The Sermon On The Mount
"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 thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly."
Our present passage brings before us still another subject upon which multitudes of professing Christians are in much need of instruction. Personally we have never heard a sermon or "Bible reading" on fasting, and very little has come to our notice thereon which was written during the last forty years, and most of that "little" left very much to be desired. From conversations and communications with others it appears that our experience has been by no means a singular one, and therefore we do not feel it necessary to apologize for devoting two chapters to the above verses. Following our usual custom, we will first deal with our passage generally and topically, comparing with it the teaching of other sections of Scripture on this theme; and then consider our verses more specifically, seeking to expound and apply their terms.
Four hundred years ago Calvin wrote in his Institutes, "Let me say something on fasting: because many, for want of knowing its usefulness undervalue its necessity, and some reject it as altogether superfluous; while on the other hand, where the use of it is not well understood, it easily degenerates into superstition." Upon this matter the passing of the centuries has produced little or no improvement, for the very conditions which confronted this eminent reformer prevail extensively today. If on the one side Romanists have perverted a means unto an end, and have exalted what is exceptional to a principal part of their religious worship, Protestants have gone to the opposite extreme, allowing what was practiced by primitive Christians to sink into general disuse.
Though there may have been much formality and hypocrisy in some who attended to this religious duty, yet that is no reason why the practice itself should be discountenanced and discontinued. Nowhere in our Lord's teaching is there anything to discourage religious fasting, but not a little to the contrary. Most certainly He was not reprehending this practice in the passage before us, rather was He uttering a caution against hypocrisy therein. By saying, "When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites," He takes it for granted that His disciples will fast-as much so as He assumes by His "when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites" (v. 3) that they would be men 6f prayer. Christ was here engaged in condemning the wicked perversion of the Pharisees, from which He also took occasion to give us valuable instruction upon our present theme.
When the heart and mind are deeply exercised upon a serious subject, especially one of a solemn or sorrowful kind, there is a disinclination for the partaking of food, and abstinence therefrom is a natural expression of our unworthiness, of our sense of the comparative worthlessness of earthly things, and of our desire to fix our attention upon things above. Fasting, either total or partial, seems to have been connected with seasons of peculiarly solemn devotion in all ages. When Jonah testified to a guilty city, "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown" (i.e. if it did not repent and turn to God), we are told, "So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed . . . Let neither man nor beast . . . feed nor drink water and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way . . .Who can tell if God will turn and repent and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?" (Jonah 3:5-9).
There are a number of features about the above incident which are to be carefully noted, for they throw not a little light on several aspects of our present subject. This was no ordinary occasion when the Ninevites fasted, but a time of exceptional gravity, when the black clouds of Divine judgment hung heavy over their heads. It was not a fast undertaken by the individual, but one into which the whole populace entered. It was designed to express their deep humiliation before God and was an appendage unto their crying "mightily" to Him. It was not a duty performed in response to any express commandment from the Lord, but was entered into voluntarily and spontaneously. Its object was to divert the fierce anger of heaven against them, and as the closing verse of Jonah 3 tells us, "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and God repented of the evil that He had said [provisionally] that He would do unto them; and He did it not."
Our first main division, then, shall be occasions of fasting. Let us preface our remarks thereon by pointing out that what we are about to consider particularly is extraordinary fasting in contradistinction from ordinary. As we shall yet see, Scripture mentions partial fasting as well as total abstinence from food. There is an ordinary fasting which is required from all men, especially from the saints, namely an avoidance of gluttony and surfeiting, a making a "god" of our belly (Phil. 3:19). This ordinary fasting consists in temperance and sobriety, whereby the appetites are restrained from the use of food and drink which exceeds moderation. We are to be temperate in all things, and at all times. Rightly did the godly Payson point out: "Fasting is not so much by total abstinence from food beyond accustomed intervals, as by denying self at every meal, and using a spare and simple diet at all times-a course well adapted to preserve the mind and body in the best condition for study and devotional exercises."
Now the occasion of an extraordinary religious fast is when a weighty cause thereof is offered. This is when some judgment of God hangs over our heads, such as the sword, famine or pestilence. In circumstances of grave danger the pious kings and prophets of Israel called on the people to engage in fasting as well as prayer. As examples of this we may cite the following. When the hand of the Lord lay heavily upon Israel and thousands fell in battle before the Benjamites, "Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up and came unto the house of God, and wept and sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until even, and offered burnt offerings" (Judges 20:26). When the Moabites, Ammonites and others combined against Jehoshaphat in battle, we are told that he "set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah gathered themselves together, to ask help of the Lord" (2 Chron. 20:3, 4). In a time of national calamity Joel cried, "Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly . . . and cry unto the Lord" (1:14).
The second general cause and occasion for fasting is when God is earnestly sought for some special and particular blessing or the supply of some great need. Thus on the annual day of atonement, when remission was sought for the sins of the nation, the Israelites were most expressly forbidden to do any manner of work, no not in their dwellings, but instead to "afflict their souls" (Lev. 23:29-32). So too upon the exodus of the Jews from Babylon Ezra tells us, "Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of Him a right of way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance" (8:21).
In addition to these examples of public fasting, Scripture also mentions that of many pious individuals. When his child by the wife of Uriah was smitten with sore sickness, we are told that "David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went and lay all night upon the earth" (2 Sam. 12:16). On another occasion, when sorely beset by enemies, David declared, "But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting" (Ps. 35:13). When Nehemiah was informed that the remnant of his people left of the captivity in the provinces were "in great affliction and reproach" and the wall of Jerusalem was broken down and its gates burned with fire, he "sat down and wept and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven" (1:4). When Daniel ardently desired the deliverance of the children of Israel from their captivity in Babylon he "Set his face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes" (9:3).
It is a great mistake to suppose that either public or private fasting on the part of the pious was a practice confined to the Old Testament era. Of Anna we read, "She departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day" (Luke 2:37). When devout Cornelius ardently desired more light from God concerning the Messiah, he fasted and prayed (Acts 10:30). When the church at Antioch sought God's special blessing upon the success of His servants in the Gospel, they "fasted" (Acts 13:3). In like manner when Paul and Silas were about to establish local churches, they "prayed with fasting" (Acts 14:23), because in a matter of such importance they looked for special directions from God. In 1 Corinthians 7:5, the apostle gives plain intimation that it was the ordinary and proper custom of Christians to give themselves to "prayer and fasting" when special needs called for the same.
Next, we will .consider the manner of fasting. Fasting consists in an abstinence from meat and drink, yet not such an abstinence as would impair health or injure the body-which is forbidden in Colossians 2:23, and would clash with Christ's directions that we should pray for our "daily bread." It is the abstinence from such meals as would interfere with an uninterrupted and earnest waiting upon God. Such fasting would primarily be a denying ourselves of all dainties, as Daniel "ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine into his mouth, neither did he anoint himself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled" (10:3). Coupled with the sparsest possible diet, there must also be an abstaining from all the delights of nature (see Joel 2:15, 16). All of this is designed for the afflicting of ourselves, as Paul in his "I keep under my body and bring it into subjection" (1 Cor. 9:27).
Ere proceeding farther it should be pointed out that there may be a prolonged abstinence from food and yet no fasting in the scriptural sense of the term. One may observe a weekly fast, and observe it strictly, and yet not fast at all if it be no expression of an evangelical sorrow of the soul. The mere non-partaking of food is not fasting any more than the mere moving of the lips is prayer; and certainly there is nothing whatever of it in the denying to oneself meats while yet the hunger is appeased with eggs and fish. Unless our fasting be that which marks such a heartfelt sense of sin and of seeking unto God as will brook no diversion from its purpose, moving us spontaneously and for the time being with a lack of appetite for all things else, then it is but a superstition, a piece of morbid formalism.
God is not to be imposed upon by any mere outward performance, no matter how solemnly and decorously it be executed. It is at the heart He ever looks, and unless our hearts be in our fasting we do but mock the Most High with an empty show. Of old He asked Israel, "When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto Me, even to Me?" (Zech. 7:5). On another occasion He refused to accept the fasting of the people because they were flagrantly setting at naught the precepts of the Second Table, saying, "Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free?" (Isa. 58:5, 6). And at a later date the Lord gave orders, "Rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God" (Joel 2:13).
