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Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
IT was a general received command, and an acknowledged rule of practice in all ages and places of the Christian world, that we are to hear the church; except only of late, since we began to be wiser than the world, and holy above the scripture; from which this text has been, as it were, discanonized, and its authority struck out of date. But no wonder if the church then had no jurisdiction, when it had scarce so much as a being; and that men did not use to hear it, when it grew almost impossible for them to see it; and if the disciples of those days regarded not much the casting out of evil spirits, who were chiefly busied about rejecting God’s ministers.
But heretofore, when men were led by the written word, and not by the ignis fatuus of a bold fancy, styling itself divine revelation, the church was always recognised as Christ’s court here upon earth, fully empowered and commissioned from him to decide all emergent controversies, to interpret doubtful commands, and to make wholesome sanctions and institutions, as particular occasions and the circumstances of affairs should require; that so it might appear, that the assistance of the Spirit promised to the church was not a vain thing or a mere verb.
Now it seemed good to the primitive church, acted 209by the immediate guidance of the Holy Ghost, to set apart the time of our blessed Saviour’s fasting and temptation in the wilderness, to be solemnized with the anniversary exercise of abstinence, and other holy austerities, for the subduing the flesh, quickening the spirit; that so we might conform to Christ, and worship the author of our religion with the devotions of imitation.
Thanks be to God, our church is lately come out of the wilderness; yet let it not cease to imitate what our Saviour did when he was there. I confess the blessed Jesus is a pattern above the imitation of mortality; fitter to terrify than to excite our endeavours; a copy to be admired, not to be transcribed.
His whole life was a continued miracle; in every instance of behaviour his divinity beamed through his humanity, and every action was a cast of his omnipotence; and miracles, I acknowledge, were never intended for precepts; nor is any man bound to be omnipotent, divine, or an angel, nor to do such things as are only the effects of such perfections.
Yet even this strange, high, inimitable fasting of Christ may be stripped of the miracle, and, by due, qualified proportions, found a moral duty: for though to fast forty days were miraculous, and so not at all concerning us, yet the ends of Christ’s fasting, which were to enjoy a more immediate converse with God, the better to fortify himself against the temptation of the Devil, and to fit himself for the execution of a great work laid upon him by the Father; these are all common to us, according to the due abatement of degrees; and therefore, where there is some proportion in the duty, there ought to be the same in the use of the means.210
Nay, we may advance the argument further, and dispute thus: That if he who had no corruption or disorder in his nature, to weaken or betray the motions of the spirit, found it yet fit to undergo these austerities and violences to the flesh; how much more ought we, who find a continual rebellion in all our appetites against the spiritual inclinations of the mind, to endeavour, by such religious arts, to subdue those luxuriancies to the obedience of reason and the dictates of the spirit?
Let us therefore follow Christ, though at a distance; for if we may but touch the hem of our great exemplar by the small beginnings of a faithful imitation, we shall find a virtue coming out from him, to the curing of the flux of sin, and the bloody issue of the most deadly, threatening corruption.
We are commanded to be like Christ; but in every likeness philosophy teaches that there are some degrees of dissimilitude, because no likeness amounts to an identity: and when he bids us be perfect, he still intends it according to that economy of perfection that is incident to an imperfect nature. Wherefore let us not distinguish ourselves out of duty, nor make our ease our religion, but suspect that those arguments are very likely to proceed from the flesh, that tend to the flesh’s gratification. Though we cannot reach Christ in the miracle of the performance, yet we may follow him in the sincerity of the attempt.
Certain it is, from the united testimony of many of the most experienced followers of Christ, that these abstinencies and sour rudiments of self-denial have a signal influence, both to the procuring of mercies, and to the removal of impending judgments.211
He that thus hungers is sure to be filled. Fasting may prevent starving, and wearing sackcloth for a while keep us from wearing it all our days. It is able to reverse a decree, and to remand the word out of God’s mouth. Ahab himself found it so; and what rewards may we hope for to a true, when so great did attend even the forced abstinencies of an unsound repentance?
As for the words: it is much doubted by expositors, what kind of evil spirit is here intended by our Saviour, which he affirms not to be dispossessed but by prayer and fasting.
Some understand it generally of all evil spirits, contrary to the express letter and sense of the place. Others, of an evil spirit of a peculiar and extraordinary fierceness. But others, more appositely and judiciously, interpret it of an evil spirit having had long and inveterate possession of the party out of whom it was cast; which appears from the ninth of Mark, where the spirit is said to have possessed him παιδιόθεν, even from a child.
