“However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21, NKJV)
“Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises… the earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. (James 5:13-16, NLT).
That’s what I think fasting is at heart. It’s an intensification of prayer. It’s a physical explanation point at the end of the sentence, “We hunger for you to come in power.” It’s a cry with your body, “I really mean it, Lord! This much, I hunger for you.” – John Piper
Fasting ought to be accompanied with praying; and praying should be strengthened with intermittent fasting. The two go together. The heart-felt prayer of a believing person counts for something in this land of the living. It is effective to meet most of life’s challenges. But, as the Lord Jesus reminded the followers, some challenges are better faced with both prayer and fasting.
Desperate times require fasting and prayer. “This kind does not go out except by praying and fasting.” What kind is this? A distraught dad had brought his epileptic son to the followers of Jesus, to cure him. These disciples prayed and did their best, but could not cure this boy. The poor dad watched helplessly. He knew that if no help came, they would have to go back home to a dangerous situation. The boy was severely epileptic, and sometimes falls into fire during his seizures. This was a desperate situation. Not receiving help today meant another day of sorrow and anguish. It’s pure torture to watch your beloved son suffer so much and know there is nothing you could do about it. This kind calls for divine intervention. So, desperate, the dad finds his to way to Jesus in a huge crowd. He falls down at his feet and begs for God’s mercy. This kind demands God’s mercy. Isn’t God’s mercy all any of us can reasonably expect from God? In his mercy is compassion, grace, forgiveness, healing. God’s mercy is what opens the gate for us, to come in to his kindness, his salvation, his life. God invites us to participate in his riches, by extending mercy towards us. “Have mercy on me, O Lord,” the dad pleaded. The plea for mercy hardly goes unheeded by the God of grace. In response, Jesus speaks a word, and the devil goes out of the boy and he was cured of his epilepsy. Epilepsy may have other underlying biological and physiological mechanism, but this kind was caused by an evil spirit interfering with this boy’s life. This kind involved spiritual forces at play, beyond mere physical considerations.
There is a spiritual component to human life. We are spirit beings who live in a body, and have a soul. We are not merely organic. There is that spiritual, intangible aspect of our humanity. It goes by different names in academic literature: the subconscious mind, the metaphysical, the paranormal etc. In each of those references is an allusion by a secular culture to an aspect of human life that is intangible and spiritual. The spiritual and physical intersect as we explore the land of the living – for good or bad. When the spirit realm is connected to God’s Spirit, it is influenced by the Holy Spirit and shapes much of our physical human existence in a positive way – bearing up our infirmities, giving us strength from within to carry through life victoriously, giving us a wholesome personality, bringing us closer to God. But when an evil spirit is allowed to influence our life, the outcome is often disastrous – hatred, depression, disease, a broken heart. Since this kind of epilepsy was caused by an evil spirit, the moment that bad spirit is sent away, the boy regained his health, instantly. The question is not whether we believe that evil still lurks in this world of ours, but what are we going to do when some streak of evil crosses our path. For this poor dad, this stroke of evil had touched his beloved son. It was a desperate time.
So, what should we do in desperate seasons of life? Pray and fast. Believing in the goodness of the Lord is important. But as the Master tells his followers, there may be something else we ought to do in addition when evil has touched an aspect of our physical life. The disciples came to him privately after watching how effortlessly Jesus cured this boy, and asked him: ‘how is it that we are not able to help this boy?’ The Lord says, in essence, because of your unbelief. Believing in the goodness of the Lord is very important. But the Lord also added, ‘However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.’ When we mix our believing trust in the Lord with fasting and prayer, we intensify our praying and believing life. Desperate times require desperate action. Throughout Scripture, when individuals faced difficult times, they turned to God in prayer, with fasting. I think there is something about including fasting that cries, like Peter about to drown in sea, ‘Help me, Lord!’ I know we live in a culture that tells us that we are completely in charge of our lives and everything we become is what we make ourselves to be. While there is a place for taking some responsibility for our lives, you and I know from experience that sometimes desperate moments happen to us all – things that don’t seem to be in our control, a child diagnosed with cancer, a woman who has eaten right and exercised all her life and still came down with cancer, a pastor who has served faithfully and still has a child who has renounced the faith, an upright and diligent professional whose child has taken to illicit drugs. Instead of becoming complacent, times like that call for fasting and prayer. Those are desperate times. I know we live in world that mocks the spiritual, and caricatures pagan worship and evil spirits. But in your heart, you know that evil exists and may have known persons whose lives have intersected with evil. In times like these, we fast and pray – to break the influence of evil off our lives and that of our loved ones. Everything that happens to us does not necessarily have a spiritual root, but we know that most things can be dealt with spiritually – in prayer and fasting. If for nothing else, praying during fasting helps us to experience God’s peace from within: “Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life” (Philippines 4: 6-7, MSG).
