The Necessity of Fasting
The Sword and Trowel, 1866
A Few Key Points
1. "Fasting is the natural expression of all-absorbing grief, or a soul-pervading earnestness. When the mind is in deep distress, the natural appetite is destroyed, and the body refuses to receive its food.
2. "Fasting may be regarded not only as the effect of grief or earnestness, but as a means of promoting that grief which we do not feel, or producing that earnestness which we do not exhibit.
3. "When the stomach has been filled with dainty meats, and the heart is merry with wine, it is almost impossible to afflict the soul before God, but that depletion which is produced by fasting will be no hindrance but rather a help to devotion of spirit.
4. "Fasting, then, is natural to the grief-stricken Christian, and it is necessary to the Christian who cannot grieve.
5. "Do you say that fasting belongs to the old dispensation, and is contrary to the spirit of the gospel? I answer, Surely the example of Christ and his apostles ought to be sufficient to satisfy us upon this point, and we cannot do wrong in following such an example. The disciples fasted not whilst Christ the heavenly Bridegroom was with them, but they often fasted when he was taken away from them.
The Necessity of Fasting
THE fifth of November, 1866, was a day which will be remembered by the Baptist denomination of Great Britain as long as time shall last. In our calendar for that day we shall henceforth cross out the Popish plot, and insert the great Baptist fast. To see our denomination fasting is indeed a strange sight, but it is a sight which fills our hearts with gladness, for it is a presage of a glorious future. The rope of sand has become a firmly twisted cable of strength. The various sections of the denomination are no longer divided. The sharp sword of prejudice has been put into its scabbard, and the wounds which it has made will now soon be healed by the heavenly balm of prayer. Who could have imagined that Baptists, particular and general, strict communion and open, could thus have been brought together. Surely it is a miracle—a miracle of grace. Even our strictest brethren were not unrepresented, for some even of these were drawn to the meeting as by a divine influence. What does this all mean? Is not the Captain of our salvation rallying his forces for the day of battle! Is he not saying to us, "Your differences must be no longer war cries, at the sound of which one battalion shall turn the sword against the other, but they must be watchwords whereby those of each regiment shall know their own men. In the coming conflict every troop will be required. Cease then your party strife. Leave me to defend my own table; I will fence it around and preserve it sacred. Go ye forth and unitedly engage in a noble welfare, defending my cross, and spreading my gospel." Thus the Captain seems to have spoken, and a deep, cordial, and perfect unanimity has been the result.
Those who were present at the great Metropolitan gathering will never forget the spontaneity, quickness, and freedom of all the devotion, and the singular appropriateness of every prayer. What a marvelous spirit of humiliation was poured out upon the brethren, and how strangely were all brought to a level before the throne of grace! Venerable tutors and stripling students joined their supplications. Young men and fathers in the ministry mingled their tears. Oh for such another gathering, but a gathering on a still larger scale, a gathering of all the tribes of Israel to fast and weep before the Lord!
To promote such gatherings is the object of this paper. To promote the revival of an old Scriptural custom is the desire of its writer. He longs for the time when in all special cases fasting and prayer will go hand in hand, for then he believes that the blessing will be poured out. But the very subject of fasting has been almost forgotten amongst us, and many will have the impression that it must be a very unscriptural and unorthodox thing. Let ns then consider this subject, and enquire—
I. Is fasting now a religious duty? To answer this question we must define what we mean, and refer to the unerring standard of God's holy Word.
Fasting is the natural expression of all-absorbing grief, or a soul-pervading earnestness. When the mind is in deep distress, the natural appetite is destroyed, and the body refuses to receive its food. The same result attends soul-pervading earnestness, an earnestness which cannot stop to eat or drink until it has attained its object. As an example of the former we have the case of David, the king of Israel; as an example of the latter we have the case of Daniel, the earnest student of prophetic truth. How intense must have been the grief which weighed down David's heart when he saw the anguish of his dying child, and knew that all the little sufferer's pangs were caused by his sin. It was this which made him throw himself upon the bare earth, and there for seven days lie weeping and fasting before the Lord. How earnest must the prophet Daniel have been when he knew by books that the time for the restoration of Jerusalem was drawing near, so, that he might know the time, "he set his face unto the Lord God to seek by prayer and supplication, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes."
