Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said,’Why could we not cast him out?’ And Jesus said unto them, ‘Because of your unbelief…howbeit this kind goeth not out except by prayer and fasting.”
The thirteenth lesson in Andrew Murray’s “With Christ in the School of Prayer,” deals with the disciples’ question regarding their inability to cast out a demon even after Jesus had told them that all power in heaven had been given unto them. After some level of success in seeing the powers of hell being subdued by their words, they were taken aback to discover a demon able to resist them. Jesus points them to the lesson He had taught them from the beginning, namely, that prayer and belief must work hand in hand. Here, however, they (and we) receive the added insight that fasting has an important role in prayer as well.
Just what is the role of fasting in the life of the disciple? Why must one pray and fast in order to accomplish certain things? Is fasting (and for that matter, prayer as well) incommensurate with both the free grace and the sovereignty of God–is it some sort of religious duty that twists God’s anthropomorphic arm until He gives in to the pietistic pleas of His people? Murray sets out a simple answer to these questions in his lesson entitled “Prayer and Fasting: Or the Cure for Unbelief,” and expands upon it throughout his devotional book.
The simple answer is that prayer and fasting are two means by which faith is made strong. Murray says,
It is in the adoring worship of God, the waiting on Him and for Him, the deep silence of soul that yields itself for Go to reveal Himself, that the capacity for knwing and trusting God will be developed.”
Faith is necessary if the disciple is to do the things which are required of him as a citizen of the City of God, for it is by faith that one acts in accordance with the principles and the laws of that unseen yet ever-present city. Prayer is necessary if the disciple is to have faith, for it is through prayer that the disciple learns who God is, and learns that God is trustworthy and good. How easy it is to forget that God is three-personed and, like all people, most truly reveals Himself through personal interaction! Prayer is not a formula or an incantation that places a quarter into the cosmic gumball machine, although it is often treated as such; rather, prayer is living contact with God. Out of this contact comes the ability, the power, to trust God and to act upon His words to us.
As prayer is necessary to faith, even is the wellspring and lifeline of faith, so fasting is necessary for the growth of prayer. Fasting is the schoolhouse of prayer, through which a disciple learns what it is to deny self for the sake of God, enabling him to persevere in prayer even when prayer has lost its novelty, its sweetness, or its aura of grandeur–not that true prayer is ever devoid of these things, but the attitude and inner state of the disciple often leads to a perception of prayer as a laborious, weary, and ignominous task. It is during these times that the fit soul of the disciple, practiced in self-denial and perseverance through fasting, will press forward towards God in prayer until he at last is able to once again see and understand things as they truly are.
Fasting is not a religious duty meant to force God’s hand; it has nothing in common with the priests of Baal, who, in an attempt to bring down holy fire, cut and slashed and mutilated themselves atop Mount Carmel. Such behavior is manipulation and witchcraft, seeking to control God and the world for personal gain. Fasting is just the opposite. It does not seek to control God or exert pressure upon Him; it is undertaken to control one’s self and teach a valuable lesson to the soul so that it might continue to live in faith. Just as our bodies cry out in hunger, so our souls ought to cry out for faith in prayer to the One who is able to satisfy. Murray puts it like this,
Our mind is helped by what comes to us embodied in concrete form; fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resloution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifce ourselves, to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.”
Fasting enables the body to join with the prayer of the soul: Its cries echo and underscore the heart’s desire for union with God that the work of the kingdom might carried out, and that the citizen, the worker, might be thoroughly equipped for every good work.