Kind David found himself in one of those desperate moments sometime during his reign as king of Israel. A series of bad choices have finally caught up with him. First, he committed adultery with one of his soldier’s wives. Then, when Beersheba told him that she was pregnant, he tried to cover up his affair by arranging for the soldier to be brought home, hoping husband and wife would sleep together as a good ploy to cover up his infidelity. When that didn’t work out, he planned for Uriah to be positioned in battle in such a way that he was guaranteed to be killed. And yes, true to his evil scheme, Uriah was killed in battle. For a while, David’s conscience must have pricked him. Perhaps, he silenced it be promising himself to be a good husband to Beersheba and good father to the child that would be born. He was determined to do the right thing from then on. It is possible to imagine that David calmed his conscience down rather quickly by telling himself that keeping his sin quiet does greater good to his ability and ‘integrity’ to rule and maintain the kingdom in peace. It was better to cover this up. Bigger things are at stake. There are new battles to fight, enemies to conquer. Why ruin it all because a mistake has been made? David might have convinced himself, “In the grand scheme of things, isn’t the end more important than the means?” So, David took in Beersheba as wife, and she gave birth to a son. David may have moved on, but God loved him too much to let him off without confronting his sin in repentance. God sent his prophet to David. When he was confronted, David repented, genuinely. But the child became very ill. Now, a part of David is irrevocably tied to this baby. The baby was a symbol of his resolve to make things right. So, he prayed earnestly that this child might live. The word from Nathan the prophet was that this child would eventually die. But David prayed that he might live. After all, it was David who sinned, not this poor child. We don’t always have an answer to all of life’s complicated twists and turns, but an innocent child suffering intensely is too hard for any parent to bear, especially when that parent suspects that the child might be suffering due to his past mistakes. David prayed, but the child got sicker. So, “David prayed desperately to God for the little boy. He fasted, wouldn’t go out, and slept on the floor” (2 Samuel 12: 16, MSG).
In this desperate moment, David did not only pray, he fasted. Fasting was his way of saying: “God, this means a lot to me. I am really desperate. Help this child, please!” Notice that, as part of the fast, he slept on the floor and wouldn’t go out. The acts of sleeping on the floor (instead of sleeping on his royal bed), putting ashes on his head, or renting his clothing were all signs of humility and desperation before God. By these actions, the people of old indicated their complete humility and brokenness to God who mends up broken hearts. Fasting provides them that opportunity. In addition, he did not go out. In other words, he gave God the seed of time – time to pray through his pain, time to repent of his sins, time to listen to God, time to allow God heal his brokenness. Fasting provides this opportunity. I know that we are living in a Christian age where spending time in few minutes of prayer is becoming more difficult. So, to suggest even more time in fasting seems tenuous at best. But if we are going to see the God-of-angel armies intervene in our affairs, we have to offer to God the sacrifice of time through fasting and prayer. The act of fasting tells God that we value his intervention strongly enough to commit enough time to it. Fasting intensifies our prayer, and clarifies the needs in our life. Fasting doesn’t force the hand of God. David didn’t get the child to live even though he fasted. But fasting gives God an opportunity to encounter us and change us, and mold us into his glorious image. When David heard that the boy was dead, he got up from his fast, washed up and dined. He has stayed long enough on his knees to surrender to the almighty God. In