The Christian Duty of Fasting: 2. The Outward Fast

Outward Fast

Dr. George Downame
The Christian’s Sanctuary, pp. 18-29

Thus we have heard that the religious fast is a solemn exercise of religion, to be undertaken of us, when we are humble suitors to the Lord, upon some urgent occasion. Let us now consider wherein this exercise doth consist, which is expressed in the rest of the definition, whereout we may gather, that this exercise consisteth on two points, viz. the outward or bodily, and the inward or spiritual exercise. The former, being the means to the latter; and the latter, being the end of the former: for the bodily exercise profiteth little or nothing at all, unless it be referred to the spiritual exercise, as a means to further it. 

Outward or Bodily Exercise 

The bodily exercise is an outward abstinence from food and some other commodities and delights of this life, and also from bodily labours and worldly business during the time of the fast, which is a Sabbath of humiliation. Here therefore we are to consider in respect of the outward exercise, from what we are to abstain, and for how long.

Abstinence from food

First, we are to abstain from food, from whence the whole exercise hath his name. And here we are to understand not an abstinence in part, nor a sober and abstemious use of diet; but a total abstinence both from meat and drink, so far as our health will permit: for this is required to the nature of a fast, as hath been declared, and further may be proved by the examples of such fasts as are recorded in the scriptures. David when he fasted and mourned for the death of Abner, swore that he would not taste bread or ought else till the sun were down. Ezra, when he fasted for the sin of the people, he did neither eat bread, that is, not so much as bread, nor drink water, that is, not so much as water. The fast which Esther required and performed, was the total abstinence from meat and drink. The Ninevites when they proclaimed a fast, gave a charge that none should taste any thing, whether it were meat or drink. And of Paul it is said in Acts 9, that for the time of his fasting and prayer, he did neither eat nor drink. That we should not think, either that fasting is an abstinence from meat and not from drink, or that it standeth only in choice of meats. And yet this total abstinence from meat and drink is not so strictly required, but that they whose health cannot bear it, may for their necessary sustenance take some little refreshing: for the Lord, who desireth mercy rather than sacrifice, doth not so require this outward abstinence, that it should impair our health, or make us unfit for his service in the spiritual exercise of the fast; but that it might further us therein. But here we must take heed, that we use not this liberty as an occasion to the flesh, pretending we cannot, when indeed we will not abstain.

Why abstinence from food and drink is required 

But now let us consider, why this abstinence from food is required, seeing the kingdom of God doth not stand in meat and drink, nor yet in abstinence therefrom: and that, as to eat and drink, so also to abstain therefrom, is in it self a thing indifferent. I answer, that although in and for it self it is not required; yet as it is referred to the inward and spiritual exercise, it is enjoined. For seeing the body is not only the habitation of the soul, but also it and the members thereof the instruments of the soul, whereby it exerciseth his several functions: who knoweth not, that the actions of the soul are either furthered by the good constitution of the body, or hindered by the indisposition thereof? and, that the disposition of our body doth much depend upon our diet? For if by intemperance and excess we overcharge our selves, then are our hearts made heavy, as our Saviour Christ saith, by surfeiting and drunkenness, and we become unfit for any good office. Or if we be too careful to pamper our bodies,  they will not be so pliable and obsequious to the soul, but rather become like pampered horses, which kick against their rulers. On the other side, if by too much abstinence we pine away our bodies, and deny necessary sustenance thereto, we do make our selves not only unfit for the service of God in the church or commonwealth, and for the discharge of our callings, but also guilty of self-murder: For the difference is not great, whether we murder ourselves at once, or by little and little pine and consume our selves away. And surely, where the Lord forbiddeth to kill, he forbiddeth us to kill our selves. Now if any in their superstitious conceit shall in this their not sparing of their body, whereby they make themselves guilty of murder, place religion or merit; then, as they are injurious to themselves, so also impious against God. That therefore the body may be serviceable to the soul, we are to diet it ordinarily, according to the rules of sobriety and temperance: so shall it neither be unruly to kick against the soul, nor unable to serve it. And this disposition of the body is the best ordinary disposition that may be, for the ordinary performance of our duty in the worship and service of God. Notwithstanding, if we shall have necessary occasion to humble our selves in prayer after an extraordinary manner, then is it necessary also, that to our ordinary temperance and sobriety, we should add the extraordinary exercise of fasting. 

First therefore, this abstinence from food is required, as a means of humiliation: for by afflicting the body, the mind is the better humbled. 

Secondly, as a sign and testimony of our humiliation: for in our abstinence from all food, we acknowledge our selves unworthy of a piece of bread or cup of water. 

