That we may rightly perform a private fast, four things are to be observed: -- First, The author; Secondly, The time and occasion; Thirdly, The manner; Fourthly, The ends of private fasting.
1. Of the Author.
The first that ordained fasting was God himself in paradise; and it was the first law that God made, in commanding Adam to abstain from eating the forbidden fruit. God would not pronounce nor write his law without fasting (Lev. xxiii), and in his law commands all his people to fast. So does our Saviour Christ likewise teach all his disciples under the New Testament (Matt. vi.17; ix.15.) By religious fasting a man comes nearest the life of angels, and to |do God's will on earth, as it is done in heaven.| Yea, nature seems to teach man this duty, in giving him a little mouth, and a narrower throat; for nature is content with a little, grace with less. Neither doth nature and grace agree in any one act better than in this exercise of religious fasting; for it strengthens the memory, and clears the mind -- illuminates the understanding, and bridles the affections -- mortifies the flesh, prevents sickness, and continues health -- it delivers from evils, and procures all kind of blessings.
By breaking this fast, the serpent overthrew the first Adam, so that he lost paradise. But by keeping a fast the second Adam vanquished the serpent, and restored us into heaven. Fasting was she who covered Noah safe in the ark, whom intemperance uncovered, and left stark naked in the vineyard. By fasting Lot quenched the flame of Sodom, whom drunkenness scorched with the fire of incest. Religious fasting and talking with God, made Moses's face to shine before men, when idolatrous eating and drinking caused the Israelites to appear abominable in the sight of God. It wrapt up Elias in an angelical coach to heaven, when voluptuous Ahab was sent in a bloody chariot to hell. It made Herod believe that John Baptist should live after death by a blessed resurrection; when, after an intemperate life, he could promise nothing to himself but eternal death and destruction. O divine ordinance of a divine author!
2. Of the Time.
The holy Scripture appoints no time under the New Testament to fast; but leaves it to Christians' own free choice (Rom. xiv.3; 1 Cor. vii.5), to fast as occasions shall be offered to them (Matt. ix.15;) as when a man becomes an humble, an earnest suitor to God for the pardon of some gross sin committed; or for the prevention of some sin to which a man feels himself by Satan solicited; or to obtain some special blessing which he wants; or to avert some judgment which a man fears, or is already fallen upon himself or others; or, lastly, to subdue his flesh to his spirit, that he may more cheerfully pour forth his soul to God by prayer. Upon these occasions a man may fast a day or longer, as his occasion requires, and the constitution of his body and other needful affairs will permit (Lev. xxiii.32; Josh. vii.6; Esth. iv.16.)
3. Of the Manner of a Private Fast.
The true manner of performing a private fast consists partly in outward, partly in inward actions.
The outward actions are, to abstain, for the time that we fast -- First, From all worldly business and labour, making our fasting day, as it were, a Sabbath day (Lev. xxiii.28, 36; Joel i.14; ii.15;) for worldly business will distract our minds from holy devotion.
Secondly, From all manner of food; yea, from bread and water, so far as health will permit (2 Sam. iii.35; Ezra x.6; Dan. x.3; Est. iv.16; Acts ix.9.)
1. That so we may acknowlege our own indignity, as being unworthy of life and all the means for its maintenance.2. That by afflicting the body, the soul, which follows the constitution thereof, may be the more humbled.3. That so we may take a godly revenge upon ourselves for abusing our liberty in the use of God's creatures (2 Cor. vii.11.) 4. That by the hunger of our bodies, through want of these earthly things, our souls may learn to hunger more eagerly after spiritual and heavenly food.5. To put us in mind that as we abstain from food which is lawful, so we should much more abstain from sin, which is altogether unlawful.
Thirdly, From good and costly apparel (Exod. xxxiii.5, 6;) that as the abuse of these puffs us up with pride, so the laying aside their lawful use may witness our humility. And to this end in ancient times they used, especially in public fasts, to put on sackcloth, or other coarse apparel (Est. iv.1, 2; Jonah iii.5, 6; Joel. i.13; Matt. xi.21.) The equity of which still remains, especially in public fasts, at which time to come into the assembly with starched bands, crisped hair, brave apparel, and decked with flowers, or perfumes, argues a soul that is neither humble before God, nor ever knew the true use of so holy an exercise.