But fasting may be regarded not only as the effect of grief or earnestness, but as a means of promoting that grief which we do not feel, or producing that earnestness which we do not exhibit. Hence on the solemn day of expiation the Jews were commanded to afflict their souls, and to offer up sacrifices that they might be clean from all their sins before the Lord. They are nowhere commanded to fast on this occasion, but as fasting is most helpful to affliction of soul they seemed to feel that they could not afflict their souls without fasting, therefore the day of atonement was everywhere observed as the great fasting day. Jer. xxxvi. 6. Acts xxvii. 9. When the stomach has been filled with dainty meats, and the heart is merry with wine, it is almost impossible to afflict the soul before God, but that depletion which is produced by fasting will be no hindrance but rather a help to devotion of spirit. "It is emptiness not fullness that makes a man capable of heavenly visions and divine glory." The soul of man is so sluggish and laggard in the performance of holy duties that it cannot be wrought at once into a state of intense and burning earnestness, and if we leave our devotions to obey the calls of hunger our souls will cool down again, and will never be melted under the intense heat of holy desire.
Fasting, then, is natural to the grief-stricken Christian, and it is necessary to the Christian who cannot grieve. The earnest soul will fast for very earnestness, and the sluggish soul should fast that it may become earnest. God's people hare fasted in every age. They have fasted because of intense grief. Nehem. i. 3, 4. Because of doubt and disappointment. Judges xx. 26. Ezra viii. 21. Because of imminent danger. 2 Chron. xx. 3. Ezra iv. 4. Yea, they have fasted that they might thereby promote their piety, and thus bring glory to God. i Sam. vii. 6. Nehem. ix. 1. They fasted not only under the old dispensation but under the new. The Pharisees, the hypocrites of those days, fasted. Luke xviii. 12. Anxious enquirers fasted. Acts x. 30. Apostles fasted. Acts xiii. 1,2,14, 23. 2 Cor. vi. 6, 11, 27. And best of all, our blessed Lord himself fasted. Like Moses and Elijah he fasted forty days, his soul so full of divine earnestness that he required no food. Now it is hardly possible that any man could fast forty days without a miracle being wrought to support his life; but it has been beautifully observed, "that when we take up our abode in any particular city we must live according to its customs. Moses in a certain sense ascended to heaven, where they neither eat nor drink, therefore he became assimilated to them. We are accustomed to eat and drink, and when angels descend to us they eat and drink also. It was in very truth a heavenly not an earthly life in the case equally of Moses, Elijah, and the Lord." We cannot therefore imitate in our fasting these three great fasters. As in the splendour of transfiguration glory these three stood alone upon Tabor's mount, so they stand alone in their extraordinary fasting.
We have no space to enlarge upon the many instances of fasting which are recorded in God's Word, or to chronicle the many testimonies which may be gathered from every age of the Christian church. The devout reader can examine these for himself, and he will find that although fasting is never by itself commanded as a law, yet it is everywhere regarded as the natural accompaniment of special and earnest prayer. And now let me ask, Why do you object to fasting? Do you say that fasting belongs to the old dispensation, and is contrary to the spirit of the gospel? I answer, Surely the example of Christ and his apostles ought to be sufficient to satisfy us upon this point, and we cannot do wrong in following such an example. The disciples fasted not whilst Christ the heavenly Bridegroom was with them, but they often fasted when he was taken away from them. Matt. ix. 15. Acts xiii. 2, 3; xiv. 23. 2 Cor. vi. 5; Xl 27.
