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in every place where any Christians made their abode. The annual fasts in our church are, “ The forty days of Lent, the Ember days at the four seasons, the Rogation days, and the Vigils or eves of several solemn festivals ;—the weekly, all Fridays in the year, except Christmas day.
But besides those which were fixed, in every nation fearing God there have always been occasional fasts, appointed from time to time as the particular circumstances and occasions of each required. So, when
the children of Moab, and the children of Ammon, came against Jehoshaphat to battle ; Jehoshaphat set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah," 2 Chron. xx, 1-3. And so, “ in the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, in the ninth month, when they were afraid of the king of Babylon, the princes of “ Judah proclaimed a fast before the Lord, to all the people in Jerusalem," Jer. xxxvi, 9.
And, in like manner, particular persons, who take heed unto their ways, and desire to walk humbly and closely with God, will find frequent occasion for private seasons of thus afflicting their souls before their father which is in secret. And it is to this kind of fasting, that the directions here given do chiefly and primarily refer.
II. 1. I proceed to show, in the second place, What are the grounds, the reasons, and ends of fasting.
And, first, men who are under strong emotions of mind, who are affected with any vehement passion, such as sorrow or fear,
often swallowed up therein, and even forget to eat their bread. At such seasons they have little regard for food, not even what is needful to sustain nature, much less for any delicacy or variety; being taken up with quite different thoughts. Thus, when Saul said, “I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me;" it is recorded, “He had eaten no bread, all the day, nor all the night," 1 Sam. xxviii, 15–20. Thus those who were in the ship with St. Paul, “ when no small tempest lay upon them, and all hope that they should be saved was taken away,
continued fasting, having taken nothing," Acts xxvii, 33, no regular meal,--for fourteen days together. And thus David, and all the men that were with him, when they heard that the people were fled from the battle, and that many of the people were fallen and dead, and Saul and Jonathan his son were dead also ; " mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul and Jonathan, and for the house of Israel," 2 Sam. i, 12.
Nay, many times they whose 'minds are deeply engaged, are impatient of any interruption, and even loathe their needful food, as diverting their thoughts from what they desire should engross their whole attention. Even as Saul, when on the occasion mentioned before, he had “ fallen all along upon the earth, and there was no strength in him,” yet said, “I will not eat; till his servants, together with the woman, compelled him.”
2. Here, then, is the natural ground of fasting. One who is under deep affliction, overwhelmed with sorrow for sin, and a strong apprehension of the wrath of God, would, without any rule, without knowing or considering whether it were a command of God or not, “ forget to eat his bread," abstain, not only from pleasant, but even from needful food;-like St. Paul, who, after he was led into Damascus," was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink,” Acts ix, 9.
Yea, when the storm rose high, when “a horrible dread overwhelmed” one who had long been without God in the world, his soul would " loathe all manner of meat;" it would be unpleasing and irksome to hinı; he would be impatient of any thing that should interrupt his ceaseless cry, “Lord, save! or I perish !"
How strongly is this expressed by our church in the first part of the homily on fasting : When men feel in themselves the heavy burden of sin, see damnation to be the reward of it, and behold with the eye of their mind, the horror of hell; they tremble, they quake, and are inwardly touched with sorrowfulness of heart, and cannot but accuse themselves, and open their grief unto Almighty God, and call unto him for mercy. This being done seriously, their mind is so occupied, (taken up,] partly with sorrow and heaviness, partly with an earnest desire to be delivered from this danger of hell and damnation, that all desire of meat and drink is laid apart, and loathesomeness (or loathing] of all worldly things and pleasure cometh in place. So that nothing then liketh them more than to weep, to lament, to mourn, and both with words and behaviour of body to show themselves weary of life.”
3. Another reason or ground of fasting is this : many of those who now fear God, are deeply sensible how often they have sinned against him, by the abuse of these lawful things. They know how much they have sinned by excess of food ; how long they have transgressed the holy law of God, with regard to temperance, if not sobriety too; how they have indulged their sensual appetites, perhaps to the impairing even their bodily health,---certainly to the no small hurt of their soul. For hereby they continually fed and increased that sprightly folly, that airiness of mind, that levity of temper, that gay inattention to things of the deepest concern, that giddiness and carelessness of spirit, which were no other than drunkenness of soul, which stupified all their noblest faculties, no less than excess of wine or strong drink. To remove, therefore, the effect, they remove the cause : they keep at a distance from all excess. They abstain, as far as is possible, from what had well nigh plunged them'in everlasting perdition. They often wholly refrain ; always take care to be sparing and temperate in all things.
