by Archibald Alexander
Yesterday a pious young minister of the Baptist denomination called upon me, and said he wished I would write a short article for the Messenger on the duty of fasting. He observed, that among Christians of our day he feared this duty was much neglected.
I referred him to a valuable discourse of the late venerable Doctor Miller on that subject, published some years since in the National Preacher, which he said he had not seen. I told him that I was not in favor of periodical fasts once a week or once a month; that there were times when we ought not to fast: as our blessed Saviour said to the disciples of John, in answer to their question, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? Can the children of the bridechamber mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, then shall they fast."
To this my young friend assented, and observed, that soon after his conversion he determined to fast one day in the week; but after practising this for some time, he found that it was degenerating into a formal observance, and he gave up the practice. He remarked that it was evident from one declaration of our Lord, that there were cases of obstinate evils from which deliverance was not obtained without adding fasting to our prayers. The reference was to Matt. 17:21: "Howbeit, this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting."
Fasting has made a part of all religions, true and false, and is much practised among the heathen, the Jews, the Mohammedans, the Romanists, and the oriental Christians. And because the practice has been turned to superstition, Protestants have too much neglected this duty. But eminently devout men in all ages have found fasting an auxiliary to devotion and to the mortification of sin.
Some professors neglect it altogether, under the false notion that literal fasting is not enjoined, but only penitence and abstaining from sin. There are, however, degrees of fasting, both as to the time of abstinence from food, and whether the abstinence be total or partial. The Ninevites, when brought to repentance by the preaching of Jonah, tasted neither bread nor water for three whole days. This was a severe fast. Daniel fasted for three full weeks; but this was not a total abstinence, for he says, "I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth." And Peter's fast, when he saw the vision of the sheet let down, was only until the ninth hour, that is, three o'clock of our day.
External fasting, without corresponding internal penitence and humiliation, is hypocrisy, and such fasting is severely reproved by the prophet. See Isaiah 63. And God says, "Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your heart, and not your garments." And our Lord warns us against ostentation in our fasting: "Moreover, when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance; for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily, I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly."
One special occasion on which the apostles and their companions were accustomed to fast, was when ministers were to be ordained and sent forth. Thus we read in Acts 13:2, "As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away." And again, chap. 14:23, "And when they had ordained elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord." Is this practice now followed by those who ordain? As fasting renders some persons sick, so that it hinders their devotion, such should adopt partial abstinence; for the Lord will have mercy, and not sacrifice. But its causing pain is one end of fasting, that we may "afflict our souls."
From Practical Truths by A. A.