Perhaps you object to fasting because it is a Romish custom; but you might just as reasonably object to pray because Romanists pray to saints, or object to sing God's praises because Romanists sing the praises of Mary. But after all, there is no such thing as true fasting in the Romish Church. It is but a mockery, and a show. Sincere Romanists may really fast, but it is altogether a work of supererogation (an effort above and beyond the call of duty), and is nowhere required of them by the laws of the church. Fasting and feasting are almost synonymous in the language of Rome. The former signifies a banquet of fish, and the latter a banquet of flesh. Surely it requires no very great self-denial for a man to abstain from flesh meat when he can have the rarest fish dressed in the most delicate manner, the choicest wines, and the most delicious sweetmeats. Hence Clarkson says, "Oh, how gladly would thousands of our people be condemned to such a maceration of the flesh for more days in the year than the Romanists are thus pitifully mortified, and never trouble Pope or prelate for a dispensation! Nay, they would purchase a license to fast if they would accommodate them with expedients to do it at such a rate." Thomas Adams also says on the same subject, "How deadly a sin is it to eat flesh on a Friday! Yet it is no sin with them to be drunk on a Friday. A poor labourer ploughs all day, at night refreshes himself with a morsel of bacon; he is a heretic. A gallant gentleman hawks all day, at night sits down to his variety of fishes, curious wines, possets, junkets; oh, he is a good Catholic. A hypocrite is he rather. They seek the credit of temperance among full tables, full pots. They desire praise, but they refuse hunger. But God is not mocked."
Let us not then reject the pure gold of Scriptural fasting because the Romish counterfeit is of similar appearance, but obeying the exhortation of the apostles let us "try or test the things that differ," so shall we "approve things that are excellent." Phil. i. 10. There if still another objection which will be brooght against the practice of fasting; and it is the most powerful of all, and the most difficult to deal with. It comes not from the head, for it is disapproved by the intellect. It comes not from the heart, for it is censured by the affections. It comes from the stomach, and with a deep sepulchral unreasoning voice it says, "Fasting is a bad thing, and it will do no good." Now it is no use reasoning with objections which come from this quarter. Arguments may satisfy the intellect, or the affections, but no argument will satisfy the stomach. It will be of no avail to confer with flesh and blood. Gal. i. 16. Their voice must not be permitted in our solemn deliberations; but the soul must assert its rightful authority, and compel the body to submit to that which we believe to be best for our spiritual interests. Let those, however, who listen to the voice of carnal nature rather than to the voice of God be careful lest they should be found making provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof. Rom. xiii. 14.
II. If fasting be a Christian duty, how should it be performed?
1. There must be real self-denial in it. Whether there should be a total or only a partial abstinence from food is a question which each Christian must decide for himself. And this question should be decided not by the caprice of appetite, but by the solemn decision of the soul as in the sight of God. If we must eat on the day which we have given to fasting, let it be of such quantity and of such quality as shall preserve the health, but not hinder the soul in the sacred exercises of the day. We must keep under the body and bring it into subjection. 1 Cor. ix. 27. It will cost us a struggle to do this. The flesh will not be nailed to the cross without resistance. In classic story we read of one who had serpents growing from his shoulders, which were continually tormenting him with their poisonous fangs. Those serpents were a part of himself, they grew of his own flesh, and as he tried to strangle them he felt all their pangs; yet he dared not relax his grasp, or they would torment him afresh. So the inordinate appetites and desires of the body are as serpents which grow from ourselves; it will cost us many a pang to destroy them, but if we do it not they will torment our souls.
"Flesh is a dangerous foe to grace,
Where it prevails and rules;
Flesh must be humbled, pride abased,
Lest they destroy our souls."
