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row for sin having declared itself in fasting, it occurred to some, by a sort of argument more specious than rational, that were fasting introduced into the service of religion, it might put men in remembrance of their sins, by provoking self-examination, and thus move them to repentance. From the intimate connexion that subsists between the soul and the body, the mortification of the one seemed a likely means of subduing, or, at least, of restraining and of preventing the corrupt propensities of the other, since the body being the instrument of all our passions, whatever should diminish its natural strength might, it was presumed, greatly contribute to check the desire, and consequently to defeat or obviate the actual commission of sin. And thus fasting became a statedly religious ordinance, or rather, it was adopted as a help to religion, and as a preservative against vice. And, by degrees, as the abuse gathered strength, what might at first have been well-meant, and honestly practised, quickly degenerated into a superstitious and a mercenary service-acting in its best form, only mechanically through the body, the mind became its slave and not its convert. The feeling of its association with religion, as a corrective of the intemperate passions, was lost in the periodical formality of its use, and
the ungratefulness of its operation. There ceased to be any sympathy between the patient and the practice-and at length, spiritual ends being wholly given up, fasting was trusted in, and relied on as an act of meritorious obedience. But the abuse did not stop here--it was presumptuously recommended as a work of supererogation, or, as an extraneous and superabundant service, which, by its various degrees of self-mortification, should more or less expiate the various degrees and shades of moral transgression. And such is the spirit and the tendency of all the fasts that, through a long succession of ages even to this day, have been substituted for faith and obedience by the Clergy of the Church of Rome.
Having thus briefly traced the origin of fasting, with some of the gross perversions of it, in principle and in practice-we come next, to consider the suitable observance of it. We have seen why, and for what we ought to fast. We are now to examine how, that is, in what manner, and in what spirit we ought to do so. And on this our Lord has given us a short but comprehensive precept in the text, fast, be not as the hypocrites."
What it is “ to fast as hypocrites,” It explains in the remainder of the verse.he is to assume the outward appearance of godly sor
row, by an affected “ sadness of countenance," and by “disfiguring the face,” that we may “ seem unto men to fast.” Or, in other words, it is to seek in this, the praise of men, rather than the praise of God; to make the abstinence of the body minister, not to the humbling of the soul, but to the gratification of its pride, and thus to defeat the chief end of fasting, with the additional sin of disregarding the displeasure of an all-sceing God, who is the witness and the avenger of every imposition which we attempt to practise upon man.
Sincerity then towards God being an essential quality of this, as well as of every act of religion, “when we fast,” we should make no parade, no boast of it. As it is a matter that lies between God and our own souls, between God and our own souls should be kept, as much as possible, the knowledge of what we do. “God who is in secret, and who seeth in secret,” knows the very thoughts of our hearts,
open and naked are all things in his sight with whom we have to do.” And, therefore, says our Lord, “when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face,” observe then, as at other times, the accustomed cleanliness and decency of thy person, “that thou appear not onto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret ; and thy Father which seeth in
secret, shall reward thee openly ;' not for the act of fasting, however rigorous it may be, but by blessing it in its consequences, as a religious discipline, as a salutary act of self-denial tending to produce submission and patience, holiness in the heart, and righteousness in the lives of all those who fast in secret, as unto the Lord, and not as unto men.
If fasting then be a matter of so private and personal a nature, it follows, that it should be altogether discretionary. By discretionary, I mean that it is scarcely possible to lay down rules, or to appoint seasons and periods of fasting suited to every particular case. As the constitutions of men differ, as the passions of some are naturally more violent and unruly than those of others;-as evil habits have taken deeper root;-and the soul is more depraved from longer connexion with a polluted body, so much the more severe should be every kind of religious discipline and restraint. That body which has been the most rebellious, should require the most chastisement. But the extent or degree of this chastisement can be estimated only by the degree of guilt-and of this degree no man can judge for another-it is to be computed for himself only by the impartial judgment of every man's own conscience. Hence, it is evident, that to
fast must be, in a great measure, optional and voluntary, and with a proper end in view ; and that to fast at such periodical times as may be prescribed by the fancy or caprice of another, and as a matter of servile and reluctant duty, (as all such fasts generally are) must be totally absurd—because the times prescribed may not happen to accord with a consciousness of spiritual necessity in the persons required to observe them and because the natural tendency of such an arbitrarily-imposed and illadapted service, must be to excite a hunger and a thirst after forbidden food, rather than “ a hunger and a thirst after righteousness.” It is, in short, nothing more than a mere suspension of natural appetite, which cannot fail to induce a return to former evil habits, by sharpening the sensual affections, during the intervals of such unprofitable restraints.Wherefore, not to “ fast as the hypocrites,” must be to fast when occasion requires it, when we feel that the weakness of the spirit is in danger of being overcome by the intemperance of the flesh. One day of fasting with such an end in view, is self-correction in the true sense of the word. This is to act honestly by the soul for its improvement, and not as “ pleasing men,” nor pleasing self, “but” as pleasing “ God who trieth the heart.” Nor let it be