Joseph Milner
The Duty and Uses of Religious Fasting

“Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning.” Joel ii. 12.

Blessings and Dangers of True Fasting

THE duty of fasting, attended with humiliation of soul on account of sin, and with hearty conversion to God, as the choice and portion of our souls, is here recommended to his people by the Lord God of Israel. “Turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with weeping, and with mourning.” Such are the circumstances which accompany religious fasting, when it is acceptable to the Lord. Bare fasting*, as such, has nothing in it well-pleasing to God or profitable to the soul. It is not godliness, but bodily exercise. Now, “bodily exercise profiteth little; but godliness is profitable to all things.” However, fasting profits something, when it is not pharisaically relied on as godliness itself, but is used as an outward mean of godliness, commanded by God himself, as we see in the text; and it is helpful, under his Spirit, to promote godly sorrow and sincere turning to the Lord. If men do not use it with a view to these ends, they might as well do nothing: They act as insignificantly as those who eat fish instead of flesh during the season of Lent, and call that fasting. Much therefore is spoken in Scripture against ostentatious, and hypocritical, and self-righteous fasting, as also something against tormenting the body by excessive abstinence, because the Jews were addicted to this practice, at the same time that they lived in abominable iniquity. The Holy Ghost also foresaw the abuses of Antichrist,—that is of Popery,—on this head.

But then there is an extreme on the other side. To prove that fasting is commanded of God, no more needs be said than barely to repeat the text; for the Lord does not appear to be speaking here of temperance and self-denial, and fasting from sin, as some express it; THAT is a Christian's duty at all times; but he is here to be understood as enjoining the particular duty of fasting, as an occasional and extraordinary thing. This meaning must, I think, be sufficiently manifest to every one, who will read the chapter before us without prejudice. And if we attend to matter of fact, it may truly be observed, that self-indulgence, and the neglect of fasting and of the other severer duties of the same kind, are evils, which, in the practice of many who profess to be religious, need to be rebuked.—While we have shunned one extreme, we have run into another.

After all, fasting profiteth but little in comparison of other means of grace, such as searching the word, hearing it, praying, and meditation; but it cannot be proper to neglect it entirely, since it is commanded, though not statedly, yet occasionally, to be observed. The present holy season of Lent, and particularly the approaching day of our Lord's crucifixion, a day worthy indeed to be peculiarly observed with fasting, while we look to Christ crucified;—these things, together with the conviction of the danger of hardening our hearts by living in the breach of the least of the Lord's commands, have induced me to attempt to show you,

1st, The Scripture evidence of the practice of this duty by Saints of old;

2d, The uses and proper ends of fasting.

Scriptural Reasons for True Fasting

l. Be it so that this is one of the least commandments, nevertheless, if it is a commandment, a threat attends the neglect of it, Matt. v. 19. The same Sermon on the mount, in which our Lord utters this threat, contains directions which relate to fasting. Pray, my Brethren, even ye who know the Lord, that Christ Jesus may be exalted in our souls by the work we have before us, and then it shall not be in vain. For if we are not led to know, to trust in, and to love Christ better, by every means of grace, nothing effectual is done to profit us. But I hope to show our present subject to be a Gospel-one, and fruitful to the glory of Christ, and the comfort of our souls, through your prayer and the supply of the spirit of our Lord and Saviour.—