4. They likewise well remember, how fulness of bread increased not only carelessness and levity of spirit, but also foolish and unholy desires, yea, unclean and vile affections. And this experience puts beyond all
oubt. Even a genteel, regular sensuality, is continually sensualizing the soul, and sinking it into a level with the beasts that perish. It cannot be expressed what an effect a variety and delicacy of food have on the mind as well as the body; making it just ripe for every pleasure of sense, as soon as opportunity shall invite. Therefore, on this ground also, every wise man will refrain his soul, and keep it low; will wean it more and more from all those indulgences of the inferior appetites, which naturally tend to chain it down to earth, and to pollute as well as debase it. Here is another perpetual reason for fasting ; to remove the food of lust and sensuality, to withdraw the incentives of foolish and hurtful desires, of vile and vain affections.
5. Perhaps we need not altogether omit although I know not if we should do well to lay any great stress upon it) another reason for fasting, which some good mer. have largely insisted on ; namely, The punishing themselves for having abused the good gifts of God, by sometimes wholly refraining from them; thus exercising a kind of holy revenge upon themselves, for their past folly and ingratitude, in turning the things which should have been for their health into an occasion of falling. They suppose David to have had an eye to this, when he said, “I wept and chastened (or punished) my soul with fasting ;” and St. Paul, when he mentions " what revenge" godly sorrow occasioned in the Corinthians.
6. A fifth, and more weighty reason for fasting is, that it is a help to prayer ; particularly, when we set apart larger portions of time for private prayer. Then especially it is, that God is often pleased to lift up the souls of his servants above all the things of earth, and sometimes to rap them up, as it were into the third heavens. And it is chiefly, as it is a help to prayer, that it has so frequently been found a means, in the hand of God, of confirming and increasing, not one virtue, not chastity only, (as some have idly imagined, without any ground either from Scripture, reason, or experience,) but also seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility and tenderness of conscience, deadness to the world, and consequently the love of God, and every holy and heavenly affection.
7. Not that there is any natural or necessary connection between fasting and the blessings God conveys thereby. But he will have mercy as he will have mercy; he will convey whatsoever seemeth him good by whatsoever means he is pleased to appoint. And he hath, in all ages, appointed this to be a means of averting his wrath, and obtaining whatever blessings we, from time to time, stand in need of.
How powerful a means this is to avert the wrath of God, we may learn from the remarkable instance of Ahab. 6. There was none like [him,] who did sell himself,"--wholly give himself up, like a slave bought with money, to work wickedness.” Yet, when he “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and went softly," the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? Because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days."
It was for this end, to avert the wrath of God, that Daniel sought God“ with fasting, and sackcloth and ashes." This appears from the whole tenor of his prayer, particularly from the solemn conclusion of It: “Oh Lord, according to all thy righteousness, [or mercies,] let thy anger be turned away from thy holy mountain.- Hear the prayer of thy servant, and cause thy face to shine upon thy sanctuary that is desolate.--Oh Lord, hear; Oh Lord, forgive; Oh Lord, hearken and do, for thine own sake," Dan. ix, 3, 16, &c.
8. But it is not only from the people of God that we learn, when his anger is moved, to seek him by fasting and prayer ; but even from the heathens. When Jonah had declared, “ Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown," the people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them unto the least. - For the king of Nineveh arose from his throne, and laid his robe from him, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to de proclaimed and published through Nineveh, let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water :” (Not that the beasts had sinned, or could repent; but that, by their example, man might be admonished, considering that, for his sin, the anger of God was hanging over all creatures :) “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not ?" And their labour was not in vain. The fierce anger of God was turned away from them. “God saw their works ;” (the fruits of that repentance and faith, which he had wrought in them by his prophet;)" and God repented of the evil that he had said he would do unto them; and he did it not,” Jonah ii, 4, &c.