I shall now, by a parallel application, improve the words beyond this particular occasion, to their general reason, and extend what was here spoke of, the casting out the Devil as to his person, to an ejection of him as to his works. And whereas the duty of fasting is extraordinary, and a proper instrument to advance the heights and fervours of prayer, the sense of the words, as improvable into a standing, perpetual precept, is this:
That there are some corruptions and vices, which, partly by reason of a strong situation in our temper and constitution, partly by habit, custom, and inveterate continuance, grow so sturdy, and have so firm 212an hold of us, that they cannot be subdued and conquered, and throughly dispossessed, but with the greatest ardour and constancy of prayer, joined with the harshest severities of mortification.
This, therefore, is the genuine sense of the words; in which there are these two parts:
First, An intimation of a peculiar duty; prayer and fasting.
Secondly, The end and design of it; which is, to eject and dispossess the unclean spirit.
These are the parts of the text, the entire discussion of which I shall manage in these three particulars.
I. To take a survey of the extent of this text.
II. To shew the due qualifications of it, that render it both acceptable to God, and efficacious to ourselves.
III. To shew how it comes to have such an influence in dispossessing the evil spirit, and subduing our corruptions.
I. For the first of these: this duty of fasting admits of several kinds and degrees; for in fasting as well as feasting we may find variety.
1st, The first kind is of constant, universal exercise; universal, both because it obliges at all times, and extends to all persons. And this is nothing but a temperate, sober, and restrained use of the creature; in abridging the appetites of nature for the designs of religion; in bringing liberty to the love of reason, and contracting the latitude of things lawful into the narrower compass of expedients.
He that ventures to the utmost verge of his Christian liberty stands upon a precipice; the utmost bounds of lawful are the borders and immediate confines 213of unlawful. And when the Devil thus sets a man upon the pinnacle, he may be sure that he hath designed him for a temptation. To dwell near the sin, without sometimes stepping into it, is very hard. Neighbourhood is still the occasion of visits.
Upon this cause Christ has placed the spirit and soul of his religion in self-denial and a renouncing the pleasures, softnesses, and caresses of worldly delights; as knowing, though pleasure and a full enjoyment is in itself not evil, yet such is the weakness of our nature, that it fails and melts under the encounter, and by its very enjoyments is betrayed into the snares of sin and the regions of death.
It is lawful for us to feast with Job’s sons, yet feasting may sometimes pull the house about our ears. When Amnon’s heart is merry with wine, then the ambush is ready to rise and strike him. Fulness of bread was the occasion of Sodom’s sin, and Sodom’s sin was the occasion of its destruction. Temperance, therefore, the only easy and constant fast, is the great duty of a Christian life; a sure and sovereign instrument of mortification.
And whosoever struggles with any unruly corruption will perhaps find, that the constant turn of a well-guided abstinence will, in the issue, give a surer despatch to it than those extraordinary in stances of total abstinence and higher severities, only undertook for a time. As a landflood, it carries a bigger stream, and comes with a mightier force and noise, yet presently dries up and disappears; but the emissions of a fountain, though gentle and silent, yet are constant and perpetual; and whereas the other, being gone, leaves nothing behind it but slime and 214mud, this, wheresoever it flows, gently soaks into verdure and fertility.
This constant temperance, therefore, is by all means intended by the rules of Christianity; the constancy of which, running through our whole lives, makes abstinence our diet, and fasting our meat and drink.
We used to say, A good conscience is a continual feast; but surely it is in a great measure the effect and product of such a continual fast. Wherefore let us still secure ourselves by the guards of a temperate and reserved sobriety; remembering, that it was the sop that slid the Devil into Judas, and the glutton that ushered in the traitor; and that, in all spiritual surprises, it is the bait that is most likely to betray us to the hook.
2dly, The second kind of fast is a fast of a total abstinence, when for some time we wholly abstain from all bodily repasts. This is the highest kind, and therefore, in ordinary speech, has engrossed the name of fast only to itself, as the name of the whole kind is not unusually confined to the principal member of the division.
We have instances of this frequently in the Old Testament and in the New; in the disciples of John, in Cornelius, and others. And it is not to be questioned, but that this is the fast chiefly intended in the words of the text; that great instrument to exorcise and drive out the evil spirit from a defiled and a possessed heart.
Every remedy is successful according to the proportion it bears to the distemper: and certainly a cure is not likely to be wrought, where an ordinary 215remedy encounters an extraordinary disease; where the plaster is narrow, and the wound broad.
Temperance is good, but that is to be our continual diet; and surely that man is not like to recover, who makes his food his physic. Where the humour is strong and predominant, there the prescription must be rugged, and the evacuation violent. We must leave the road of nature, when nature itself is disordered, and the principles of life in danger.