Fourthly, From the full measure of ordinary sleep (2 Sam. xii.16; Joel i.13; Est. iv.3.) That thou mayest that way also humble thy body; and that thy soul may watch and pray, to be prepared for the coming of Christ. And if thou wilt break thy sleep early and late for worldly gain, how much more shouldst thou do it for the service of God? And if Ahab, in imitation of the godly, did in his fast lie in sackcloth, to break his sleep by night (1 Kings xxi.27), what shall we think of those who on a fasting-day will yield themselves to sleep in the open church?
Fifthly and lastly, From all outward pleasures of our senses: so that as it was not the throat only that sinned, so must not the throat only be punished; and therefore we must endeavour to make our eyes, as at all times, so especially on that day, to fast from beholding vanities, our ears from hearing mirth or music, but such as may move to mourn; our nostrils from pleasant smells, our tongues from lying, dissembling, and slandering; that so nothing may hinder our true humiliation, but that all may be signs that we are unfeignedly humbled. Thus much of the outward manner.
The inward manner of fasting consists in two things: -- 1. Repentance; 2. Prayer.
Repentance hath two parts: -- 1. Penitency for sins past; 2. Amendment of life in time to come.
This penitency consists in three things -- First, An inward insight of sin, and sense of mercy; Secondly, A bewailing of thy vile state; Thirdly, An humble and particular confession of all thy known sins,
1. Of the inward insight of Sin, and sense of Misery.
This sense and insight will be effected in thee -- First, by considering thy sins, especially thy gross sins, according to the circumstance of the time when, place where, manner how, and persons with whom, it was committed. Secondly, the majesty of God against whom it was done; and the rather, because thou didst such things against him since he became a Father unto thee, and bestowed so many sweet blessings in a bountiful manner upon thee. Thirdly, in considering the curses which God has threatened for thy sin; how grievously God has plagued others for the same fault, and that no means in heaven or earth could deliver thee from being eternally damned for them, had not the Son of God so lovingly died for thee. Lastly, that if God loves thee, he must chasten thee, ere it be long, with some grievous afflictious, unless thou dost prevent him by speedy and unfeigned repentance. Let these and the like considerations so prick thy heart with sorrow, that melting for remorse within thee, it may be dissolved into a fountain of tears, trickling down thy mournful cheeks. This mourning is the beginning of true fasting, and therefore oft-times put for fasting, the first and principal part for the whole action (Matt. ix.15.)
2. Of the Bewailing of thy own State.
Bewailing or lamentation is the pouring out of the inward mourning of the heart, by the outward means of the voice, and tears of the eyes (Jer. xxxi.18, 19, 20.) With such filial earnestness and importunity in prayer, is our heavenly Father well pleased; nay, when it is the fruit of his Spirit, and the effect of our faith, he cannot be displeased with it: for if he heard the moans which extremity wrung from Ishmael and Hagar, and hears the cry of the young ravens, and roaring of lions, how much rather will he hear the mournful lamentations which his own children make to him in their misery?
3. Of the humble Confession of Sins.
In this action thou must deal plainly with God, and acknowledge all the sins thou knowest, not only in general, but also in particular (1 Sam. vii.6; Ezek. ix.4; Dan. ix; Neh. i.) This has been the manner of all God's children in their fasts -- First, because that without confession, thou hast no promise of mercy or forgiveness of sins (Prov. xxviii.13; Psal. xxxii.5;) secondly, that so thou mayest acknowledge God to be just, and thyself unrighteous (Psal. li.4) thirdly, that by the numbering of thy sins, thy heart may be the more humbled and pulled down; fourthly, that it may appear that thou art truly penitent; for till God has given thee grace to repent, thou wilt be more ashamed to confess thy fault, than to commit thy sin. The plainer thou dealest in this respect with God, the more graciously will God deal with thee; for if thou dost |acknowledge thy sins, God is faithful and just to forgive thee thy sins; and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son shall cleanse thee from all thy sins.|
To help thee the better to perform these three parts of penitency, thou mayest diligently read such chapters and portions of the holy Scriptures, as chiefly concern thy particular sins; that thou mayest see God's curse and judgments on others for the like sins, and be the more humbled thyself.
Thus far of the first part of repentance, which is penitency.
The other part, which is amendment of life, consists, First, In devout prayer; Secondly, In devout actions.
This devout prayer, which we make in time of fasting, is either deprecation of evil, or craving needful good things.