9. And it is a means not only of turning away the wrath of God, but also of obtaining whatever blessings we stand in need of. So when the other tribes were smitten before the Benjamites, “all the children of Israel went up unto the house of God, and wept and fasted that day until even;" and then the Lord said, “Go up (again;] for to morrow I will deliver them into thine hand,” Judges xx, 26, &c. So Samuel gathered all Israel together, when they were in bondage to the Philistines, " and they fasted on that day” before the Lord : and when “the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel, the Lord thundered [upon them] with a great thunder, and disconfited them; and they were smitten before Israel." 1 Sam. vii, 6. So Ezra : “I proclaimed a fast at the river Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones; and he was entreated of us,” Ezra viii, 21. So Nehemiah: “I fasted and prayed before the God of heaven, and said, Prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man :” and God granted him mercy in the sight of the king, Neh. i, 4–11.
10. In like manner, the apostles always joined fasting with prayer, when they desired the blessing of God on any important undertaking. Thus we read, Acts xiii, “ There were in the church that was at An tioch certain prophets and teachers : as they ministered to the Lord and fasted, [doubtless for direction in this very affair,) the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul, for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had (a second time) fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away,” ver. 1-3.
Thus also Paul and Barnabas themselves, as we read in the following chapter, when they “returned again to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, and when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, commended them to the Lord,” ver. 23.
Yea, that blessings are to be obtained in the use of this means, which are no otherwise attainable, our Lord expressly declares in his answer to his disciples, asking, “ Why could not we cast him out ? Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you,
If have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit, this kind (of devils) goeth not out but by prayer and fasting,” Matt. xvii, 19, &c,—these being the appointed means of attaining that faith, whereby the very devils are subject unto you.
11. These were the appointed means: for it was not merely by the light of reason, or of natural conscience, as it is called, that the people of God have been, in all ages, directed to use fasting as a means to these ends : but they have been, from time to time, taught it of God
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himself, by clear and open revelations of his will. Such is that remarkable one by the prophet Joel : “ Therefore, saith the Lord, Turn ye to me, with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning :-Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him ? Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly:-Then will the Lord be jealous for his land, and pity his people. Yea, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil :-I more make you a reproach among the heathen," chap. ii, 12, &c.
Nor are they only temporal blessings which God directs his people to expect in the use of these means. For, at the same time that he promised to those who should seek him with fasting, and weeping, and mourning, “ I will restore to you the years which the locust hath eaten, the canker worm, and the caterpillar, and the palmer worm, my great army;" he subjoins, “ So shall ye eat and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God.--Ye shall also know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God." And then immediately follows the great gospel promise, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions : and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my Spirit."
12. Now whatsoever reasons there were to quicken those of old, in the zealous and constant discharge of this duty, they are of equal force still, to quicken us. But above all these, we have a peculiar reason for being “ in fastings often," namely, the command of him by whose name - we are called. He does not indeed in this place expressly enjoin either fasting, giving alms, or prayer ; but his directions how to fast, to give alms, and to pray, are of the same force with such injunctions. For the commanding us to do any thing thus, is an unquestionable command to do that thing ; seeing it is impossible to perform it thus, if it be not performed at all. Consequently, the saying, Give alms, pray, fast, in such a manner, is a clear command to perform all those duties; as well as to perform them in that manner,
which shall in no wise lose its reward.
And this is a still farther motive and encouragement to the performance of this duty; even the promise which our Lord has graciously annexed to the due discharge of it: “Thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Such are the plain grounds, reasons, and ends of fasting ; such our encouragement to persevere therein, notwithstanding abundance of objections which men, wiser than their Lord, have been continually raising against it.
III. 1. The most plausible of these, I come now to consider. And first, It has been frequently said, “Let a Christian fast from sin and not from food; this is what God requires at his hands.” So he does ; but he requires the other also. Therefore this ought to be done, and that not left undone.
View your argument in its full dimensions; and you will easily judge of the strength of it.
“ If a Christian ought to abstain from sin, then he ought not to abstain from food :
But a Christian ought to abstain from sin: