‘Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.’ Matthew 17:19–21
Suggested Further Reading: Matthew 6:16–18
There are those who watch unto prayer, wait before the Lord, seek his face, and exercise patience till they get an audience. Such disciples continue in their retirement until they have that experience of access for which they crave. And what is fasting for? That seems the difficult point. It is evidently accessory to the peculiar continuance in prayer, practised often by our Lord, and advised by him to his disciples. Not a kind of religious observance, in itself meritorious, but a habit, when associated with the exercise of prayer, unquestionably helpful. I am not sure whether we have not lost a very great blessing in the Christian church by giving up fasting. It was said there was superstition in it; but, as an old divine says, we had better have a spoonful of superstition than a basin full of gluttony. Martin Luther, whose body, like some others, was of a gross tendency, felt as some of us do, that in our flesh there dwelleth no good thing, in another sense than the apostle meant it; and he used to fast frequently. He says his flesh was wont to grumble dreadfully at abstinence, but fast he would, for he found that when he was fasting, it quickened his praying. There is a treatise by an old Puritan, called, ‘The soul-fattening institution of fasting.’ and he gives us his own experience that during a fast he has felt more intense eagerness of soul in prayer than he had ever done at any other time. Some of you, dear friends, may get to the boiling-point in prayer without fasting. I am sure that others cannot.
For meditation: Jesus said ‘when’ not ‘if you fast’ (Matthew 6:16). In Scripture, fasting seems to have been reserved for special times: disaster (Judges 20:26; 2 Samuel 1:12); danger (Ezra 8:23; Esther 4:3,16); disease (2 Samuel 12:21–23; Psalm 35:13) and decision (Acts 13:2–3; 14:23). Are we missing out on something?
Sermon no. 549
10 January (1864)