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fasting is peculiarly medicinal: withdraws the fuel from irregular desires; proves to us by experience, and strengthens by use, our ability of bridling our natural appetites; and so prevents our undoing ourselves, by trusting vainly to the plea of human infirmity, as an excuse for deliberate transgression, or supine negligence. Exercises of moderate hardship add a vigour to the mind, and were on that account recommended even by heathen moralists, as teaching contempt of low gratifications, and of the wealth that ministers to them; of the blandishments of luxury, and the false elegance of effeminate politeness. But far stronger inducements have we Christians to take the most effectual methods for exalting our souls above these things: as we know, to a much higher degree of certainty, that the carnal mind is enmity against God;' that they who live in pleasure, are dead whilst they live;' and that by detaching our affections properly from things on earth, we shall attain the blessedness of heaven.
Nor will fasting contribute only to mortify our fondness for sensual indulgences, but also to abate the impetuosity of vehement spirits, and that pride of heart,' which the Prophet Ezekiel, in the case of Sodom and Jerusalem, connects with fulness of bread.' We often find the same persons, when pampered into luxuriant health, overbearing, impatient of contradiction, outrageous in anger, who, when voluntary or necessary abstinence hath reduced them to a calmer state of mind, are considerate, reasonable, and humane. But particularly it inspires humanity and compassion to the poor. For it gives us experience, from time to time, of what they are often forced to feel and not only reminds all persons, but better enables those of middling circumstances, by lessening now and then their expenses on themselves, to relieve the wants of their indi. gent bretaren: for which reason the prophet Isaiah supposes it attended by doing every act of equity and mercy, but especially of giving alms; and introduces God himself saying, Is not this the fast, that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burthens, to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry; and 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?'
These are some of the spiritual benefits, for I omit to men
tion the corporeal ones, though very considerable, which recom mend fasting. And surely they are at least sufficient to keep every pretender to seriousness from deriding it, or thinking meanly of such as practise it.
But as we ought by all the prudence we can, to spare others the guilt, and ourselves the uneasiness and provocation, of such unkind treatment; so we should be yet more careful, not to deserve it in any degree; and should therefore take diligent notice, that the text contains,
: II. A caution against using this practice amiss.
Fasting is a duty, not for its own sake: for neither meat, nor abstaining from meat, commendeth us to God: but for the sake of its good effects. Proportionably therefore, as in any person's case it is found, on impartial and full trial, to fail of those effects, or to produce bad ones, which outweigh or equal them, it ceases to be a duty; any further than the obligation of setting no hurtful example, and giving no offence, may justly demand regard. Certainly most, if not all persons, would find, on the contrary, much benefit from lessening even their lawful indulgences of sense at proper seasons, and the present season of Lent in particular. But in order to our judging rightly, in what degree this will be expedient for us, divers things ought to be considered.
Some observe constantly a diet sufficiently low; some few, perhaps, too low. Now for these, who live in a state of daily fasting, to superadd other fasts, especially frequent and rigid ones, may be prejudicial, not only to their healths, of which they are bound to be careful, but to their moral dispositions, and their very understandings. It may render them less, instead of more capable of serious reflection and religious exercises; it may unfit them to go through their proper business in common life: it may incline them strongly to moroseness of temper. But further yet: low-spirited and scrupulous persons may, for want of supporting their strength of body, on which the firmness of the mind in part depends, by a sufficient quantity of food, increase their fears and perplexities most surprisingly; till at length there will scarce remain a single action, that they can do or abstain from with a quiet conscience. And, at the same time, on the other hand, persons of warm and enthusiastic imaginations are heated by long and strict fasts beyond any thing: till they feel impulses, hear voices, see
visions; forget the world to which they belong, and live in a new one of their own creation. Now according to the degree, in which there is danger of any such inconveniences, we ought either to avoid entirely what causes them, or observe a due moderation in it: else our abstinence may easily do us much more hurt than service.
Another important rule is, never to make vows, or even -resolutions that we will fast so often, with such or such rigour, for any particular time to come, especially to any distant time. For it seldom or never happens, that such things are of real advantage; and they have so frequently been snares and distresses, that all persons ought to be warned against them: and they, who are most prone to them, ought to be most afraid of them.
But supposing we are, by nature, ever so well qualified to receive benefit from the practice of this duty; yet none will follow, unless we guard against mistakes.