Possibly a man may have a transient disrelish and loathing of his sin; but have these loathings rested only in thought, or have they improved into contrary resolutions? Suppose they have, and a man has fully resolved against his sin, yet has hi watered those resolutions with prayers and tears, the great conveyance of that strength which alone can actuate the resolutions? Admit also, that he may have prayed and humbled himself before God, yet still perhaps his corruption is vigorous, and snaps asunder all his resolutions, tramples upon his prayers, and triumphs over his tears and repentances, upon the periodical returns of a temptation, or the critical workings of a bad temper.
Why now the reason of this unconquered activity of his sin, after all these courses taken against it, may be because the place of its strength is yet untouched. Its lock is only hampered, and not cut oft by a thorough removal of the fuel and materials of concupiscence in a severe abstinence from things sometimes necessary: for a distempered stomach will digest aliment into poison.
To eat and to drink is necessary; but even necessity must give place to extremity. And the physician is merciful, if he pines his patient into a recovery. In 216this case we encounter sin in the body, like a besieged enemy; and such an one, when he has once engarrisoned himself in a strong hold, will endure a storm, and repel assaults: you must cut off his supplies of provision, and never think to win the fort, till hunger breaks through the walls, and starves him into a surrender.
3dly, The third kind of fast is an abstinence from bodily refreshments, in respect of a certain sort or degree, and that undertook for some space of time; such as is this quadragesimal solemnity; in which, for the space of some weeks, the church has, in some select days, enjoined a total abstinence from flesh, and a more restrained use of other refreshments.
I am not ignorant, that the same obligation conies also from the civil magistrate, and that for secular ends; yet I see not why there may not be a friendly correspondence between both these; or why one should be thought to exclude the other, which it only confirms: certainly a law ought not to be the weaker for being enacted by a double authority.
I know also, that the celebration of this solemnity is much controverted; but then it is by those who doubt as much whether they ought to obey the magistrate, and to renounce the principles of religion. But just as in the apostles times, so in ours also, the church has been troubled with disputes concerning meats; and whether it be lawful to oblige men, under the gospel, in the use of things in their nature indifferent.
Some, who would be reforming while they should be obeying; who are too holy to need fasting; have too much of the spirit to stand in fear of the flesh; 217and who still express God’s mercies by marrow and fatness, and such other expressions as please their palate, and leave a relish upon the tongue that speaks them; so that they cannot be so properly said to preach sermons as dinners; of which they put their auditors in mind long before they have done:—these, I say, will hear of nothing but of liberty; they must have elbowroom at their meat: and as for Lent, they defy it; it is popish, antichristian, and idolatrous: and so, their conscience being fallen into their stomach, what one finds troublesome, the other easily concludes superstitious.
But who shall be judges and arbitrators in this case? The scripture, which is to be the rule, is the same, and open to the allegation of both parties. But who shall interpret and apply this rule? Now, in every science and profession, the most rational way to resolve doubts arising in it has been, either to consult with all or most of the professors of it, or with some that are most eminent for their skill and knowledge in it.
Of the first sort, in matters of Christianity, we have the church of God congregated in councils: of the second, we have those ancient writers, famous in their ages for their profound acquaintance with evangelical mysteries, whom we call fathers: let us therefore see the judgment of both these in this particular.
For councils, I shall mention one for all; the council of Nice, in which we find both mention and approbation of this quadragesimal fast. Add to this the canons of the apostles; in the sixty-eighth of which we read the institution of the same: which canons, though they were not writ by the apostles 218themselves, yet they are of great, undoubted antiquity, and consequently of no less authority in the several ages of the church.
As for the suffrage of the fathers; I could bring St. Basil and St. Chrysostom, of the Greek church; St. Austin and St. Jerom, the two great luminaries of the Latin.
Of which, St. Austin, in his 119th epistle to Januarius, has these words: Quadragesima sane jejuniorum habet authoritatem et in veteribus libris et in evangelio. And St. Jerom, in his epistle to Marcella, delivers his mind to the same purpose: Nos unam quadragesimam, secundum traditionem apostolorum, toto anno, tempore nobis congruo, jejunamus. Also in his Comment upon the fifty-eighth of Isaiah, he speaks to the like intent: Dominus diebus quadraginta in solitudine jejunavit, ut nobis solennes jejuniorum dies relinqueret.
I do not desire to multiply quotations, but had rather weigh than number them; and therefore these shall be sufficient.
