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“ WHEN YE FAST, BE NOT AS THE HYPOCRITES.”
Among the many duties practised by men in the name of religion, there is, perhaps, none concerning which a greater difference of opinion prevails than the subject of fasting. For, while some consider it as absolutely necessary to salvation, and think that they increase its merit by laying severe restraints even upon the just demands of nature ;-and while some pursue the delusion still farther, and limit themselves to the use not only of certain portions, but even of certain kinds of food, and that too on certain days, and at certain seasons; others, on the contrary, reject all such bodily mortifications as absurd, and as deserving no place whatever in the religious system. Extremes of every kind are dangerous, and end as they begin, in error. The
one which places fasting so high, and that which discards it altogether, is equally in the wrong, because it is equally in the extreme, and because there is a middle way in which the proper use and improvement of fasting may be found. To point out to us this middle way, and direct our steps in it, seems to be our Saviour's chief object in the words of the text, “ when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites.”
The expression “ when ye fast,” neither commands nor forbids us so to do; nor is our Saviour any more explicit on this head, in any other
passage of the gospel. He neither enjoins us to keep particular fasts, nor does he make fasting of any kind a necessary act of religion. It was a piece of well-intended discipline in the Jewish Church, and as our Lord found it, so he left it, only reminding us to observe in this, as in every thing else, that sineerity and truth, without which nothing that we do can be aceeptable to God—“ when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites.” Yet this expression, “when
Jugh it does not give any positive sanction to such a practice, must be allowed to imply a manifest acquiescence in it. Any more than this, was indeed unnecessary,
because fasting, as a duty of religion, had been sufficiently established in the world from the earliest times, and our
Saviour himself, strictly observant as he was even of the forms of religion, had given it the countenance of his own example. We find that his most fervent prayers were often accompanied with fasting, and before his temptation in the wilderness, “ he fasted forty days and forty nights.” So that as far as his silent example goes, the advocates of fasting may, with some reason, claim the sanction of such high authority. But to fast merely because others have done so, and that too on occasions of a peculiar nature, and more particularly by persons of an extraordinary character ;-or to fast without being able to give any satisfactory reason for such abstinence, is a blind submission to example, which is repugnant to common sense as well as to Christianity. For, this is not to “serve God in the spirit, and with the understanding,” which is true religion—but to act as if we supposed that God is equally pleased with any outward performance, however unmeaning, which we may choose to do in his name. This has nothing in it acceptable to God, nor profitable to the soul. This is not godliness, but bodily exercise ; and the Apostle expressly tells us, that “ bodily exercise profiteth little, but that godliness is profitable to all things.” This is to make religion, which is the business of a sound head,
and of a sound heart, to be nothing more than an unmeaning ceremony, a wearisồine and an ungrateful task. It is, in short, to degrade ourselves from the rank of reasonable beings into the condition of the lower order of creatures, who ignorantly and stupidly follow even as they are led.”
Before we “fast” then, it is but doing justice to ourselves to inquire why and when we ought to do so.
The origin of fasting as a religious ordinance, may be traced to the nature of the thing itself.
Now, fasting is one of those ways in which great sorrow is frequently expressed, when the mind is so overcome with grief that it feels a distaste to all enjoyment, and even causes us to loathe our daily bread. Such is often the effect of some great disaster, as the loss of friends, of property, of character, or of any other highly-valued temporal blessing. It is a sort of self-neglect, arising from distress and pain of heart, which finds no comfort in life, nor any desire to prolong it. Now, when the soul becomes the object of such sorrow, that is, when men are so deeply afflicted on account of sin, that they deny themselves in like manner, this is to fast under a sense of guilt, and out of a heartfelt anxiety to be delivered from it. By such neglect and forgetfulness of self, men shew that the life of their souls is a greater care and concern to them than the life of their bodies; that the conviction of sin acts upon them with more severity than the want of nourishment, and that they cannot “ eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,” whilst a spiritual disease thus undermines their peace. And thus fasting, (by a natural transition) becomes an exhibition of spiritual suffering; and thus did penitent sinners, from the earliest times, “ humble their souls." David is a remarkable instance of it. The writings he has left behind him are full of the mournful complaints that attended this solemn expression of his grief, and afford a beautiful and an affecting example of the truly pious character which fasting assumes when it proceeds from sincere sorrow for sin, and is accompanied with a determination to forsake it, and a willingness declared by such abstinence, to suffer bodily privations as an indication of that sorrow, and as a means of preventing the commission of the same in future.