Fasting consists in abstaining, wholly or in part, from our ordinary food. Abstaining wholly the former part of the day is undoubtedly the natural, and should be the general, method of doing this. But they, in whose case good reasons forbid it, may, by properly restraining themselves in the latter part, keep their fast to all good purposes, after they have, in common speech, broken it. Continuing a total abstinence longer than a day can hardly ever be, and so long seldom is, either useful or safe. And though a considerable approach towards total abstinence for the whole day, if conducted prudently, may be allowed at proper intervals for some small time, when designed for self-punishment in great faults; as indeed lessening our fasts into a trifle, on any occasion, public or private, would be mocking God, cheating ourselves, and giving scandal or bad example to others; yet when subduing irregular appetites and passions is the end in view, moderate severity, and barely, if at all, exceeding the strictness of an exact and rigorous temperance, but long continued, will be most effectual.
Abstaining from particular sorts of food, from flesh-meat for instance, as the strongest and most pleasing sort, if it be not hurtful, is very proper; and on public fasts especially, as being the common and most visible mark of compliance with what public authority enjoins. But still this abstinence, besides
that laying a great stress upon it leads to superstition, or at least affords it countenance, may, to some persons, be no selfdenial at all, but consistent with the most luxurious indulgence. There are many, to whom several sorts of fish are more delicious, than land animals; and perhaps full as nutritive. Nay, methods have been invented, by which the palate is hardly ever so much pleased, as when it is pretended to be mortified. The true direction then concerning the fare of our fasting seasons, is that which the example of the prophet Daniel furnishes,—‘in those days I ate no pleasant bread:' that is, nothing contrived to gratify or provoke the appetite, but the plainest of wholesome diet. That we ought to be full as abstemious in what we drink, as in what we cat, is very clear; and both are put on a level in the same passage of Daniel: neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth.'
But though we observe, in the rightest manner, every thing that relates to the outward act; yet bodily exercise, of this or any other kind, profiteth little, unless it be performed with good and proper dispositions of soul. When the Jews, in Isaiah's time, fasted for strife and debate,' to serve the purposes of animosity and contention, far from being an act of piety, it was only smiting with the fist of wickedness.' When the hypocrites, in our Saviour's time, made, by their mournful looks, a public ostentation of their private abstinence, he told them plainly, as the words immediately following the text inform us, that being seen and admired of men should be their only reward; and directed his disciples to conceal, as far as conveniently might be, not their obedience to authority when it enjoins days of humiliation, though doubtless it should be obeyed without affectation or unnecessary singularity, but their voluntary self-denials of this kind: that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, which seeth in secret.' When the vain-glorious pharisee fasted twice a week, and despised the poor publican, he had infinitely better never have fasted once in his life, and been humble in his heart. Fasting is in general a remedy, or needful precaution: therefore whoever takes it, confesses, by so doing, either a disease or a peculiar liableness to one, of which nobody sure hath ground to boast; and making our humiliation a matter of pride is turning our medicine into a poison. Fasting, as managed by some, is, or appears to be, extremely difficult: and hence they are apt to
think, that Heaven is much indebted to them for it: whereas perhaps they are much in fault for making it so difficult; or if they are not, at best they have done only their duty, and so are unprofitable servants. Even the truest and the greatest of virtues cannot deserve the pardon of our past iniquities, and the recompense of future happiness; but only qualify us to receive them from God's mercy, granted for the sake of our blessed Redeemer: much less then can bodily austerities, which are only means of virtue, do either of these things. But, least of all, will they be able to do it for those, who, on the supposed merit of them, venture on such transgressions as they like, and so make Christ the minister of sin."
Deluding ourselves by such contrivances, and attempting to impose upon God the performance of some small part of what he requires, instead of the whole, is as real, and more absurd and fatal hypocrisy, than endeavouring to deceive our fellowcreatures. Let us, therefore, now and at all times, conscientiously beware of this, and every error, in respect of religious mortifications. Let us neither superstitiously overvalue, nor profanely despise, institutions for that purpose: neither treat ourselves with unprofitable harshness, nor with hurtful indulgence: neither be influenced by servile dread, nor by irreverent presumption: neither submit our consciences to the commands of men, as if they were doctrines of God; nor contemptuously reject proper helps for obeying the laws of God, as worthless inventions of men: neither exalt the means into the same rank with the end, nor hope to arrive at the end without the means. Let us, after the example of the holy Apostle, so run, as not uncertainly; so fight, as not beating the air:' but, with strict and yet prudent discipline, keep under the body, and bring it into subjection. For every man, that striveth for the mastery, is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible.'