And now let any one judge whether it is fitter for us to steer our practice according to the ducture of the universal church, or the broken voice of a particular faction, compared to that, both small in number and inconsiderable in qualification? Must the gray hairs of antiquity bow down to the upstart appearance of novelty? especially since the same faction that decry fasting in Lent have publicly kept a national fast upon the day of Christ’s nativity, in the year 1645; the first fast that was kept by Christians on that day since Christianity saw the sun: but it seems, Christianity and reformation are two things.
They talk of reforming, and of coming out of Egypt, 219(as they call it;) but still, though they leave Egypt, they will he sure to hold fast to their flesh-pots. And the truth is, their very fasts and humiliations have been observed to be nothing else but a religious epicurism, and a neat contrivance of luxury; while they forbear dinner, only that they may treble their supper; and fast in the day, like the evening wolves, to whet their stomachs against night.
But these principles and practices are too rank for the strict, pure, and mortifying severities of Christianity. Let us, therefore, poor mortals, who dare not be perfect above our example, content ourselves to follow our great Master, and not be- ashamed to be deceived with the universal church.
And truly, he that with spiritual design and prudent usage shall manage this religious solemnity, as with Christ he may be said to fast, so with Christ also he may conquer the tempter. And let all schisms and factions, and pretended reformers, ring about his ears peals of popery, will-worship, and superstition; yet still, like Christ in the wilderness, he may converse with God, though his abode be amongst such wild beasts.
And thus I have despatched the first general head of this discourse; which was to shew the extent and latitude of this duty of fasting, in the several sorts and kinds of it: I must now close up what 1 have spoke upon this subject with this cautional observation:
That in the whole economy of the gospel, mercy is predominant; and therefore the rigour of every precept is to be sweetened and reduced to this standing rule, as the vital reason running through every evangelical institution. We cannot but allow the 220great legislator of the new law to carry things with so much equity and evenness, as to fix upon the same law a different proportion of obligation, according to different tempers and occasions.
Now what Christ said upon another occasion may be said also of fasting; Every one cannot receive this saying. There may be a poison in abstinence, as well as in meats: and when natural weakness and infirmity will not reach the sweetness and perfection of the precept, it is the genius of the gospel to relax, and not to urge sacrifice, standing in competition with mercy.
Certainly he, that would make the rigours of the sabbath give way to the pulling of an ox or a sheep out of the ditch, would not now ruin a man, for whom even the sabbath was made, only to spare one of those. Where the performance depends upon a power rare and singular, it is there hard to make the duty universal. We know the body is subservient to the uses of the soul: but Christ never destroys one to save the other; nor bids any one put the knife to his throat so as to kill himself. We must distinguish between murder and mortification.
Christ commands no man to be a skeleton, or a walking ghost, or to throw away his health, in order to his salvation. A catarrh or a consumption is no man’s duty: self-denial may be a duty; but I am sure self-murder is a sin.
A potion may be sovereign and excellent, but not therefore to be equally administered to all. No application can be successful, but what is managed with caution: and where there is caution, there must be distinction. Every vessel is not alike fit for new wine: an old, crazy cask betrays its burden, and 221sinks under the vigour and spirituous emanations of too generous a liquor.
There is no soul but may pray, and be pious; but there are many bodies that cannot fast. It were a sad thing, if a man should be forced to make his tablecloth his windingsheet, and his poison his religion. No, undoubtedly: all the injunctions of Christ carry in them nothing but sweetness, convenience, and a tender compliance with the necessities and frailties of human nature.
The weakness of some tempers perform upon them the very same effects that fasting works upon others; and therefore those severities, which in others would be only an abridgment of their luxury, would in them be an intrenchment upon their being; and not only cut short their pleasure, but their very existence.
As soon as Jesus Christ had raised one from the dead, we read that he commanded something to be given her to eat, Mark v. 43; and, I am confident, the severity of no institution could have induced him, at that time, to have bid her fast; unless he only raised her from the state of death, that he might send her to it again.
The height of prudence is, in all precepts, laws, and institutions, to distinguish persons, times, and occasions, and accordingly to discriminate the obligation; and upon the same exigence of justice to dispense with it in some, upon which it confirms it in others. And prudence is but one part of Christianity, which takes in all moral virtues with advantage and addition; and what is absurd in the sanctions of right reason, will never be warranted by the rules of religion. Wherefore, as to the matter in hand, I shall 222comprise all in this one word: let the observation of this solemn time be so strict, as not to bend to any man’s luxury; so dispensable, as not to grate upon his infirmity.
II. I come now to the second general head proposed for the discussion of this subject; which is to shew, what are the qualifications that must render this duty of fasting both acceptable to God, and efficacious to this great purpose.