Fasting in Times of Mourning and Affliction

Let us trace religious fasting in some measure through the Bible. It is an exercise that has been ever much in use, in times of mourning and affliction. Though there is no example of fasting to be seen before Moses, yet it is probable that the Patriarchs fasted, since we see that there were very great mournings among them. Moses enjoins no particular fast in his five books, excepting that on the solemn day of expiation, which was strictly observed. Levit. xxiii. 27. “On the tenth day of this seventh month ye shall afflict your souls, inwardly by humility and self-abhorrence, and outwardly by-abstinence from all carnal comforts. Though I am far from thinking that the consciences of Christians are bound by Jewish rites, yet surely, in the way of expediency, fasting may be strongly recommended, as a mean of helping us in humiliation and solemn contrition, on the day in which we commemorate the real expiation, our suffering Lord bleeding for our sins. Joshua and the elders, we find, remained prostrate before the ark from morning till evening, after the Israelites were defeated by the men of Ai, on occasion of Achan's sin (Joshua vii). And, surely, we have public evils sufficient to induce us, if we had the humble spirit of that godly generation, to imitate their example. We have several subsequent accounts of the Israelites fasting in times of national distress, which show that affliction of soul for sin should be one grand end, in view, to be promoted by fasting, whether public or private. Of David’s fasting we have an account both in his history, on occasion of the sickness of the child he had by the wife of Uriah; and also in the Psalms, “I humbled my soul with fasting.” As to the forty days fasts of Moses, of Elijah, and of our Lord, no doubt they were miraculous, and out of the common rules of nature: But they surely recommend the THING to us very strongly, to be practiced in our measure. Our Lord's fasting, before he was tempted by the devil, demonstrates the utility of this practice when accompanied by true Christian faith and love: and also the strength which it imparts to resist temptations, particularly such as he underwent, temptations to worldly and carnal lusts. And the forty days fastings of Moses and Elijah deserve to be considered, when you reflect that these were they, who appeared with our Lord in glory at his transfiguration, and spoke of his decease, that is, his suffering which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. I believe the thought is not amiss, that they, who most resemble Christ in mortification and self-denial, shall be most favored with spiritual views and refreshments here, drawn by faith from Christ crucified. The fasting of the Ninevites on Jonah's preaching, had something in it acceptable to the Lord, as may appear to any who attend to the story.

Fasting When Overcoming Temptation

Our Lord did not institute any particular fasts, but he evidently, in his Sermon on the Mount, recommends fasting as an occasional duty of real believers, and as an evidence of their humbling their souls for their sins. While he directs that it be practiced sincerely, and guards against ostentatious abuses, he evidently inculcates the thing itself. “Thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. Vi. 16). We find also, that when the Pharisees reproached our Lord, because their disciples, and likewise those of John, fasted often; but HIS disciples ate and drank like other people, they were given to understand, that, though the proper season for their fasting was not while He, the bridegroom, was present with them, yet the days would come, when he should be taken from them; and then they should fast: after our Lord's ascension, they should have troubles and dangers, which would make fasting seasonable. Besides, this is a duty not so proper for young converts, as for those more advanced in grace. Our Lord, with beautiful tenderness, and agreeably to his character of a shepherd (Isaiah xl:11), who gently leads those of his flock that are with young, illustrates the case, by comparing it to that of “putting new wine into old bottles, or a piece of new garment upon an old” He then adds, “that no man having drunk old wine, straightway desireth new” (Luke v. 36—39.) Christ's disciples are not hastily to be driven into rigorous duties. They must learn to practice them gradually; otherwise, the unsuitableness of the things themselves to their state will be like that of new cloth to an old garment; and they will get only legal bondage and misery by them.

No good reason can be assigned why these rules of fasting should not belong to Christ's disciples in all ages as well as to those in the days of the Apostles. But let them be modified by that discreet tenderness and compassion, which our Lord himself expresses. Disciples of proud Pharisees may fast with ease and with pleasure; their pride is feasted thereby: but to fast with humility, with tenderness of conscience, without extremes; and, above all, to find the end answered in being led more to Christ by it,—all this exceeds, generally, the wisdom of beginners in religion. To neglect it altogether, as some professors of Christianity do, cannot be right: to practice it improperly maybe hurtful; but if we are looking to the Lord, he will lead us safely and profitably; his own words on the subject will direct us. His sincere people feel snares and weaknesses, which are apt to entangle them continually;—and may God keep me from hurting any soul, in the least, by excessive strictness, or by injudicious advice, unsuitable to their condition!

Fasting in Times of Danger

We find also that Jehosaphat, in time of great danger, proclaimed a fast. Ezra also, and the people fasted and besought their God; and he was entreated of them. Nehemiah too, in affliction for his country, fasted privately, and the Lord blessed his labours. Fasting was practiced also by Daniel, who set himself to seek instruction by prayer and fasting; and it deserves to be remembered, that, in consequence of this religious exercise, he was favoured with one of the richest views of Christ to be found in the Old Testament. It is in the ninth chapter of the book of Daniel. Why need I mention the fastings spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles? The lives of the first believers were full of self-denial;—”In fastings often,” says St. Paul. He recommends also the occasional use of it to married persons, who know the Lord, l Cor. vii, 5. Anna, the old prophetess, served God with fastings and prayers night and day, Luke ii., and we know the happy event, which followed: She was favoured with a glorious view of Christ. Cornelius also, the first fruits of the Gentiles, teaches us Gentiles the use of fasting, as one among the many means of grace and spiritual improvement (Acts x.), which God has been pleased to bestow upon us. You know he was brought to rejoice in Christ, and had the comforts of the Holy Ghost. One reason why we have so little joy in God, and they had so much, is, that they did not seek to gratify the flesh, as we do.