Thirdly, as it causeth the bodily hunger and thirst, so it sharpeneth the spiritual hunger and thirst of the soul: and is therefore acknowledged by all men to be a notable means to increase the fervency of our prayer. 

Fourthly, as a testimony of our repentance, when we use it by way of godly  revenge upon our selves. 

Fifthly, as an admonition unto us, that we abstaining from our food, which is lawful, should much more abstain from whatsoever is unlawful.  

Lastly, as a means of alms giving, without any more impairing of our wealth than if we had not fasted, when that which is denied to the belly, is given to the poor. And thus, and in these respects, we are in the time of the fast to abstain from food.

Abstinence from sleep

Secondly, we are not only to abstain from all excess of sleep, but also to cut off so much of our ordinary sleep, as the want thereof be not an hinderance unto us in the worship of God, that so we may watch unto prayer. To which purpose, the faithful under the law, when they fasted, made choice to lie uneasily: that so they might take no more sleep than was necessary, and thereby also might shew themselves unworthy of their ordinary case and rest, and might (as I said) the better watch unto prayer. When David fasted and prayed in the behalf of his child, he lay upon the ground all night. When the Jews had notice of Haman’s conspiracy against them, many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. The prophet Joel exhorting the priests and elders to fast and mourn, because of the famine, he willeth them to lie all night in sackcloth. And in imitation of the faithful, Achab when he fasted, did also lie in sackcloth.

Forbearing costly apparel

Thirdly, we are to forbear our better or more costly apparel: especially if it be such as may hinder our humiliation, or minister some matter to our pride: for such is the vanity of our corrupt nature, and our proneness to pride, that although apparel was ordained to cover our nakedness, and to hide our shame, the consequent of our sin and falling from God: yet if it be any thing gay or costly, we take a pride therein. When as therefore the Israelites by worshipping the golden calf, had broken their covenant with the Lord, and had provoked him to cast them off: the Lord commanded Moses and the people to go towards the land Canaan, signifying, that he would be as good as his promise made to their fathers, in giving to them the land of promise: And to that end would send his Angel before them, to drive out the Canaanites and the other inhabitants, and to put them in possession: But as for himself, he would not be present among them (or if he should, he could not but consume them) neither would he have ought to do with them, namely, unless they turned unto him by repentance. For to that end he propounded that threatening, and withal appointed them to lay aside their ornaments and costly raiments, that he might know what to do with them, viz. if they repented, to receive them to mercy: if not, to cast them off. When as the people therefore heard this evil tidings, they sorrowed; preferring the favour of God before the fruition of the land of promise: whereby without God’s favour, they should have been fatted as cattle for the slaughter. And in testimony of their humiliation, they put not on their better attire, but laid aside their ornaments. And this they did, removing themselves from mount Horeb, as acknowledging themselves unworthy of God’s presence, which he had manifested on that mount. Where we see the laying aside of ornaments and costly attire, appointed by the Lord himself for a sign and testimony of humiliation. And to the same purpose, they used in those times to put on sackcloth; whereby is meant any course or homely garment. Which ceremony though it were abused by hypocrites in their private fasts to ostentation, that they might be seen of men: yet in publick fasts it was profitably observed for the example of others, whose humiliation might be the more increased, by the beholding one of another.

Abstaining from worldly delights

Fourthly, we are to abstain from all carnal delights, whereby any one of our senses might be pleased. For the sense of pleasure would abate our mourning, diminish the sense of our want, and hinder our unfeigned humiliation before God. Wherefore Jerome saith, that fasting is to abstain not only from meats, but also from all pleasures or allurements. And Augustine, The Scripture, saith he, teacheth a general fast, not from the concupiscence of meats only, but also from all pleasures of temporal delights. Thus are we not only to abridge our taste of meats, but also to contain our eyes from beholding vanities and pleasures, our ears from hearing mirth or musick, which in time of mourning is unseasonable, our nostrils, from pleasant odours and effeminate smells: Our sense of feeling, from the use of the marriage bed: which as all married persons are to forbear upon consent, for such a time of humiliation, that they may give themselves to fasting and prayer; so are the bridegroom and bride admonished to come forth of their marriage chamber, in the time of the fast. And all these are to be done, partly as means of our humiliation, in removing the impediments thereof; partly as signs of our humiliation, whereby we acknowledge our selves unworthy of these delights; and partly as tokens of our repentance, in that by way of godly revenge, because all our senses have sinned, we deprive them all of their several delights. And as we are to make all our senses thus to fast: so must we also rein our minds from sports and recreations, which would not only hinder our humiliation and godly sorrow, but also distract our minds from better meditations in sanctifying the fast. And thus have I shewed, that in our fast we are to abstain from food and some other helps and commodities of this life, and also from all outward delights and pleasures.