To give men a right information concerning which, I think to be a matter of very great moment; as perceiving that men egregiously abuse themselves in the practice of this duty, spoiling it with strange apprehensions, and loading it with many foreign and preternatural strictnesses, for which they will one day receive but small thanks, either from God or from themselves. The truth is, the sum of all their miscarriages about it seems to lie in this, that they depress it into a bodily exercise; which the apostle affirms to profit little; while they acquiesce barely in this, that they have fasted so long or so often; not at all considering in what manner or to what end: whereas, indeed, the former is but the mere bulk and rude draught of this duty; and these latter only stamp it divine, and make it spiritual.
Wherefore I shall lay down four conditions or properties, without a joint concurrence of all which, this duty of fasting can neither be pleasing to God, nor effectual to dispossess the unclean spirit, in the mortification of any strong corruption.
1st, The first is, that it is to be used, not as a duty either necessary or valuable for itself, but only as an instrument. There are some duties that carry in them an absolute necessity; as being founded upon 223the necessary relation that the creature bears towards God, in respect of its being created by him, and its depending upon him; as also upon the relation that one creature bears toward another, arising from their natural equality and cognation.
Of the first sort are our loving God, adoring him, adhering to him, with the utmost exertion of all the powers and faculties of the soul; demeaning ourselves with that humility and prostration of spirit, that becomes poor shadows before sell-sufficiency, weakness before omnipotence; a creature of yester day, and but for a day, before him who is from everlasting to everlasting. In short, as it becomes a man to behave himself towards that divine power, from the arbitrary disposals of whose pleasure he first received his breath, and still holds his being.
Of the second sort are all the duties we owe to our neighbour, in the rank and condition our creation has placed us. As, that we bear a benign affection towards him; entertain a concernment for him; upon all occasions advance his good and emolument; by no means intrench upon his happiness, by defrauding, slandering, defiling, or any ways circumventing those, whom God has joined with us in the society and common ligaments of nature and humanity.
Now all these actions, with their respective 1 branches and further improvements, are indispensably requisite, as parts of God’s image in us; and without which the decorum and offices of that station which every man holds both towards God and his fellow-creatures, cannot be sustained.
These, therefore, are the principal duties, and chief pillars of morality; and whatever becomes necessary over and above these, it is so only by way of 224supply and assistance, as helps and arts to promote the soul’s progress in these grand instances of duty.
For we must observe, that there is not only in the mind of man an ingenite sense of turpe and honestum, that constantly inclines him to the practice of such virtuous actions, but also a strong inclination of appetite, that, like a constant remora, stops and impedes the virtuous principle; and withal, like a bias, sways and carries him to what is vicious and irregular.
Upon this ground it is, that, to quicken the soul in a course of virtue, we must removere prohibens, and weaken the contrary principle of the sensitive appetite, which clogs and oppresses the other in all its due operations.
Now, since the seat of this appetite is the body, according to the various disposition of which, that becomes either lively or faint in its workings, it follows, that we must lay siege to this, and begin the assault here, as that great apostle and artist in the ways of holiness did before us, 1 Cor. ix. 27? I keep under my body, lest, having preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.
How this can be effected surer and better than by fasting, not only Christianity, but reason itself is yet to seek. It is this that curbs nature, circumscribes appetite, restrains the gaiety and exorbitance of desire, stops the career of luxury, by taking off its wheels.
He, whose nature is reduced and kept low by the disciplines of religion, is neither a slave to the suggestions of lust, pride, or idleness; their innate fuel is extinguished; and so all their proposals easily vanish, finding nothing to fasten upon. They are so 225far from being victorious, that to such an one they are scarce troublesome. He is so far from being subject to their tyranny, that he is not so much as vexed with their importunity.
Now, by all that has been said it appears, that fasting is required, not as a virtue, but as a help to virtue; and that, by controlling its hinderance, removing its impediments, subduing the emulations of a contrary principle, and so enabling it to act with freedom.
Otherwise, were there no reluctancy from the inferior appetites against a virtuous and a pious course, these arts and stratagems against the flesh would be superfluous, and we should have no more need of fasting, than the angels or the blessed spirits have of eating. Could the mariner sail with as much ease and safety in a storm, as he does in a calm, he would never empty or unlade his vessel.
Would a full, luxuriant body subserve the ends and execute the commands of the spirit, with as much readiness and agility as one that is disciplined to such compliances with hunger and hardship; God, who takes no delight to afflict the children of men, you may be sure, would not command us to afflict ourselves; certainly no abstinence would be then more our duty, than to abstain from fasting.