fasting, he has offered his heart deep enough in the streams of grace to know that, if the child still died, it must be how the divine heart has willed it. All the ways of God are just, all his works are perfect. He is a God who knows. David knew that he did not just acquiesce to problems and let the devil torment him – he did pray; he fasted; he invited God’s miracle-working power into his situation. So, bowing his heart in worship, he says ‘yes’ to God, to his ways, and to his works. Having yielded ourselves to him so thoroughly and intensely in fasting and prayer, we accept his forgiveness and shed our guilt. We know he hears us; that we are beloved to him; that his providence protects and provides for us. We can actually trust his wisdom and his power. Sure enough, in the verses that follow, we see a glimpse of God’s loving heart towards David. His fasting, coupled with prayer and repentance, had not been in vain. God was moved by David’s posture of repentance, and had compassion on him. He promised to give David another son, an heir to his throne, through the same Beersheba. Oh, the love and kindness of God. Who can measure the depth of his loving heart? Time spent in fasting and prayer is never wasted time in the divine economy. We may be too much in a hurry that we consider fasting and prayer a not-so-efficient use of our precious time. But God seems to view it differently. He wants to spend that time away with us – healing, saving, loving, and shaping us. Answering our desperate plea for help is part of it, but there is more to that plea in God’s ears than meets the eye. Sometimes he provides us the physical rescue we cry out for – like Israel being rescued from the nations that ganged up against them in 2 Chronicles 20 after the people of God prayed, fasted and sang praises. Other times, there doesn’t to be a physical manifestation of the answer – the spouse still walked out, or the child still died from that disease. But in all cases, every moment spent in fasting and prayer results in God-moments, in life-renewing, God-shaping opportunities.
Heart-felt prayer of a believing person avails much – always. We should engage the God of glory in intense, believing, petition-making prayers. Hezekiah was ill one time, and word came to him to prepare his household since he would not recover from this illness (2 Kings 20). He was told that death was imminent. This message was even more devastating because it came from a prophet of God. If anyone was to have offered hope to Hezekiah, it was the prophet. After all, the prophet in Israel was someone people consulted with when there was trouble – he heard from God, and God hears his prayers and petitions. But now, what would have been a source of hope became a source of bad news. When the knowledgeable and dedicated doctor brings bad news, it does seem in deed that all hope is lost. But rather than despair, Hezekiah turned to God in prayer. He poured out his soul before God. He cried, he pleaded, he worshipped. His was heart-felt and intense prayer. There was no meaningless muttering of words that holds no meaning to him. He spoke to God straight from the heart, and told God exactly as it is. He didn’t have to use any religiously-correct words. He didn’t even care about those now. His life was at stake, and only God can help him. In this case, the answer was immediate. Before the prophet had gone far, God spoke to him again. This time, it was good news: go and tell Hezekiah that he would live another 15 years. Death, not so fast! And sure enough, he recovered and lived. It is not always that we experience such quick, dramatic reversals in our situations. But I think the story of Hezekiah encourages us to try; to engage God whole-heartedly and make specific petitions to him in times of life-crisis. He would always answer us. His answer may manifest differently, but they certainly will manifest. Dare we take the opportunity of fasting as a time to pray fervent, heart-felt, deep-from-the-soul prayers to God about where we are at in our journey? It will surprise you what may come out of that.
