The Power of Prayer Plus Fasting

In 1930, Herbert W. Armstrong’s wife Loma faced a desperate health crisis. She was suffering from anemia at the end of her fourth pregnancy, but she was not being healed from this dangerous condition despite Mr. Armstrong’s fervent prayers. He wrote in his Autobiography: “What was wrong? I had learned that God does heal. We had experienced almost incredible miracles. My wife had been healed before. But why not now?”

Unable to discern the reason on his own, Mr. Armstrong looked to the Bible for instruction: “I had to find the answer. I knew of only one way. Fasting and prayer! It was the last-ditch resort. I didn’t know how one ought to fast and pray—I had never done it before. But when Jesus’s disciples were unable to cast out a demon, Jesus said such a result came only by fasting and prayer. So I began to fast.”

After combining fasting with hours of prayer, study and meditation, Mr. Armstrong finally recognized what God was trying to show him. The answer became clear only after he combined prayer with fasting.

In that story, Mr. Armstrong referenced the account recorded in Mark 9, which describes a distraught father beseeching Christ to heal his demon-possessed son. The disciples had tried to cast out the demon but could not. Christ responded, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me” (verse 19).

Commentaries are split regarding whether this rebuke was aimed at the multitude or Christ’s disciples. Either way, it was sharp correction—Where is your faith?

The boy’s father believed that Christ could heal his son, but he knew his faith was weak. “Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (verses 23-24).

What a remarkable attitude! Here is an excellent example of how we should respond when our faith wavers, when we stagger at the promises of God, or when we grow weary in well doing: “Help me with my unbelief!” One of the primary ways we grow in faith is by asking God for more of it. Recognize where you are weak, and call on God to help you in those areas.

After Christ cast out this particularly obstinate and angry demon, His disciples asked him in private why they were unable to cast it out. “And he said unto them, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (verse 29).

Jesus was so close to God the Father by prayer and fasting that He was strengthened with might and filled with enough supernatural power to cast out this foul spirit. He could not have done that on His own power and strength. He said plainly in John 5:30, “I can of mine own self do nothing.” It was the Father in Him who performed that mighty miracle! (John 14:10).

Why couldn’t God perform this mighty work through the disciples at that time? Because they had not combined prayer and fasting. In essence, Christ told them, You are not going to be able to handle a problem like this unless you combine prayer and fasting!

This passage plainly reveals that if we don’t combine fervent prayer with regular fasting, there are certain tasks and responsibilities we will simply not be able to perform in service to God. There are challenges we won’t be ready for, mountains we won’t be able to move, weaknesses and sins we won’t overcome. There are battles we will lose—if we don’t pray and fast.

Satan Hates Godly Fasting

The devil wants you to believe that you can get by without fasting. He has even worked to erase fasting from the Bible through modern translators. The New International Version translates Mark 9:19, “This kind can come out only by prayer”—leaving out fasting altogether! In the parallel passage in Matthew 17, the NIV completely omits verse 21 and its reference to “prayer and fasting,” skipping directly from verse 20 to 22. Other verses that omit fasting in modern translations include Acts 10:31, 1 Corinthians 7:5, 2 Corinthians 6:5, and 2 Corinthians 11:27.

Satan wants to blot out fasting from the Bible because he wants to blot it out of your spiritual life! He does not want Christ’s modern-day disciples combining fervent prayer with regular fasting because he knows just how powerful that spiritual weapon is. It is a weapon—and we must use it to battle “against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

An April 1979 Good News article titled “But by Prayer and Fasting” highlighted this point: “Some of the big problems in our lives and in God’s Church and some of the attacks by Satan the devil can only be overcome by prayer plus fasting.”

Satan also proclaims the false idea that fasting is extreme, or that only self-righteous people fast. This kind of human reasoning was quite common during the liberal era of God’s Church in the 1970s. It is also common among the Laodiceans in this era.

Some people struggle with fasting because they cannot function well physically without food and water. Some don’t want to fast because the pulls of the flesh are just so strong. Others continuously put off fasting because of a never-ending array of activities and cares of this life. They simply cannot find a convenient time to fast.

The truth is, you cannot afford to neglect this important tool!

Prayer and fasting in a right attitude helps break the bands of wickedness in your life. It helps you set aside the weights that slow you down in your spiritual race. Prayer and fasting helps curb bodily appetites and restore order, discipline and temperance to your Christian living. It strengthens your relationship with God, deepens your conversion, and fills your life with more of God’s supernatural power. It increases your faith, helps bring boldness and confidence into your prayer life, and enhances and increases your contribution to God’s Work. Prayer plus fasting renews and reinforces your commitment to and covenant with God!