For is there any excellency in the thing itself to commend it to God? Does fasting perfume our sighs, or add a fragrancy to our prayers? Are the jejunia sabbatariorum sacrifices of so sweet a savour to the Almighty, that the offerings of justice, piety, and mercy, would be nothing valued by him, without the mixture of such incense?
Nay, let me add this one consideration, that fasting, 226as such, considered barely in itself, is so far from being of any value in the sight of God, that it is indeed an evil; not morally, I confess, but naturally; for whatsoever grieves or afflicts nature is an evil to it, and consequently fasting, being such an one, would never be allowed, much less commanded by God, if it were not sanctified by its subserviency to a moral good.
Let this therefore be fixed upon, that fasting is neither commanded, nor to be used, but merely as a spiritual instrument. And since it is the nature of all instruments to receive their value and worth from their fitness to produce those effects to which they are designed, I believe it would be no hard matter to unravel and run through most of the pompous austerities and fastings of many religious operators and splendid justiciaries.
Some of which neither know or design any other religion in this duty, but only that at such and such a time they forbore flesh, and made their meal of fish, which perhaps also they loved better. This, they think, is a notable piece of service to God; and so they rise from the table with their blind, besotted consciences as much applauding them, as if they had rose from a well-performed prayer.
But may I not say to such an one, Thou hypocrite! does God receive any honour at all from this? or does it at all discriminate thee from the epicure in his account, or in the final sentence that he shall pass upon both hereafter? May not he that eats fish and he that eats flesh go to the same place of dam nation, as well as the fish and flesh that they eat be served up to the same table?
Is there any spiritual design carried on in this abstinence? 227 Is the min of any vice drove at; the working of any corruption undermined and defeated by this means? These are the things that God looks at and requires, and which the very nature of the duty suggests; and without which it is but the carcass of a duty; dead and noisome; detestable before God, and irrational in itself.
2dly, The second condition of a religious fast is, that it be done with a hearty detestation of the body of sin, for the weakening of which it is designed. Whosoever duly undertakes a last, by the very nature of the duty is actually engaged in a war against his sin; and who ever fought valiantly against him whom he did not first hate heartily?
If we have not first wrought our minds to a settled dislike and a bitter disgust of sin as our mortal enemy, all our attempts against it will be faint and heartless, our mortifications treacherous, and our fastings frustraneous; much like David’s sending an army against Absalom, with a design to save him, and to deal with him gently.
It will be only an alarm to sin to put itself into a posture of defence, to retreat further into the soul, and there to rally together its strengths, and to se cure itself by a firmer possession.
It is most certain, that in the same degree that sin is amiable to us, our fast is odious to God, and looked upon by him only as a more solemn mockery and religious provocation.
It is not a mournful expression, a solemn dress, or a thin table, that God so much regards. It is the heart, and not the stomach, that he would have empty; and therefore, if a man carries a luxurious soul in a pining body, or the aspiring mind of a Lucifer 228in the hanging head of a bulrush, he fasts only to upbraid his Maker, and to disgrace his religion, and to heighten his final reckoning, till he becomes ten times more the son of perdition, than those who own their inward love of sin, by the open, undissembled enmities of a suitable behaviour.
Let us not deceive ourselves, nor take an estimate of our duty by false measures and fallacious judgments. He that obeys the injunctions of the church, that executes upon himself the afflicting rigours of external abstinences, he does well; but he has not therefore done all. Let him not count himself to have fasted to any purpose, if by it he has not got ground of his corruption, in some measure supplanted his sin, and estranged his affections from the beloved embraces of sinful objects.
But if, after all these spiritual arts and severities, the love of sin continues yet active and entire, let him assure himself, that his fasting will have no other effect upon him, than to send him back to the repeated practice of what he loves with a fiercer and a keener appetite. The vicissitudes of restraint will only endear the returns of the enjoyment, and draw forth the desires with a quicker and more inflamed inclination.
He, therefore, that would manage this duty to his great and spiritual advantage, let him draw his eye from his table, and turn it unto his soul: let him overlook the spare furniture of one, and see whether there be not large provision laid up for lust in the other. Does he find any vile, unmortified desire in his heart? let him extinguish it: any sin in his hands? let him remove it: any blot upon his conscience? let him wash it out in the great laver of 229souls, the blood of Christ, conveyed to him by a true repentance.
But if these things are not the matter of his care, if he only forbears his meat, and not his sin, let such an one know, that the beasts of Nineveh kept as good a fast as he.
Add to all this, that the love of sin cherished in the heart makes fasting not only an impious, but also an unseemly practice. A man’s behaviour contradicts his designs: the duty does not set well upon him; it neither suits nor squares with his condition. In short, it is as improper and absurd to come to a fast with a foul heart, as to a feast with foul hands.
