgiving is by no means inappropriate or to be forgotten. It is matter of thankfulness to a sinner, in any situation, that he is out of hell; and, surely, the sinner who is truly penitent can never see greater reason for gratitude, than when he is deeply pondering before God the number and aggravation of his sins; and remembers, that to such a rebel, life and glory are offered. Still it is evident, that the primary object of a religious fast is evangelical humiliation. To attempt to keep such a fast, then, without entering deeply into the consideration of our sins, and mourning over them, is really to place out of sight the most prominent object of the observance. This is peculiarly "a day for a man to afflict his soul" for all the pollutions of his nature, for all the evil he hath done, and for all the abominations which are committed around him. This is a season in which it is incumbent upon us, if ever, to call to mind with cordial penitence our personal sins, our family sins, the sins of the church, and of the nation; to labor, if I may so speak, with concentrated effort, to take strong, profound, and abasing views of their heinousness in the sight of God; to meditate upon them again and again, until the heart is in some measure broken and contrite; to repent, as in dust and ashes; and to apply anew to that atoning blood, by which alone our guilt can be washed away, and to that "Holy Spirit of promise," who alone can destroy the reign of corruption, and "heal all our backslidings." Such exercises, though humiliating, " do good as doth a medicine." Blessed are they who thus mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5. As days of religious fasting ought ever to be marked by a special recognition, and a deep sense of our sins; so this recognition, if it be of the right stamp, will ever be followed by genuine reformation. That confession, which is not succeeded by amendment, is worse than vain. It is manifestly heartless, and, of course, adding sin to sin. Where the heart is really broken and contrite on account of transgression, that transgression will be sincerely loathed and forsaken. If, therefore, a season of humiliation and fasting leave us as much in love with sin, and as hardened in habits of iniquity as it found us, there is abundant evidence, not merely that we have failed of being profited, but that we have contracted guilt by the observance. Hence we find a holy God expressing his righteous displeasure, and denouncing his severest judgments against his professing people of old; because, while they wearied Him with their fastings and prayers they remained as obdurate and disobedient as ever. To such He declares- "When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt-offerings and an oblation, I will not accept them; but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence."
6. In keeping a religious fast, every thing like ostentation, or selfrighteousness, should be put far from us. The Jewish hypocrites, in the days of our Lord's ministry, displayed much of this unseemly spirit. As they loved to "pray standing at the corners of the streets, that they might be seen of men;" so even in their private fasts, (for to these the Savior seems to have had a particular reference in reproving them), they put on 66 a sad countenance, and disfigured their faces, that they might appear to men to fast." And when the Pharisee went up to the temple to pray, it was one of the grounds of his boasting, and his confidence toward God, that he"fasted twice in a week." In both these cases, our Lord denounces the spirit which they manifested, as diametrically opposed to all true religion, and warns his disciples against it. And, truly, if there be any exercise in the Christian's life, from which a spirit of ostentatious display and of proud self-dependence ought to be shut out with abhorrence, it is when he is prostrate before the throne of mercy, professing to mourn over his sins, and to acknowledge his ill-desert in the sight of God. Then, surely, if ever, the most unfeigned abasement of soul, the most cordial self-renunciation, the most heart-felt application to and reliance upon the righteousness of the divine Surety, as the only ground of hope, ought not only to be expressed in every word that is uttered by the lips, but to reign in every feeling, affection, and hope of the inmost soul. The only language ever becoming the redeemed sinner, and especially in such a season as this, is, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."
7. Once more: Christian fasting ought ever to be accompanied with more or less of sympathy and benevolence to the destitute. This point has already been alluded to; but a distinct notice of it in this connection is indispensable. The word of God lays much stress upon it as a concomitant and evidence of acceptable fasting. "Is not this such a fast as I have chosen," says Jehovah by the prophet, "that thou deal thy bread to the hungry; that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house; when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?" What occasion so appropriate to sympathize with