Rest from bodily labours and worldly business

Now it remaineth, that I should speak of rest from bodily labours and worldly business: For the time of the fast hath the nature of a Sabbath. And by the prophet Joel it is called dies interdicti, a solemnity, or day of prohibition, wherein men are forbidden to do any work: as the Lord expoundeth that word Lev. 23:36.  It is a day of prohibition, or a solemn day, You shall do no servile work therein. And Deut. 16:8 Six days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day, which shall be a solemnity or day of prohibition to the Lord thy God, thou shalt do no work. So Num. 29:35. For there is the same reason of the extraordinary Sabbath of humiliation, and of the ordinary. But the ordinary was a Sabbath or rest, in which no work was to be done: yea, the Lord threateneth to destroy that person from among his people, that shall do any work that day. And as I said before, the law of the weekly Sabbath is to be extended to other extraordinary Sabbaths: But on the weekly Sabbath, we may do no work, therefore not in this.

But let us consider also, why, and in what respects rest is required in the day of our fast, and bodily labours and worldly business forbidden. The Lord forbiddeth labour and worldly business, and commandeth rest on every Sabbath: not because simply he either liketh of rest, or disliketh labour; but because bodily labours and worldly business are a means to distract us from the worship of God: and rest from them, is a remedy against distraction. For every Sabbath is to be sanctified and set apart from our business and affairs, and is to be consecrated to the worship of God. And further, on the Sabbath of humiliation, we take upon us after a more special manner to worship God: and therefore that we may seriously and entirely intend the service of God, we are to abandon all other business and cares. For that is better done which is done alone, as the Philosopher hath truly said. And it is the counsel of the wiseman, that, what we do, we should do with all our might. For by doing many things our minds are distracted. This therefore doth teach us, that with free and entire minds, sequestered from all worldly cares, we are to be conversant in the worship of God; chiefly, when after a more special manner we endeavour to humble our selves before him. For if bodily labours and worldly business be therefore forbidden, because they are means to distract us: then may we be sure that distraction it self in the worship of God is much more forbidden. For distraction breeds hypocrisy in God’s worship, and causeth us when we draw nigh to the Lord with our lips, to remove our hearts far from him.

Again, the Lord commandeth us in all his Sabbaths to rest from labours, that this outward rest might be an admonition unto us to rest from sin. For why (may every one of us think) doth the Lord forbid me on the day of rest, the lawful works of may calling? Or why do I cease from mine honest affairs? Must I forbear that which in it self is lawful; and may I do that which is unlawful? Must I therefore for this time sequester my self from my honest business, that I may attend vanities or sins? Or doth the Lord enjoin me rest, because he is delighted with idleness, and would have me to do nothing? No verily. If he forbid me that which is lawful, much more doth he forbid that which is unlawful. And if he command me to rest from honest affairs, it is not because he would have me idle (for idleness is the mother of much iniquity) but because he would have me attend better matters. In a word, he forbiddeth me to do mine own works and business, that I may do his work, and attend his religion and service. 

Lastly, there may an outward cause be rendered, why on the day of the fast we are to cease from bodily labours. For our frail nature cannot well bear abstinence and bodily labour together: for labour setting the body in a heat, wasteth the moisture and spirits, which are to be supplied by nourishment: otherwise we spend upon the stock of our natural moisture, which is as it were the oil in the lamp of our life.

How long this abstinence is to be observed

We see then, wherein the outward exercise doth consist, and the particulars from which we are to abstain. Now we are briefly to consider, for how long this abstinence is to be observed. The usual time of a fast is the space of a natural day, viz. from evening to evening, or from supper to supper. For as that was the time appointed for the ordinary Sabbath of humiliation, so also of the extraordinary, From even to even shall you celebrate your Sabbath. And accordingly it is noted of the Israelites fast, Jud. 20 of David and his followers, 2. Sam. 1 of Joshua and the elders, Jos. 7 that it was until the evening. And more particularly of David’s fast for Abner, that he refused to eat any meat while it was yet day, but swore, saying, So do God to me and more also, if I taste bread or ought else till the sun be down. In like sort, not only the Jews, but also the ancient Christians used to fast until the sun were set. Howbeit in process of time they began especially in the Church of Rome to dissolve their fasts at the ninth hour, which is three a clock afternoon: which now they have brought to the sixth hour, and for the most part on their fasting days go to supper before noon. But the shortest time that is mentioned in the Scripture of a fast, is until the evening: to which custom their practise is most conformable, who fast all day until the ordinary time of supper. This, as I said, is the usual time. But the children of God, when they have been pressed with more urgent occasion, have sometimes continued this exercise for more days together: As Esther and the Jews for three days, Esth. 4: and likewise Paul, Act. 9. The men of Jabesh Gilead, when they mourned for the death of Saul and his sons, fasted seven days, 1. Sam. 31. Daniel one and twenty days.