2. There must be real sincerity of heart. It is not enough for a man to "bang down his head like a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him," there must be real humility of heart and affliction of soul. "There are many," as old Trapp says, "who hang down their heads, but their hearts stand bolt upright within them. Such are the hypocrites spoken of by Christ. Matt. vi. 16. They disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast, and if men think them to be good fasters they care nothing for God's opinion. Like the friar in the picture they hold a punch-bowl in their hands, but hope that it may be taken for a skull. It is better not to fast at all than to practice the fast of the hypocrit. It is better even to be lukewarm than with the glowworm to appear to be all on fire when the soul, like that worm, is cold and clammy as death."
3. There must be real service done to God and man. The bands of wickedness must be loosened, the heavy burden must be undone, the oppressed must be liberated, every yoke must be broken. The hungry must be fed, the poor brought into the house, the naked must be clothed, and poor relations acknowledged. Isa, Iviii. 6, 7. These good deeds will not merit the blessing, but the neglect of them will certainly bring the curse, and that man who fasts from food while he fasts not from sin will bring down Jehovah's hot displeasure on his head.
III. If fasting be a Christian duty, should not those who have neglected it immediately attend thereto?
Do we not hear the Lord's voice saying in a very remarkable manner, "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. We as a denomination have no earthly king to proclaim a fast, we acknowledge no universal bishop who has power to convoke the solemn assembly; but in a still small voice God has been speaking simultaneously to many hearts, and wafted upon the breezes from all parts of our land comes the soft echo of the sweet invitation, "Let us fast—let us pray." Surely this thing is of the Lord, or else among the defenders of our denominational faith some would have been found to lift their voice against a thing so strange and unusual amongst us. But surely there was never a time when deep humiliation before God was more needful than at the present. Does not the church need a fresh baptism of the Holy Ghost? Does not personal piety in thousands of cases need to be rekindled? Are there not errors to be removed? Yea, are there not even devils to be cast out, and some of them of that kind which goeth not out but by prayer and fasting? Matt. xvii. 21.
There is another reason which may be urged why the duty of fasting should be neglected no longer, viz., the great benefits which are to be derived from the performance of this duty.
One of the old Puritans says that, "It is a foretaste of eternal life, when in holy practices we taste the sweetness of that heavenly manna; this angels' food, those soul-fattening viands that make us for a time to forbear our appointed food. It is a help to the understanding of heavenly mysteries, as Daniel found it. It ferrets out corruption, and is to the soul as washing is to a room, which is more than sweeping, or as scouring to the vessel, which is more than ordinary washing. It subdues rebel flesh which, with fullness of bread, will wax wanton as Sodom, Jeshurun, Ephraim. It testifies true repentance by this holy revenge, 2 Cor. vii. 11, while we thus amerce (punish arbitrarily) and punish ourselves by a voluntary foregoing of the comforts and commodities of life as altogether unworthy. Psa. xxxv. 13." Now this old Puritan knew what he wrote about far better than we do who read his words. He could speak from experience, which we cannot. He had probably spent many a day fasting, and if he speaks thus enthusiastically of the practice, had we not better try it for ourselves? In this matter, however, we need not be guided by man's testimony, for we have the testimony of God himself. The blessings which he promises to his fasting and praying people include every temporal and spiritual thing which we can seek or desire. See Isa. Iviii. 8—12, with Joel ii. 18—27. Oh, then let us all join in this sacred duty; this duty so full of promise and blessing. Let us deny ourselves, and take up our cross to follow our Lord. Let us do battle with the flesh that we may reap the fruits of the Spirit Oh, let us go forth and share the glorious spoil!
But some will perhaps refuse thus to deny themselves. We must leave such in the hands of the Lord; but let them rest assured that he who blamed the Pharisees for fasting amiss will much more blame those who fast not at all. If you will not fast when God calls to it, you will fast from choice when the heavenly Bridegroom is taken from you. Oh, that these poor words might induce you to try for once this long-neglected duty, then your fasting would be turned into feasting, and your prayers into praise.
Benjamin Davies, taken from The Sword and Trowel, edited by Charles Spurgeon, 1866.