3dly, The third condition of a duly qualified fast is, that it be quickened and enlivened with prayer. The truth is, one of the greatest designs of this duty is, to be an opportunity of prayer, which is never performed with greater fervency, activity of spirit, and restlessness of importunity, than when nature is abridged, the humours of the body low, and consequently the avocations that it suggests to the mind small and conquerable.
Prayer is a duty running through all the periods and offices of our lives, but the days of fasting are properly the time of its solemnity. They are (as 1 may so say) the festivals of devotion. Prayer, joined with fasting, is like an apple of gold set off with a picture of silver. Now we have it at its best advantage; it shines bright, and it flames pure, like fire without the incumbrances of smoke, or the allay of contrary blasts.
And in the management of so great a duty, to be silent and obstinate, to have no petition to prefer, 230what is it but to transact the whole religion of the fast with our teeth? With a temper inferior to the ox and the brute animals, who low in their hunger, and speak aloud their wants to the hand that feeds them.
Nay, the very reason of a fast seems to require the society of prayer, for it must needs be undertook either for the procuring of some good, or the deprecation of some evil: and is there any way appointed either by God or nature, to represent the wants and grievances of our condition to heaven but by petition? by the solicitations of prayer, a duty whose strange and never-failing successes in all its holy contests with the Almighty have rendered it not only acceptable, but also invincible?
And, to add example to reason, what saint almost do we find in scripture, whose prayers did not at tend their fasts? Ezra and Nehemiah, David and Daniel, took this course; and, doubtless, while David’s knees were weak through fasting, as he expresses it in Psalm cix. 24, they were also employed in kneeling.
One would think, that in this performance the actings of grace might imitate the workings of nature; for is there any thing so proper to hunger as craving, or to a fast as supplication?
But where I enforce the conjunction of prayer with fasting, people must not think, that by prayer is meant a formal, customary attendance upon the offices of the church, undertook only out of a sordid fear of the eye of man, and then performed with weariness and irreverence, with seldom access, and more seldom devotion; of the duties of which persons I may say this, that if filth could be defiled, 231their prayers would defile their fastings, and their fastings their prayers; so that the joining of one to the other would be nothing else, than the offering up of carrion with the fumes and incense of a dung hill.
4thly, The fourth condition of a truly religious fast is, that it he attended with alms and works of charity. Amongst our other emptinesses, the evacuation of the purse is proper to this solemnity; and he that inflicts a thorough penance upon this, stops the fountain of luxury, and the opportunities of extravagance.
Charity is the grand seasonage of every Christian duty: it gives it a gloss in the sight of God, and a value in the sense of men; and he fasts properly, whose fast is the poor man’s feast; whose abstinence is another’s abundance.
In Isaiah lviii. 4, 5, 6, God roundly tells his people what was truly a fast, and what was no fast in his esteem: not to abstain from bread, but to deal it to the hungry; this is properly to fast: not to wrap ourselves in sackcloth, but to cover and clothe our naked brother; this is to be humbled.
To what purpose did the Pharisees fast twice a week, when they stayed their stomachs with devouring widows houses? solemnizing all their humiliations with the poor man’s groans and the orphan’s tears? To what spiritual intent did our zealots so much exercise themselves in this duty, when, as the prophet’s expression is in the same 58th chapter of Isaiah, they fasted for violence, and to fight with the fist of oppression, only that they might plunder and pillage with success; that they might make poor for 232others to relieve, and so provide objects for other men’s charity, instead of exercising their own?
But if the constant practice of the church may have any weight with us to determine our practice, we shall find, that works of charity were always looked upon as a proper appendage, if not also an integral part of this duty. In the same place that we read of Cornelius’s fasting, we find it ushered in with its two great supporters, prayers and alms.
And the truth is, if we may compare these two together, alms have so much the preeminence above prayer, that one is a begging of God, the other is a lending to him.
I have now assigned those conditions that I think are both necessary and sufficient to render our fastings effectual to this great end of dispossessing and throwing out the evil spirit.
I confess I have not mentioned the popish austerities of whippings, pilgrimages, and going barefoot, with twenty other such tricks (for they are no bet ter) which they prescribe and use upon these solemnities.
For if they were indeed of such sovereign force to help the soul in the practices of virtue, what is the reason that the scripture affords us not one instance of any saint that ever took this course? The Pharisees indeed disfigured and mangled themselves, and treated their bodies much after the same manner, till they made themselves more deformed in the eyes of God, than in the eyes of men.
Other examples besides these I know none; neither will reason supply the defects of tradition, or afford any solid argument to prove, that the evil 233spirit may be drove out of the soul, as the money changers were out of the temple, with whips and scourges. The Devil does not always go, when such weapons drive.