As for the forty days fast, which Moses, Elias, and our Saviour Christ did fast, it was miraculous, and therefore not to be imitated. Neither did they fast forty days together, either to subdue their flesh, or to humble their souls: But Moses being the publisher of the law, Elias the restorer of religion, our Saviour Christ the author of the Gospel; the Lord would by this miraculous fast so countenance their doctrine, as that in respect thereof they might seem not men arising from the earth, or authorised by men, but the two former as Angels, the third as the Son of God, sent from heaven: for their abstinence for the time was angelical. And we might as well take upon us to imitate the Angels not taking of food, which they do not need, as the fast of Christ and of the other two; who were by the power of God above the strength of nature so sustained, as that during their forty days, they no more needed food than angels do. Neither did our Saviour Christ or either of the other, fast forty days every year, but once only in all his life. Wherefore unless we have the like cause of fasting, and the like power to support us (as indeed none have) it is but a vain thing to go about to imitate their fast. 

Now when the fast is continued for more days together, it is not unmeet, that as in the mean time we are to take but one meal every day in the evening; so also that we should at those times content our selves with a spare diet in respect of the quantity, and mean in respect of the quality, whether it be fish, or flesh, or neither; according to the example of Daniel. But when our fast is once dissolved, whether it be at the end of one day, or of more, we may freely use our ordinary diet, observing always the rules of temperance and sobriety. And it fitteth best the faith of God’s children, when they have humbled themselves before God, and poured forth their suit into his bosom; to cheer up themselves in this persuasion, That they having commended and committed their cause to God, he will dispose of it and them, as shall be most for his glory, and their good. To this purpose consider the examples, of Anna, 1. Sam. 1, who after she had fasted and poured forth her soul before the Lord, she went her way and did eat, and looked no more sad: Of David, even then when the Lord did seem to have denied his particular request, 2. Sam. 2. He arose from the earth, and washed and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped, and afterward came to his own house, and bade that they should set bread before him, and he did eat. And thus much may suffice to have spoken of the outward fast.

The Kingdom of God stands not in meat and drink

Now for as much as the kingdom of God standeth not in meat and drink, nor in the abstinence therefrom, and seeing bodily exercise profiteth little, but piety (which consisteth in duties of religion sincerely performed) hath the promises both of this life, and of that which is to come: therefore all this outward abstinence is nothing worth, unless it be joined with the inward fast and spiritual exercise of religion, and be referred thereunto, as to the end thereof. For if men rest in the outward fast, as though that in it self were acceptable unto God, they fast no better than the beasts of Nineveh fasted. They fast not unto God: for God is a spirit, and they that will worship him, must worship him in spirit and truth. Wherefore as Zachary saith to the Jews, who resting in the outward fast, imagined, that they pleased God thereby: When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month these seventy years, did you in fasting fast to me, to me, saith the Lord? Likewise Isa 58, when as the Lord respected not the fast of the Jews, whereby they looked to win his favour, as appeareth by their question, vers. 3. Wherefore have we fasted, and thou respectest it not, we have afflicted our souls, and thou regardest it not? He rendereth this reason: Because neglecting the inward exercise, they rested in the outward. Is it such a fast that I have chosen, that a man should for a day afflict his soul (namely by outward fasting) and hang down his head like a bull-rush, and lie down in sackcloth and ashes: wilt thou call this a fasting or an acceptable day to the Lord? But if men shall not only rest in the outward fast, as if that in it self were an acceptable worship of God; but shall also observe it with an opinion of satisfaction and merit, persuading themselves, that by their fast they satisfy for their sins, and merit everlasting life: then is it much more abominable in the sight of God, as being derogatory to the only both satisfactory sufferings and meritorious obedience of Christ our Saviour. And such seemeth to have been the fast of the Pharisee: who for all his fasting twice a week, and his other merits which he allegeth, went home unjustified. And such is the fast of the Papists at this day, who not only rest in their outward fast, which notwithstanding in many respects is but a mock fast: but also ascribe satisfaction and merit thereunto.


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