There are different kinds of troubles or hardships that confront us periodically in life’s journey. ‘Is any of you suffering hardships?’ It doesn’t have to be those death-dealing hardships described above. It could be hardships or troubles related to everyday ordinary living – like child-care problems, being misunderstood and misrepresented at work, or betrayal by a close friend. Whatever it is, there is only one prescription that the Lord’s Brother has for us: pray. I know our culture has actually talked itself into caricaturing prayer as a form of weakness. I know we have several alternatives to think of first, especially those of us who live in more advanced economies of the world. I know that even as Christians we have consistently explained away a need to pray engaging, expectant prayers – somehow we know the doctor will take care of it, or the insurance company will compensate us, or the courts will adjudicate on our behalf. So although we claim to believe in prayer, if we are honest, we admit to ourselves that our prayers are perfunctory, glib and often non-expectant. Even when our prayers are heart-felt, they are only one of many options available to us. But for James, there is only one thing we must do when we are faced with trouble or difficulty – pray. Yes, we may need to do other things to follow up, but the Lord’s Brother is insistent on this one thing: pray. He knows the power of prayer. He can surely testify that ‘the earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results’ (James 5:16b, NLT). Earnest prayer from a believing, trusting Christian produces wonderful results. Your prayer ‘has great power and produces wonderful results.’ Do you believe that? Will you make some time about now to pray regarding that hardship, that disappointment, that problem at work? Incorporate earnest believing prayer into your fasting periods and trust God to produce wonderful results in his own way and time.
Prayer of Praise during Fasting
But praying during fasting doesn’t have to be only about desperate situations. Life is not just about troubles. It is often filled with blessings: new baby, a new job, family vacation, and friendships. Life is good. Again, James asks, “Are any of you happy?” Most days, you will be. What should we do when we are feeling blessed, cheerful, and joyful? For the Lord’s Bother, it’s clear: “You should sing praises.” We sing praises. We sing hymns. We sing psalms. In fact, fasting tends to be even more rewarding when we incorporate a component of awe and wonder in God’s presence. When we stay long and committed enough in his presence during fasting and praying, we tend to catch a glimpse of his glory, a ray of his ineffable light. Dazzled by his person, we exclaim in joy. How excellent your name in all the earth is, we proclaim with the Psalmist. The earth is filled with your glory, O Lord. If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side! What are human beings that you are mindful of them, O Lord? Here, the Psalmist gives us an example to follow, and words to give voice to our gratitude. Fasting is a good time to go deep into the divine heart – to adore him, to admire him. Extricated from worldly distractions, we become present to God – we look into his face, see observe his loveliness, his grandeur, the wonders of his grace. We open our mouth and words fail us to tell him what he means to us. We sing hymns and make melody in our hearts. We hum under our breath – as we wonder that he loves us so. I invite you to sing this song (psalm) below with David. Read it aloud, or meditate on the words. But either way, let the Psalmist’s effusive praise and wonder reach your own soul as we sing along with him:
I lift you high in praise, my God, O my King!
and I’ll bless your name into eternity.
2 I’ll bless you every day,
and keep it up from now to eternity.
3 God is magnificent; he can never be praised enough.
There are no boundaries to his greatness.
4 Generation after generation stands in awe of your work;
each one tells stories of your mighty acts.
5 Your beauty and splendor have everyone talking;
I compose songs on your wonders.
6 Your marvelous doings are headline news;
I could write a book full of the details of your greatness.
7 The fame of your goodness spreads across the country;
your righteousness is on everyone’s lips.
8 God is all mercy and grace—
not quick to anger, is rich in love.
9 God is good to one and all;
everything he does is suffused with grace.
10-11 Creation and creatures applaud you, God;
your holy people bless you.
They talk about the glories of your rule,
they exclaim over your splendor,
12 Letting the world know of your power for good,
the lavish splendor of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is a kingdom eternal;
you never get voted out of office.
God always does what he says,
and is gracious in everything he does.
14 God gives a hand to those down on their luck,
gives a fresh start to those ready to quit.
15 All eyes are on you, expectant;
you give them their meals on time.
16 Generous to a fault,
you lavish your favor on all creatures.
17 Everything God does is right—
the trademark on all his works is love.
18 God’s there, listening for all who pray,
for all who pray and mean it.
19 He does what’s best for those who fear him—
hears them call out, and saves them.
20 God sticks by all who love him,
but it’s all over for those who don’t.
21 My mouth is filled with God’s praise.
Let everything living bless him,
bless his holy name from now to eternity.
(Psalm 145: 1-21, MSG)
The Preceding are excerpts from the book, Fasting For Life (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1629986267). Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved. Feel free to check out the full book – it will be well worth your time.