Prayer and fasting can change the course of your life. It can also change the course of history! Consider ancient Israel’s many spiritual revivals. Israel repeatedly repented of its sins and turned to God temporarily—during the times of the Judges, under King David and a few other righteous kings, and in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah after the Babylonian captivity. All of these national spiritual renewals began with prayer and fasting.

Can you see why Satan wants to blot out fasting from your life?

In Psalm 109, King David described his mental and physical state at the time: “I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me. I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust“ (verses 22-23). Notice what caused David to reach this humble state of mind: “My knees are weak through fasting” (verse 24).

Throughout the Bible, fasting God’s way is synonymous with humility. On the Day of Atonement, God instructs us to afflict our souls (Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:27-32). The Hebrew word for “afflict” means “to abase, to chasten, to submit, to humble self.” Proper fasting will humble you every time.

In Psalm 35:13, David said, “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.” Like this great king, God wants us to humble ourselves through fasting.

Fasting the Wrong Way

The wrong kind of fast, however, can actually be spiritually damaging. In Luke 18, Christ compared the attitudes of a Pharisee and a publican. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like other men. He bragged in his prayer that he fasted twice a week and tithed on everything he owned. But although the Pharisee fasted often, these fasts didn’t help him draw closer to God. His fasting was in vain. His “good deeds” blinded him to the glaring flaws that true fasting would have revealed.

The publican, on the other hand, recognized his own weakness and sins. He “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (verse 13). Because of his humility, he was much closer to God than the self-righteous Pharisee.

Zechariah 7 contains the account of Jews who had been fasting in the fifth and seventh month for 70 years because of the destruction of the original temple. Once the new temple was constructed, however, these men wondered if they should keep fasting (verse 3).

Notice what God instructed Zechariah to tell these men: “When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?” (Verse 5).

These men had been fasting all these years for themselves! They mourned the loss of the first temple and beseeched God for another—while completely overlooking why the first temple was destroyed!

Verse 6 continues: “And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?” We need God right at the center of our eating and drinking—and our fasting. Everything we do must be done for God (2 Cor. 5:18).

The Worldwide Church of God proved after Mr. Armstrong died that it had not learned this lesson. Mr. Armstrong knew the Church was called to warn this world. But the wcg lost sight of this commission as soon as he died. The Work stopped—the Church died. My father wrote in Malachi’s Message, “Has the wcg forgotten why the Church exists? A big part of the Church’s commission is to warn (and we do grow in character by giving our lives to God while warning the world). Has the wcg forgotten that God’s work is a trumpet-blowing work?” We must always be careful about our actions being done with the right purpose and motivation—otherwise they will be entirely useless.

Isaiah 58:1-2 explains the Church’s commission to warn the world. In these verses, God condemns hypocrisy, calling out those who love to think of themselves as righteous. Verse 3 in the Revised Standard Version states, “Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?”

Why did God not answer their fasts? He explains: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (verses 3-4, English Standard Version).

These people were not seeking God’s will in their fasts. This kind of fast would not help them proclaim God’s message. Notice the connection between crying God’s message aloud and humbling ourselves before God. We cannot be effective tools for God without utilizing the power of proper fasting! Verse 5 says in the Moffatt translation, “Fasting like yours today will never bear your prayers on high. Would I choose such a fast, such penances?” The Israelites were fasting for penance. God wasn’t in this kind of fast. For a fast to be effective, God must be in it.

The kind of fast God has chosen is one where we go before Him in a humble, self-searching attitude, striving to root out lawlessness and draw closer to Him (verses 5-7). During a fast, God wants us to see ourselves for what we are—shackled by bands of wickedness. Then we can truly repent of those wrong attitudes and actions.

If we do this, “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward [rear-guard or protection]” (verse 8). There are do’s and don’ts in God’s way of life. But what rewards He showers on us when we obey!

In the book of Joel, God addresses a similar theme: First turn to Him in humility, then deliver His warning message. Joel 1:14 instructs God’s people to “sanctify” a fast. God repeats this instruction in Joel 2:15. “Sanctify” means to set apart. Once you plan ahead and set aside time for fasting, God will sanctify it. He will set it apart as a special time between you and Him. The end of Joel 1:14 instructs us to “cry unto the Lord” when we fast. Before we can cry aloud with God’s message to the world, we first must cry aloud to God in fasting and prayer. Fasting without prayer is of no spiritual value.

