Prayer and Fasting

There came to Him a certain man, kneeling down to Him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatic, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft in the water. And I brought him to Thy disciples, and they could not cure him.” Matthew 17:14-16.

The disciples had been given power to cure diseases (Luke 9:1), but here was a case in which their prayers were ineffectual. Christ promptly “rebuked the devil” and cured the child. When the disciples saw this, they asked, “Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief.” Matthew 17:18-20. Then He added, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” Verse 21.

Christ had healed a disease that the disciples could not cure. Always before, when they had prayed, men were healed. However, prayer did not avail in this case. This kind of disease did not go out but by prayer and fasting.

This brings us face to face with the problem of fasting. For a problem it is. If God will not hear when I pray, why should He hear when I fast? Will abstinence from food accomplish what prayer cannot do?

Many people are perplexed about fasting. The churches issue a call to fast, and the people fast, but are wondering what good it will do. All it seems to accomplish is to make them hungry, and perhaps irritable; they fail to see any good in that.

Some justify fasting on the ground that it is good for the body; that the mind also becomes clearer. This is doubtless the case with some; for the system might be clogged up, and fasting gives an opportunity to dispose of accumulated surplus and gives the organs a rest. However, this cannot be the true reason for fasting. There must be other and weightier reasons.

“Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Luke 4:1. Matthew adds that He was led into the wilderness “to be tempted of the devil.” Matthew 4:1. Mark gives us further information that He “was with the wild beasts.” Mark 1:13. This tells us that it was God’s appointment for Him to go into the wilderness, that the Spirit led Him there, and that He went for the specific purpose of being “tempted of the devil.”

For thirty years, Jesus had lived in Nazareth under ordinary human conditions. He had met the common temptations of childhood and youth, and now He was baptized and ready to enter upon His lifework. Thus far, He had fulfilled all expectations. He had lived a blameless life, and at the baptism, the Father had put His stamp of approval on Him. “Coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens open, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Mark 1:10,11. It was immediately after this that the Spirit led Him into the wilderness.

As Adam was tested in the garden, so the second Adam was also to be tested. However, His test was to be a thousand times harder than Adam’s. Adam stood in the full strength of manhood, and the test given him was the smallest conceivable. Christ’s test came to Him after a grueling experience of a forty days’ fast, when emaciated by the lack of food He was near death’s door, apparently forsaken of God and man, and His test was the hardest conceivable.

We only have a meager account of what took place during those forty days, for no human being was near to record it, and Christ has given us no information. We know that He was absorbed in His contemplation of the work before Him and the tremendous responsibilities that would be His. We know that He grew weaker day by day and that “He was afterward an hungered.”  We also know that “after the foe had departed, Jesus fell exhausted to the earth, with the pallor of death upon His face…. The angels now ministered to the Son of God as He lay like one dying.” The Desire of Ages, page 131. The Bible briefly states that after the tempter left Him, “behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.” Matthew 4:11.

Jesus went into the wilderness to contemplate His mission and His work. Before coming to the earth, in counsel with the Father, He had counted the cost and knew each step He must take. Now that He was man, He must once more consider His work from this new viewpoint, and as man decide upon His course. In addition, this He did. As He found Himself “in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:8. This decision He had already made in heaven; now He confirms it as man.

The question before Him now would be, could He, as man, carry out the covenant provisions made in heaven? Could He, as a man, withstand the power of Satan and not weaken under the assaults that would be made on Him? The first thirty years were over. Now He had to appear officially under the covenant agreement. Could He stand the test? Hitherto there had been no special temptations, but only such as are common to men. Now He had come to a crisis. God had asked men to be faithful unto death. Now Christ was to feel what this would be like. Was He ready to resist “unto blood, striving against sin”? See Hebrew 12:4.

He was overwhelmed as the magnitude of the task rose before Him. Food was forgotten, rest was forgotten, the wild beasts that surrounded Him-all were as nothing compared to the test He must pass. As he daily grew weaker, His determination grew stronger. He would be faithful unto death. On Him depended the whole plan of redemption; He must not fail.

In addition, He did not fail. It nearly took His life, but having made the decision, and having resisted the devil, He now knew what He could do. He knew that He could stand any test that would come to Him. In the wilderness, He had met Satan, and even in His weakened condition, He had won out. That experience and victory brought courage to Him in the days to come. He had met Satan on his ground and conquered him. He could do it again.

The True Test

Christ’s forty-day fast did not come about by a decision on His part to go in the wilderness and fast that many days. It came about in a most natural way as He considered His lifework. He was absorbed in His contemplations and so overwhelmed with the cost of His undertaking, that He gave Himself to prayer and meditation, and forgot everything else. In a minor way, men experience similar reactions, wherein, because of the task in which they are engaged, they forget everything else.

