Thursday, June 21, 2007

How to Fast

In his lengthy manual on the Christian life called Seven Treatises (1603), the early puritan Richard Rogers (1550/1-1618) gave instructions on various 'helps' that were to be used by Christians to fuel spiritual vigor. Today we call these 'spiritual disciplines' or 'means of grace'. I discussed his teaching on these in an earlier post.

Rogers ranked fasting as one of two 'extraordinary helps', along with the observation of special days of thanksgiving. These were to be employed under unique circumstances, unlike means used regularly such as prayer and meditation.

Since Rogers addressed these two disciplines simultaneously in his original text, I have taken some liberty in editing the material that follows, so that fasting is presented by itself. That said, I didn't change much, and the heart of his instructions remains intact. The subtitles are mine:

Fasting's Purpose
Fasting, joined with most fervent prayer, is a most earnest profession of deep humbling ourselves in abstinence, with confession of sins and supplications (for the greatest part of the day at the least) to God, to turn away some sore calamity from us, or for obtaining of some especial blessing. This description in few words I will lay open for their cause, who perhaps have not read nor heard much of this exercise of fasting, neither have books at hand to help them to the right use of it.

Instructions on Fasting
First, I say, we must be deeply humbled, and make earnest profession of it, more than in the ordinary abasing of ourselves. For though as oft as we do pray, and confess our sins, we ought to do them heartily and deeply; yet neither in the like continuance of time, nor in the same measure of fervency can they always be, as in this exercise of fasting they ought to be.

Secondly I add that with this profession of our humiliation, abstinence must be adjoined: I mean thereby, that we must deprive ourselves herein of the lawful pleasures and liberties of this life, as meats, drinks (more than necessary), costly apparel, earthly dealings (which are yet at other times free for us to enjoy), thereby declaring that we have by our sins made ourselves unworthy of them.

And thirdly, it must be done the most part of the day, that is, so that by this long time of our humiliation and abasement, our hearts may be more cast down and thoroughly touched with our distressed estate, than in a shorter time they are like to be.

Fourthly, supplications, which contain our suits and confession of sins, are added, to teach us that the chief part of this exercise consists therein.

Fruits of Fasting
Fifthly, this is done for the removing of some great calamity, that is, either of some sore affliction outwardly hanging over us, or the whole church, or already upon us, or for some grievous sin committed, or which long lay within us. When weaker means remove not these afflictions from us, fasting and prayer are enjoined of the Lord to deliver us from them, that we may rest ourselves on God, that his grace may be sufficient for us.

And here we must know, that we must use the benefit of Sermons, and fit Scriptures to stir us up hereunto, and meditate of the like Scriptures privately, for the well carrying of our selves through that so weighty business.

And let this be regarded, that we take this exercise not in hand, except we come in true and unfeigned repentance, which as surely as we bring thither, so sure we may be that God will be with us there, and hear us, which will make the whole action more savory, and the end of it to be with comfort, which is the right manner of taking it in hand.

As we began our fast with pensiveness, and hanging down of the head, as we saw we had good cause, the Lord having humbled us, and thereby sending us to testify our unfeigned grief by such kind of abasement; so we having sought and sued to his Majesty in such unfeigned repentance, to the which he promises his accepting of that our sacrifice most graciously, we may lift up ourselves again, and be comforted at the heart for the same.

Conclusion: 'A Means to Set us Forward in the Godly Life'
Now therefore the nature and quality of this exercise is in some sort laid out unto us. If we duly weigh the force and use of it – how it brings us low, our vileness more especially remembered, and how it does exceedingly draw our hearts in more love and obedience to God – who can deny, that in the time wherein it is used, and even a long time after, it is a most effectual means to set us forward in the godly life?

3 comments:

Susan A said...

Thanks. I'm interested in what he means by fasting: from what he says about abstinence, do you think he is saying that the food part of fasting involves avoiding meats and other rich foods, or all foods?

John D. Chitty said...

One pitfall to studying theology on the internet: I got hold of some "bad dope" on how fasting was Old Testament and it was fulfilled and made obsolete in Christ. But then, the benefit of studying theology on the internet stepped in and cancelled that out when i got to discuss it with folks more wise than I in the Scriptures on the subject. While I've yet to discipline myself in this area as of yet, my wife testifies to fasting's ability to further one's growth in godliness.

H.C. Ross said...

Susan: I think he is probably teaching, consistently with the wider Christian tradition, that fasting in essence is about abstinence from anything that one usually indulges in, for the sake of drawing near to God; but in its classic form it is abstinence from all food for a period of time. Some people fast from both food and water, but I think most fast only from food, as the body can survive much longer without food (weeks), and not long without water (days).

John: Thanks for your comment. I agree, the Internet is a "reader beware" wonderland, a great blessing and a potentially great curse.

I would agree with the testimony of your wife. I was told about fasting on college by Christian friends, and employing it in my walk with God added a whole new level to things. I'm not implying I live on a higher level than others, but my own walk is higher, or deeper, than it was for ME before fasting, I can say with absolute certainty.

A good rule is, start small and work up. Fast one meal and pray instead of eating. Then when you're ready, fast two meals, then two days, etc. The late Bill Bright (Pres. Campus Crusade for Christ) did more than one 40-day fast in his life, and he has a lot of great teaching on it, here:

http://www.billbright.com/howtofast/

As the puritans would say, it is wrong to trust in the means of grace (eg, prayer, fasting) themselves, but it is also wrong to neglect the use of them, in one's Christian life.

God bless.

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