Joel 2:12-13 states, “Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” God doesn’t want us to put on a show of fasting or do it only because we are supposed to. He wants us to really turn our hearts to Him.

Verse 16 shows that sometimes it is necessary to set aside a time for the entire Church to fast. Throughout the last two eras of God’s Church, Jesus Christ has inspired His apostles to call many Church-wide fasts. When the Worldwide Church of God faced a direct attack from the state of California in the last 1970s, Mr. Armstrong declared a Church-wide fast. He told the brethren that this fast was not only for the Work and Church, but so that each member could get closer to God.

Only when our hearts are right with God can we properly do His Work. We need that strong connection with our Father to have the strength to cry aloud and deliver the warning message (Joel 2:1).

Look to Jesus

The Apostle Paul provides another angle to this subject in Hebrews 12:1: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”

First, we must lay aside every weight. Sins are our weights. When we set them aside, it’s like a long-distance runner setting aside the heavy ankle weights he uses throughout training. Leaving these weights behind makes us light-footed and helps us run faster in our spiritual race!

Paul also talks about the “sin which doth so easily beset us.” Each individual may have certain sins that they struggle with more than others. God wants us to lay aside the sins that easily beset us individually—the sins that are a part of us and that we easily fall into. Then we can run with patience—persevering endurance—toward the finish line.

Verse 2 continues: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

This is the critical point regarding our race: We must run the course God has set for us! Jesus Christ is the pacesetter. He ran the course Himself first, and He gives us the strength to finish.

A more accurate translation of the words “author” and “finisher” is pioneer and perfector. Jesus led the way as our pioneer, setting the supreme example of living faith. But He also perfects His faith within us! How did Christ endure what He went through on the stake? He looked beyond the horrendous trial to the joy that was set before Him. We must use this same method!

That joy was preeminent in Christ’s mind because He was so close to His Father. Throughout His physical life, Jesus Christ was in constant contact with His Father. When Jesus was preparing for the titanic battle of the ages with Satan the devil, He fasted for forty days and nights. He knew this confrontation was inevitable, so He fasted to prepare for it. By the end of that fast, Christ comprehended like never before that without God, He was absolutely nothing. This is the key to real humility!

Matthew 4:11 shows that Christ was so physically weakened at the end of this battle that He was near physical death. When Satan offered Jesus the entire material world, He didn’t see anything valuable or permanent in Satan’s offer. We might have—but not Christ, especially after His 40 days of fasting and drawing close to God.

When we feel strong and healthy, we naturally tend to trust in ourselves and not see the necessity of relying totally on God! Other than going through sore physical trial, fasting is the best way we can get to that weakened physical state where we recognize how much we need God. We have seen many examples in the Church of dedicated Christians whose perspectives became much more focused and spiritual when they neared the point of death.

When you fast, you learn how insignificant and worthless you really are. Your pride crumbles. You remember that all that stands between you and death is just a few days of going without food and water, or just a few minutes of breath. You understand and comprehend more deeply the need for God in your life. You more deeply comprehend that God is our life!

Prepare to Fast

My father wrote about Zechariah 6 in The New Throne of David:

“If you are not preparing for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, you had better start now! We must be acting on these earthshaking prophecies! We must bear down to get prepared for this role. We must get ourselves out of the way now and let Christ work through us. God knows we can do this. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t be here.”

A proper, godly fast takes planning and preparation. Don’t stumble into a fast just because you missed your last meal. Before you fast, develop a written plan for your time. Honor God by planning ahead. Consider what you are doing and why you are doing it. Set reading and study goals. Try to follow Mr. Armstrong’s fasting formula—an hour of prayer, an hour of study and an hour of meditation, repeated as many times as possible.

In Matthew 6, Christ provided an outline for us to follow in our prayers. Immediately after that instruction, He gave instruction on fasting—“Moreover when ye fast …” (verse 16). Jesus knows how much His disciples need both prayer and fasting! This is the same Jesus who said, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29).

Matthew 6:16 makes it clear that fasting is a command. God doesn’t put a numerical figure on it, but the Church has recommended that baptized members fast around once a month, or perhaps 10 times a year in addition to the Feast of Atonement.

Verses 17-18 show that God openly rewards those who pray and fast in a right attitude! He rewarded ancient Israel every time they did this correctly, and He will reward each of us if we apply this instruction.

If we take this Christlike mindset into our fasting—combining godly fasting with plenty of heartfelt, earnest, repentant prayer—then we will achieve dramatic results!