Deprecation of evil is, when thou beseechest God, for Christ the Mediator's sake, to pardon thee thy sins which thou hast confessed, and to turn from thee those judgments which are due to thee for thy sins: And as Ben-hadad, because he heard that the king of Israel was merciful, prostrated himself to him with a rope about his neck (1 Kings xx.31;) so, because thou knowest that the King of heaven is merciful, cast down thyself in his presence, in all true signs of humiliation (especially seeing he calleth upon thee to come to him in thy troubles), and doubtless thou shalt find him most merciful (Psal.1.15.)
The craving of needful good things, is, First, a fervent and faithful begging of God, to seal, by his Spirit in thy heart, the assurance of the forgiveness of all thy sins. Secondly, to renew thy heart by the Holy Ghost, so that sin may daily decay, and righteousness more and more increase in thee (Phil. i.6.) Lastly, in desiring a supply of faith, patience, charity, and all other graces which thou wantest (1 Tim. i.5;) and an increase of those which God of his mercy has bestowed upon thee already. Thus far of Prayer and Fasting.
The devout actions in fasting are two -- First, Avoiding evil. Secondly, Doing good.
1. Of avoiding Evil.
This abstinence from evil is that which is chiefly signified by thy abstinence from food, &c., and is the chief end of fasting, as the Ninevites very well knew (Jonah iii.8, 10.) A day of fast, and not fasting from sin, the Lord abhorreth. It is not the vacuity of the stomach, but the purity of the heart, that God respects. If, therefore, thou wouldst have God to turn from thee the evil of affliction, thou must first turn away from thyself the evil of transgression. And without this fasting from evil, thy fast savours more noisome to God than thy breath doth to man. This made God so often to reject the fast of the Jews (Isa. i.13; lviii.3, &c.; Zech. vii.5.) And as thou must endeavour to avoid all sin, so especially that sin wherewith thou hast provoked God, either to shake his rod at thee, or already to lay his chastening hand upon thee. And do this with a resolution, by the assistance of God's grace, never to commit those sins again. For what shall it profit a man by abstinence to humble his body, if his mind swell with pride? or to forbear wine and strong drink, and to be drunk with wrath and malice? or to let no flesh go into the belly, when lies, slanders, and ribaldry, which are worse than meat, come out of the mouth? To abstain from meat, and to do mischief, is the devil's fast, who doeth evil, and is ever hungry.
2. Of doing Good Works.
The good works which as a Christian thou must do every day, but especially on thy fasting day, are either the works of piety to God, or the works of charity towards thy brethren.
First, The works of piety to God, are the practice of all the former duties in the sincerity of a good conscience, and in the sight of God.
Secondly, The works of charity towards our brethren are, forgiving of wrongs, remitting debts to the poor that are not well able to pay; but especially in giving alms to the poor that want relief and sustenance (Isa. lviii.6, &c.; Zech. vii.9, 10.) Else we shall, under pretence of godliness, practise miserableness; like those who will pinch their own bellies, to defraud their labouring servants of their due allowance. As, therefore, Christ joined fasting, prayer, and alms together in precept, so must thou join them together, like Cornelius, in practice. And therefore be sure to give at the least so much to the poor, on thy fasting day, as thou wouldst have spent in thine own diet, if thou hadst not fasted that day. And remember, that |he that soweth plenteously shall reap plenteously| (2 Cor. ix.6), and that this is a special sowing day. Let thy fasting so afflict thee, that it may refresh a poor Christian; and rejoice that thou hast dined and supped in another; or rather, that thou hast feasted hungry Christ, in his poor members.
In giving alms, observe two things: First, The Rules; Secondly, The Rewards.
1. Rules in giving of Alms and doing Good Works.
1. They must be done in obedience to God's commandments: not because we think it good, but because God requires us to do such and such a good deed; for such obedience of the worker God prefers before all sacrifices, and the greatest works (1 Sam. xv.22.)
2. They must proceed from faith, else they cannot please God (Heb. xi.6; Rom. xiv.23:) Nay, without faith, the most specious works are but shining sins and Pharisees' alms.
3. Thou must not think by thy good works and alms to merit heaven; for in vain had the Son of God shed his blood, if heaven could have been purchased either for money or meat. Thou must therefore seek heaven's possession by the purchase of Christ's blood, not by the merits of thine own works; for |eternal life is the gift of God through Jesus Christ.| (Rom. vi.23.) Yet every true Christian that believes to be saved, and hopes to come to heaven, must do good works, as the apostle saith, for necessary uses, which are four: -- First, that God may be glorified (1 Cor. x.31; 2 Cor. viii.19; Phil. i.11;) Secondly, that thou mayest shew thyself thankful for thy redemption (Luke i.74, 75;) Thirdly, that thou mayest make sure thine election unto thyself (2 Pet. i.10;) Fourthly, that thou mayest win others, by thy holy devotion, to think the better of thy Christian profession (Matt. v.16; Isa. lxi.9.) And for these uses we are said to be |God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, and that God hath ordained us to walk in them.| (Eph. ii.10.)