Those, indeed, whose religion lies no deeper than their skin, may whip themselves holy, and owe their progress in virtue to the slash and the whipcord: but surely there are none, who have not enslaved their intellectuals by an implicit faith, and tamely resigned themselves first to be deceived, and then to be ruled by impostors, who do not look upon all these carnal assistances of the spirit, as no better than the mortifications of the galleys, or the devotions of the whipping-post.
III. I come now to the third and last general head, which is, to shew how this duty of fasting comes to have such a peculiar influence in dispossessing the evil spirit, and subduing our corruptions.
And here, first by way of denial, we must observe, that it does not effect this work upon the soul.
1st. Either, first, by any causal force naturally inherent in itself; for if it did, fasting would certainly and constantly have this effect upon every man that used it; the contrary of which is undeniably manifest from experience. For how many thousands, after all these abridgments, find their corruptions recoil upon them with as great a force and fury as ever, their sinful appetites being not at all abated, but rather exasperated and renewed? Which shews, that the bare performance is in itself but a weak, unactive thing, and affects nothing but in the virtue of a superior power, which sometimes cooperates with, sometimes deserts the exercise of this duty.234
2dly. Neither, secondly, does fasting effect this great change upon us by way of merit, as procuring and engaging the help of that grace that does effect it: for besides that, it is upon irrefragable grounds of reason evident, that it is impossible for a created nature to merit any thing from God by way of reward. So there is over and above a peculiar poorness and vileness in this action, that degrades it to infinite distances and disproportions, from being able to challenge, at the hands of God, the dispensations of that grace upon which so much depends the weight and moments of eternal glory.
In the next place, therefore, to shew positively from whence this duty derives this great virtue.
1st, It receives it from divine institution. What soever God ordains by his word, he usually owns by his assistance; and therefore, in every thing made a duty by his command, if we bring but endeavour, he will undertake for the success. It is the concernment of his honour, to make his ordinances considerable; and this is done by making them conduits and conveyances of such a power, as may advance them above themselves to be instrumental to great and spiritual purposes.
Thus, when Moses fetched water out of the rock with a stroke of his rod, we are not to imagine that the rod did it by any force inherent in itself; but God having appointed it for such a work, was pleased to attend it with a miraculous effect, and so to credit his institution with the exercise of his omnipotence.
2dly, Fasting comes to be effectual to dispossess the evil spirit, by being a direct defiance to that disposition 235of body and mind upon which especially he works.
1st, For the body. The Devil never finds it so pliable to his motions, so instrumental to his designs, as when it is pampered and luxuriant. It is then like a strong liquor, it receives the infusions of poi son more intimately and deeply, and diffuses the same with stronger and more insinuating communications.
But a body subdued with abstinence, it is to the evil spirit like an unfurnished house; and then we know, that though there is no violence used to drive out an inhabitant, yet bad accommodations will make him dislodge.
2dly, For the mind. This is a singular corrective of that pride and garishness of temper, that renders it impatient of the sobrieties of virtue; but open to all the wild suggestions of fancy, and the impressions of vice.
Now, I say, lasting gives a wound to this disposition in a double respect.
1st, That it is a notable act of self-revenge; and self is the only lawful object of revenge. Paul reckons this amongst the heroic performances of an extraordinary repentance: 2 Cor. vii. 11, What care, what zeal has it wrought, nay, what revenge?
A man by this docs as it were retaliate an evil to the author, and by defrauding himself, he does fallere fallentem, which certainly is a pious fraud. It speaks a man hugely in earnest, and intent upon the work of mortification: for of all things in the world, revenge is never in jest; but in returning an evil, it always repays the principal with interest and advantage.236
2dly, Fasting corrects and brings down this ill temper of mind, by being an act of self-abasement and prostration. A man by this in a manner awards upon himself the very judgments which he deprecates. He acknowledges a forfeit of all God’s creatures, and therefore he neither touches nor tastes, lest in every morsel he should thieve and usurp; being by sin, as it were, an outlaw to the common issues of Providence.
Now the end of God’s judgments is not so much to revenge as to convince, and to lay a man low in the apprehensions of his own wretchedness. Wherefore, if a man thus judges himself, and not only kisses the rod, but also inflicts it with his own hand, he by this takes the work out of God’s, and makes an affliction superfluous, by anticipating its effect.
Much more might be spoke of this subject; but when we have took all these courses to eject the evil spirit, we must still remember, that it is to be the work of God himself, whom the blessed spirits adore, and whom the evil obey.
To whom therefore be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.237
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