But enough has been said to show, how much fasting was practiced by God's people of old. Those, who deride it, can hardly, with decency, call themselves Christians: and those who would be always and altogether excused from the observance of it, should consider that our Lord said, “this kind goeth not forth but by prayer and fasting.” There are particular evils, strong lusts and stubborn habits, which it may be necessary to resist by fasting. It must show arrogance in any one to set aside, without ceremony, a means which we see has always been used by the Church of God in its best state. But I suspect: such men will find by examining themselves, that self indulgence and unwillingness to bear Christ's cross, lies at the bottom of their total disregard of fasting.

The Beneficial Outcomes of True Fasting

2. It is now time that I should proceed to set forth the ends and uses of this duty. Let none set about it in his own strength, or rest in the thing itself, to pacify conscience, he will find, if he does, as too many in former ages have found, that he will be led farther from Christ, rather than be brought nearer to him, by fasting. Let him be more careful about the ends and the uses than the thing itself. By evangelizing the duty you will grow more holy; you will be more comfortable; and, you will find Christ more precious: On the contrary, by using a little abstinence, MERELY as a duty, without knowing or seeking any distinct useful purposes to be answered thereby, you will only feed self-righteousness and gain nothing at all in real holiness.

The Evangelical uses of fasting, are, I apprehend, directly or indirectly set forth in the very excellent Collect of our church. It is a prayer addressed to our Lord himself: and, by the suppliant who unites, in his idea, the power of the Godhead with the sympathy and compassion of the man, it will be found an encouraging address indeed to the Son of God. “O Lord, who for our sakes didst fast forty days and forty nights, give us grace to use such abstinence that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.”

The various uses of fasting, as a suitable mean of humbling the soul, of weaning it from the world, of subduing the flesh to the Spirit, and of bringing us into nearer and sweeter communion with Christ, are all expressed in this Collect. For thus sanctifying our abstinence, we must wholly rely on the grace and strength of Christ. Fasting was practiced by himself in the days of his flesh: the benefit is to be received from him, by faith alone: and, in this admirable prayer, it is asked of him. When the soul is humbled by fasting it will be disposed to express itself in the following manner. “ O Lord Jesus, alas that I should have a nature so wicked, blind, sensual, and corrupt as to prefer any worldly or animal gratification before thee! I have chosen many vile earthly gratifications, and have had more relish for them than for thee! Alas! O Lord, that thy pity, love, power, wisdom, goodness; thy wonderful works, and most bitter sufferings for me, should be, as it were, lost upon me! They were meant to make me free and wise, holy and happy; to make me one Spirit with thee; and to lead me to true joys and pleasures,—but my corrupt nature, the flesh, craves and hankers only after worldly and carnal indulgences;—by yielding to which I am become more and more stupified and dull with respect to true happiness! Give me, dear Lord, the grace of abstinence, that not only through fasting occasionally, but also, through a careful watchfulness against excess in the use of all innocent things lest they steal away my heart, I may be cured of my wicked propensity to fulfill the lusts of the flesh; and may seek more simply for true, holy, gratifications.”—Thus the Psalmist humbled his soul with fasting: And thus he was led to feel sin in a more solemn and distinct manner; and hence the Saviour became more precious in his eyes.

Fast to Wean from the World

Let fasting be used as a mean to wean from the world. Surely, by checking occasionally the natural appetite for food, the Christian may learn, to value the bread of life more distinctly, and be led more feelingly to live above this world's enjoyments. Thus, by abridging himself in the use of them now and then, he may habituate himself to the reflection, that a time will come shortly, when he shall have done with them altogether: and that to have an appetite for the meat which endureth to everlasting life, is that, which most concerns him; and that even these worldly enjoyments are not his by right. For, let it ever be remembered, that these, as well as all good things, in the way of justice, are forfeited

Fast to Sympathize More

If by sin; and if you feel even some pain by abstinence, you may be taught to advert, with more sympathy, to the wants of others, and be stirred up with more liberality to relieve those creatures of God, who are entirely as deserving as yourself, but who, in the course of his Providence, want the common necessaries of life.