I have seen people in church promptly fall asleep as soon as the sermon is begun. I have known these same people to begin reading a book in the evening and become so interested in it that they would keep on reading all night with no thought of sleep.

There are those who become so interested in their work that they forget to eat and to sleep. Thomas Edison was one of these. He would become so wrapped up in an experiment that his food would remain uneaten on the table and his bed untouched, until he had solved the particular problem on which he was working. He was known to go without food and sleep for days. He was so interested in his work that creature comforts were neglected. Job felt this when he said, “I have esteemed the words of His mouth more than my necessary food.” Job 23:12.

We may therefore confidently say, that true fasting comes as a result of absorption in the work we are doing. It is indicative of dedication in a high degree, of consecration to a task, of complete absorption in one’s work so that we are oblivious of everything else. It was this that Christ experienced as they nailed Him to the tree. His agony of the soul was so great that “His physical pain was hardly felt.” The Desire of Ages, page 753.

Moses when on Mount Sinai fasted forty days and forty nights, and “neither did eat bread nor drink water.” Deuteronomy 9:9. After he had broken the tables of stone, he fasted again forty days. He says, “I did neither eat bread, nor drink water, because of all the sins which ye sinned.” Verse 18. Elijah also fasted forty days. 1 Kings 19:8. Such fasts were observed as a special preparation for a great work and closely connected with the presence of the Lord. When certain occasions arose and danger threatened, or some supreme event portended, men fasted.

The spiritual part of man took precedence over the physical and dominated it completely, so that its needs were neglected. It is interesting to note that, when Moses took Aaron and the seventy elders with him to the mount, from a distance “they saw God, and did eat and drink.” Exodus 24:11. Moses went further up, and spake with God “face to face” as a man speaketh unto his friend,” and he, “did neither eat bread, nor drink water” for forty days. Deuteronomy 9:18. Man can live forty days without food; but no man can live forty days without water unless a definite miracle is performed. That Moses did so signifies that God had complete control over him and that the spiritual controlled the physical. We are not told that Moses became weak or hungry because of his long fast. The physical nature was completely dominated by the spiritual. Fasting thus becomes symbolic of complete consecration.

Pharisees and Fasting

The Pharisees had made fasting a sign of piety and an opportunity for parading their religion. They put on “a sad countenance: for they disfigured 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.” Matthew 6:16-18.

The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Thursday, the day Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and Monday, the day he came down. When they fasted, they did not wash or bathe, or anoint the body, or shave the head, or wear sandals; but they put ashes on their heads.

Thus all men could readily see when they fasted, and give them due reverence. Of one of the Pharisees it is said that he fasted so often that his face was always dark-he never washed. In all this, kind of fasting Christ showed no interest. It was not the kind of fast that He approved.

John’s disciples fasted, but Christ’s did not. The Pharisees noted this, and fastened on this as an excuse for arousing jealousy between the two groups. At one time, when Christ was eating with “many publicans and sinners,” the Pharisees not only raised the question of the propriety of doing so, but also asked, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Thy disciples fast not? Mark 2:15-18. Christ gave them a diplomatic and significant answer, and then dropped the question. He was not particularly interested in the matter. He did not condemn, nor did He favor. He left that for each to decide. However, if they did fast, they were to do it so as not to be seen of men. Nevertheless, in the matter of the young lunatic, He let it be understood that some things cannot be done without fasting and that for special occasions, prayer and fasting are necessary.

We are to conclude that in certain cases God will honor the prayers of His people only if they appear so much earnest that they will deprive themselves of necessary food if need be that others may be helped. The disciples were evidently anxious that the young man be healed, but their predominant desire had not reached the point where they were willing to deprive themselves in order to help others. The story of the young man seems to teach that God will do something for a man who is deadly in earnest and who is willing to pay the cost, that He will not do for a man who is mildly interested in the case, but is not willing to deprive himself of anything or sacrifice to obtain the necessary results. A man is willing to deprive himself of daily bread may be presumed to be in earnest. When a man gets too that point, God will hear if by the healing God’s name may be honored.

According to this, God leaves ordinary fasting to the individual conscience. However, the servant of God who feels God’s honor is at stake, which takes the situation so seriously that he is willing to do anything for his Lord and even deprive himself of needed food-God will honor that man and permit him to taste of “the powers of the world to come.” Hebrews 6:5. In him will be the fulfillment of Christ’s statement, that “works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto My Father.” John 14:12. Fasting, as thus conceived, stands for complete and entire surrender, of wholehearted consecration, and sanctification. And thus fasting has a place even today. The great works that shall yet be done by the church of God will not be done without prayer and fasting. However, let all beware of ostentation and any outward sign of mortification.

Memory Verse:

“And being found in the fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Philippians 2:8


1.   Have you recently had any experiences where fasting moved the arm of God? 


2.   Do you understand that some things cannot be done without fasting? 



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