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we have been seduced into unlawful pleasures of sense, or even are in danger of it only, fasting is peculiarly medicinal: withdraws the fuel from irregular desires; proves to us by experience, and strengthens by use, our ability of bridling our natural appetites; and so prevents our undoing ourselves, by trusting vainly to the plea of human infirmity, as an excuse for deliberate transgression, or supine negligence. Exercises of moderate hardship add a vigour to the mind : and were on that account recommended even by heathen moralists*, as teaching contempt of low gratifications, and of the wealth that ministers to them; of the blandishments of luxury, and the false elegance of effeminate politeness. But far stronger inducements have we Christians to take the most effectual methods for exalting our souls above these things: as we know, to a much higher degree of certainty, that the carnal mind is enmity against Godt; that they, who live in pleasure, are dead whilst they live $; and that by detaching our affections properly from things on earth, we shall attain the blessedness of Heavens.
Nor will fasting contribute only to mortify our fondness for sensual indulgences; but also to abate the impetuosity of vehement spirits; and that pride of heart, which the prophet Ezekiel, in the case of Sodom and Jerusalem, connects with fulness of bread ||. We often find the same persons, when pampered into luxuriant health, overbearing, impatient of contradiction, outrageous in anger, who, when voluntary or necessary abstinence hath reduced them to a calmer state of mind, are considerate, reasonable, and humane. But particularly it inspires humanity * Arr. Epict. 1. 3. c. 12. and c. 14.
+ Rom. viii. 7. # 1 Tim. v. 6. Ś Col. iii. 1. &c. || Ezek. xvi. 49.
and compassion to the poor. For it gives us experience from time to time, of what they are often forced to feel : and not only reminds all persons, but better enables those of middling circumstances, by lessening now and then their expences on themselves, to relieve the wants of their indigent brethren: for which reason the prophet Isaiah supposes it attended by doing every act of equity and mercy, but especially giving of alms; and introduces God himself, saying: Is not this the fast, that I have chosen to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burthens, to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke ? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry; and that thou bring the poor, that are cast out, to thy house ; when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh* ?
These are some of the spiritual benefits, for I omit to mention the corporeal ones, though very considerable, which recommend fasting. And surely they are at least sufficient to keep every pretender to seriousness from deriding it, or thinking meanly of such as practise it. Though any one may judge, or find, it ever so useless to himself: yet he cannot well know what it may be to others. And therefore, the rule of Scripture is in this sense perfectly just: Let not him that eateth, despise him, that eateth not t. If he doth, his contempt may light on characters of the highest eminence in wisdom and goodness; as it happened in the case of the royal Psalmist: The reproaches of them, that reproached thee, are fallen upon me. I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting ; and that was turned to my reproof 1.
Is. lviii. 6, 7. Hence Hermas directs, lib. 3. Sim. 5, that the money saved by fasting be given to the poor. + Rom. xiv. 3.
| Ps. lxix. 9, 10.
But as we ought, by all the prudence we can, to spare others the guilt, and ourselves the uneasiness and provocation, of such unkind treatment: so we should be yet more careful not to deserve it in any degree: and should therefore take diligent notice that the text contains,
II. A caution against using this practice amiss. Our Saviour indeed prohibits expressly no other abuses, than such as hypocrites committed: and mentions, of those, only one in particular. But as he certainly meant that merely for a specimen of many; and designed, that all should be avoided; it will be useful to set before you others also, most of which are condemned expressly somewhere in the word of God: and all implicitly here.
Fasting is a duty, not for its own sake: for neither meat, nor abstaining from meat, commendeth us to God* : but for the sake of its good effects. Proportionably therefore, as in any person's case it is found, on impartial and full trial, to fail of those effects, or to produce bad ones, which outweigh or equal them, it ceases to be a duty; any farther than the obligation of setting no hurtful example, of giving no offence, may justly demand regard. And as the cases of different persons differ extremely, it is either wicked tyranny, or pitiable unskilfulness, to enjoin, as the church of Rome doth, all persons to abstain, so often, and for so long together, from eating flesh; and all persons of such an age, and such a state of life and health, to eat only once in a day, or little more, of what they are suffered to eat. Prescribing such rules, as these, to the whole world, must bring hardships and distresses on millions of persons, especially the poor, from which they can receive no good, but may
1 Cor. viii. 8.
suffer much harm. It will give them wrong notions of religion, as consisting principally in outward observances; and multiply grievously the temptations to sin, by adding imaginary duties, that will often be more difficult than the real ones. They allow indeed some occasional exceptions from these general rules : and yet, even did they also allow persons to judge for themselves, when their circumstances came within those exceptions, it would still be a source of endless doubts and scruples to timorous minds. But besides the uncertainty, whether they may in conscience desire to be excepted, they are subjected to the will and pleasure of others, whether that desire shall be granted: and to a large expence for it, if it be: and these and other dispensations are one fund of wealth to the clergy and court of Rome, which they have used to the vilest purposes. No part of all this is founded on Scripture: nor even on the practice of the primitive church; which for some ages laid no necessity on any one fasting at such particular annual seasons; much less of fasting for many days and weeks together; and when they did fast, made no distinction between the use of flesh and fish; but left every one the liberty, which Christ and his Apostles had left them: as indeed our own church hath done too. For though it hath mentioned certain times of abstinence, which it might have been unsafe not to mention at the time of the Reformation : yet this, being backed by no new injunction, amounts only to recommending them, so far as each person shall find no real objection against them. And certainly most, if not allopersons would find, on the contrary, much Henefit from lessening even their lawful indulgences of sense at proper seasons, and the present season in particular. But in order to our judging rightly, in
what degree this will be expedient for us, divers things ought to be considered. Not many indeed of our church, in the present age, run at all into excessive austerities : very far from it, God knows. But if any do, they ought to be warned : and though none did here, the Christian doctrine ought to be vindicated from the imputation of leading to such extremes any where.
Some observe constantly a diet sufficiently low; some few perhaps too low. Now for these, who live in a state of daily fasting, to superadd other fasts, es
a pecialy frequent and rigid ones, may be prejudicial, not only to their healths, of which they are bound to be careful, but to their moral dispositions, and their very understandings. It may render them less, instead of more capable of serious reflection and religious exercises : it may unfit them to go through their proper business in common life: it may incline them strongly to moroseness of temper. And though the ill-humour, into which people wilfully work themselves upon fasting days, is to be ascribed to themselves only: yet so much of it, as abstinence really brings upon them against their wills, is to be ascribed to that; and is no small evil. But farther yet : lowspirited and scrupulous persons may, for want of supporting their strength of body, on which the firmness of the mind in part depends, by a sufficient quantity of food, increase their fears and perplexities most surprisingly: till at length there will scarce remain a single action, that they can do or abstain from with a quiet conscience. And, at the same time, on the other hand, persons of warm and enthusiastic imaginations are heated by long and strict fasts beyond any thing : till they feel impulses, hear voices, see visions ; forget the world to which they belong,