Fast to Subdue the Flesh

Let fasting be used, as one means of subduing the flesh to the Spirit. I say as ONE MEANS: for, it is neither the only one, nor the principal. But it is commanded, and therefore it should be used in the faith of Jesus. “Pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness,” these three often go together. The Lord declares, by Ezekiel, they did so in Sodom, which was destroyed by five and brimstone. If fullness of bread then be apt to feed the flesh, that is, the corrupt nature, occasional abstinence, and a constant course of temperance, may evidently tend to subdue the deeds of the body.

Fast to Find Sweet Communion with Christ

Hence, lastly, The soul becomes more fit for near and sweet communion with Christ by faith. We have seen how Daniel set himself to seek God by fasting; and if we practice this duty with the same spirit, there can be no doubt, but, through the divine blessing, the same effect will be produced. Hence the soul may learn with greater self-command,—though not perhaps at first, but gradually this may be attained,—to wait upon God, to hear his will, to tarry his leisure, and to look for true pleasure in Christ only. And, by becoming meek and gentle, humble and teachable, the spiritual senses are better exercised to hear what the Lord saith; and hence to obey the godly motions of his Spirit in righteousness and true holiness, to his honour and glory. The soul, which, despising, or being comparatively indifferent about the bread that perisheth, hungers and thirsts after righteousness, in hopes of being filled, shall find the Lord Jesus to be “meat indeed and drink indeed.

Other Ways of Fasting

Nor is it only with regard to meat and drink, that occasional abstinence and constant temperance should be recommended to Christians. Let us look, each at himself and his constant practice, and let us consider what worldly enjoyments are apt to run away with our hearts; what are the false gods that, for pleasure and comfort, would rival in our esteem the God of Israel? What Isaacs are to be given up, what worldly thing, though in itself lawful, we follow with too much eagerness and ardour? It is certain that, with abundance of real believers, spiritual comforts are at a very low ebb; and this happens, because they are not content with the Holy Ghost for their comforter, though in the Te Deum we express our faith in him as the “Comforter.”

Let Christians consider what has been said, and go to Christ for faith and strength to put it in practice; and they will find the fruit of it in an increase of holiness here and of happiness hereafter. And ye, who are so far from fasting on any godly account, that to enjoy worldly pleasure is all your aim and study, will ye learn that the word of God sets a black mark on those who are “lovers of pleasures, more than lovers of God.” Do not think that a short abstinence from diversions during some part of the season of Lent, while your heart loves them as much as ever, and while it is ready to return to the same excess of riot again, will be, in any measure, acceptable to God. You want new hearts; a new taste for pleasure: You do not know what true pleasure is. It consists in communion with God; but, if you would obtain it, you must come to God by Christ, and, before you can discharge any one duty acceptable to God, you must learn distinctly to practice the great duty of Believing on the Son of God. Of this knowledge and of this practice you are absolutely in need, in the first place. Without these you are under the curse. Let the question go round this congregation. Did you ever, in the view of your lost state, and of Jesus, as an able and willing Saviour, come to God by him, and stay your souls upon his sacrifice and intercession? In that case you know in whom you have believed; and you may look up with comfort to his Father and your Father, to his God and your God. You will earnestly desire that all carnal affections may die in you, and that all things belonging to the spirit may live and grow in you; and for this end you will use the means of which we have been speaking. But, if you know nothing of conversion to God, or of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are in a perishing state, and the wrath of God abideth on you.

“Turn ye then unto the Lord with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning, that you may obtain mercy, and stand in the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”

*The term "Bare Fasting" was early used by Chrysostom (347–407) who stated, "Let us set a guard upon our ears, our tongues, and minds, and not think that bare fasting till the evening is sufficient for our salvation. What profit is it to eat nothing all day, if you give yourself to playing dice and other vain pastimes...." (Read more from the quote here)

Information about Joseph Milner and this Sermon

Joseph Milner (1744–1797), an English evangelical divine, was born at Leeds and educated at Leeds Grammar School and Cambridge. After taking his degree he went to Thorparch, Yorkshire, as curate and assistant schoolmaster. Subsequently he became headmaster of Hull Grammar School, and in 1768 he was chosen afternoon lecturer at Holy Trinity Church, Hull. He became a strong supporter of the evangelical movement of the period, and greatly contributed to its success in Hull. In addition to his work as headmaster, he took charge of North Ferriby parish, about nine miles from Hull. His published works include essays and numerous sermons, but his best known work is his History of the Church of Christ in London.

This sermon by Joseph Milner, is mentioned as having been a great blessing to Henry Martyn (1781-1812), who was the noted missionary to India and Persia.