From the very nature of the case we should never let our minds dwell on the act of fasting, as though we had therein discharged a duty. Fasting is not to be undertaken for the mere sake of fasting. It is not as the doing of penance that we are ever to abstain from food, neither is it as though the abstaining were a process of holiness; still less must we regard it as in any wise a meritorious performance. Private fasting must issue from an urge within and not because it is imposed from without. Private fasting should be spontaneous, the result of our being under a great stress of spirit, and the simple act itself be entirely lost sight of in the engrossing fervour which prompted it. There had been little or no practical difficulties on the subject of fasting if these simple rules had been understood and observed.
And yet, so prone are we to run to extremes, a word of caution is needed here lest what has just been said above be put to an evil use. It would be quite wrong to draw the conclusion, seeing I feel no inward urge to engage in fasting, therefore I am discharged from this duty. The Christian reader should at once perceive that such an argument would be quite invalid in connection with other spiritual duties. If I feel no appetite for the heavenly manna or no desire to draw near unto the throne of grace, then it is my bounden duty penitently to confess unto God my coldness of heart and beg Him to stir me up afresh unto a hearty use of the appointed means. The same principle most certainly holds good in connection with fasting.
The particular seasons for fasting are to be determined mainly by the governmental dealings of God, and therefore those who would improve such seasons must be strict observers of the workings of Providence: otherwise God may be calling aloud for weeping and girding of sackcloth, while we hear not His call but indulge in joy and feasting (Isa. 22:12, 13). As to the amount of time to be spent in either individual or corporate fasting, the duty-the exigencies of the situation-should regulate it and not it the duty. Various lengths of time are mentioned in different cases (see 2 Sam. 12:16; Esther 4:16; Dan. 10:2, 3). "Wherefore I judge that none are to be solicitous as to what quantity of time, more or less, they spend in these exercises, so that the work of the time bc done. Nay, I very much doubt, men lay a snare to themselves in tying themselves to a certain quantity of time in such cases" (Thomas Boston).
Let us now consider the purpose of fasting. Various designs are mentioned in Scripture. The first end in fasting is the denying of self, the bringing of our body and its lusts in subjection unto the will and Word of God. Said the Psalmist, "I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach" (Ps. 69:10). Before men, yes; but not so before God. Our Lord warned us, "Take heed to yourselves lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness" (Luke 21:34). The body is made heavy, its senses dulled, and the mind rendered sluggish by much eating or drinking, and thereby the whole man becomes unfit for the duties of prayer and hearing of the Word. That this unfitness may be avoided and that the lusts of the flesh may be mortified and subdued, fasting is to be duly engaged in.
The second end of fasting is to stir up our devotions and to confirm our minds in the duties of hearing and prayer. In this connection it is to be duly noted that fasting and prayer are almost always linked together in the Scriptures, or it would be more correct to say "prayer and fasting" (Matthew 17:21; Acts 13:3 and 14:23) to intimate that the latter is designed as an aid to the former, chiefly in that the non-preparation and participation of meals leaves us the freer for uninterrupted communion with God. When the stomach is full, the body and mind are less qualified for the performance of spiritual duties. For this reason we are told Anna "served God with fastings and prayers," the design of the Holy Spirit being to commend her to our notice for the fervency of her spirit, which she evidenced in this manner.
The third end in fasting is to bear witness unto the humiliation and contrition of our hearts, for the denying ourselves of nature's comforts suitably expresses the inward sorrow and grief we feel over our sins. "Proclaim a fast" is the Lord's requirement (Joel 1:14) when He would have His people testify their contrition Surely it is obvious that the participation of creature dainties or the indulgence of self in similar ways is most incongruous at a time when we are mourning before God and declaring our repentance. When convicted of our iniquities God requires us to turn unto Him with fasting and mourning and with the rending of our hearts.
The fourth end of fasting is to admonish us of our guilt and uncleanness, to put us in mind of our utter unworthiness of even the common mercies of Providence, that we deserve not food nor drink. It is designed to make us conscious of our wants and miseries, and thereby make us the more aware of our sins. If the Ninevites were made to perceive the propriety of abstaining from food and drink when the sword of Divine judgment was hanging over their heads (Jonah 3), then how much more should we, with our vastly greater light and privileges, be sensible of the same. If we duly "consider our ways" (Haggai 1:5) must we not feel that sackcloth and ashes well become us? The main peril to guard against in our fasting will be considered in our next.