4. Thou must not give thine alms to impudent vagabonds, who live in wilful idleness and filthiness, but to the religious and honest poor, who are either sick, or so old that they cannot work; or such who work, but their work cannot competently maintain them: seek out those in the back lanes, and relieve them. But if thou meetest one. that asketh an alms for Jesus' sake, and knowest him not to be unworthy, deny him not; for it is better to give unto ten counterfeits, than to suffer Christ to go, in one poor saint, unrelieved. Look not on the person, but give thy alms as unto Christ in the party.
2. Of the Rewards of Alms-deeds and Good Works.
1. Alms are a special means to move God in mercy to turn away his temporal judgments from us, when we by a true faith, that sheweth itself by such fruits, do return to him (Dan. iv.27.)
2. Merciful alms-givers shall be the children of the Highest (Luke vi.35, 36), and be like their Father, who is the Father of mercies (2 Cor. i.3.) They shall be his stewards, to dispose his goods (Luke xvi.1;) his hands, to distribute his alms: and if it be so great an honour to be the king's almoner, how much greater is it to be the God of heaven's alms-giver?
3. When all this world shall forsake us, then only good works and good angels shall accompany us, the one to receive their reward (Rev. xiv.13), the other to deliver their charge ( Luke xvi.22; Psal. xci.11; Heb. i.14.)
4. Liberality in alms-deeds is our surest foundation that we shall obtain, in eternal life, a liberal reward through the merits and mercy of Christ (1 Tim. vi.19.)
Lastly, By alms-deeds we feed and relieve Christ in his members; and Christ at the last day will acknowledge our love, and reward us in his mercy (Matt. xxv.;) and then it shall appear, that what we gave to the poor was not lost, but lent unto the Lord (Prov. xix.17.) What, greater motives can a Christian wish, to excite him to be a liberal alms-giver?
Thus far of the manner of fasting: Now follow the ends.
3. Of the Ends of Fasting.
The true ends of fasting are not to merit God's favour or eternal life, for that we have only of the gift of God through Christ; nor to place religion in holy abstinence, for fasting in itself is not the worship of God, but an help to further us the better to worship God. But the true ends of fasting are three: --
First, To subdue our flesh to the Spirit; but not so to weaken our bodies, as that we are made unfit to do the necessary duties of our calling (1 Tim. v.23.) |A good man,| saith Solomon, |is merciful to his beast| (Prov. xii.10), much more to his own body.
Secondly, That we may more devoutly contemplate God's holy will, and fervently pour forth our souls to him by prayer (Joel ii.17; Luke ii.37; 1 Cor. vii.5.) For as there are some kind of devils, so there are also some kind of sins, which cannot be subdued but by fasting, joined to prayer (Matt. xvii.21.)
Thirdly, That by our serious humiliation, and judging of ourselves, we may escape the judgment of the Lord (Joel ii.18, 19; 1 Cor. xi.;) not for the merit of our fasting (which is none), but for the mercy of God, who has promised to remove his judgments from us, when we by fasting unfeignedly humble ourselves before him. And indeed no child of God ever conscionably used this holy exercise, but in the end he obtained his request at the hand of God; both in receiving graces which he wanted, as appears in the examples of Hannah, Jehoshaphat, Nehemiah, Daniel, Esther (1 Sam. i.7; 2 Chron. xx.; Neh. i.; Dan. ix.; Esth. iv.;) as also in turning away judgments threatened, or fallen upon him, as may be seen in the examples of the Israelites, the Ninevites, Rehoboam, Ahab, Hezekiah, Mannasseh (1 Sam. vii.6; Jonah iii.; 2 Chron. xii.5, 7, &c.; 1 Kings xxi.; 2 Chron. xxxii.; xxxiii.18, 19.) He who gave his dear Son from heaven to the death, to ransom us when we were his enemies, thinks nothing too dear on earth to bestow upon us, when we humble ourselves, being made his reconciled friends and children.
Thus far of the private fast.