Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Prayer and Fasting

This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting.

                        Mark 9.29

What’s the Secret?

For several years, I worked for one of the nation’s leading pediatric neurologists. Repeatedly, I observed shattering blows of unmitigated sorrow. Yet just as often, I witnessed triumphs of dogged determination in parents who wouldn’t rest until their children received the best available treatment. The story of the father who brings his tormented son to Christ always floods my mind with memories hundreds of similarly desperate moms and dads who kicked down doors of inadequacy, indifference, and stigmatization for their children’s sakes. This father’s insistence was no different.

The boy’s symptoms suggest severe autism with epileptic complications. He’s “possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” The father comes to Jesus after His disciples fail to cure his son. This vexes the Lord. He reprimands the disciples for their unbelief and calls for the child. The boy immediately seizes, not uncommon for epileptic children thrust into stressful situations. The father pleads, “If You can do anything, please help us.” “’If You can’?” Jesus replies. “Everything is possible if you believe.” Without hesitation, the father exclaims, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Jesus commands the disease to release the child, after which His disciples ask, “Why couldn’t we do that? What’s the secret?” Jesus says matter-of-factly, “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting.”

Proper Treatment

Not every problem can be remedied by good intentions, optimism, and abiding faith. These virtues sustain us through momentary crises of fear and doubt. But in addition to fleeting trials and temptations, we also struggle with any number of seemingly insurmountable weaknesses and challenges we must rid ourselves of once and for all to lead healthy, productive lives. Troubles of this kind can only be corrected by proper treatment, namely, prayer and fasting.

Prayer and fasting aren’t a protocol of last resort. They’re a commitment to thoughts and behaviors that subordinate natural logic and craving to unnatural belief and discipline. Prayer forces our worries through the prism of faith in God’s love and power. It bridles our minds to expect improvement. When we pray, we step back and give God the leading role in our circumstances to move in our behalf. Prayer accounts for His ability “to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3.20) Then, when we couple prayer with fasting, we bring faith to life.

What a great disservice we do ourselves by categorizing fasting as an impractical practice! Fasting, whether selective sacrifice of a specific appetite or full-fledged abstinence from food and drink, enables us to experience short-term victories while God’s will comes to fruition in the long run. It strengthens our faith and determination. If, for example, I commit to a three-day fast, each meal I let pass is a triumph. One becomes two, two becomes three, and so on, until disciplining my mind and body outweighs humoring my doubts and desires. Fasting fortifies skills I transfer to other areas in my life—especially those needing self-discipline, problems that can only be corrected by (that’s right) prayer and fasting. Therefore, fasting transforms sacrifice into obedience by teaching me to activate my faith step-by-step rather than accept my weakness as an ongoing condition.

A Lasting Cure

In his first epistle, John advises, “Everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2.16) If we possess anything we can’t imagine living without, we love it too much. It occupies space that belongs to God and weakens us. It crowds out faith and compromises our spiritual health. Directly or indirectly, it feeds problems that torment us. Prayer and fasting reduce the overvalued possession to its proper, manageable size. The clarity and discipline we gain restore our priorities to their rightful order. John goes on: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (v17) Prayer and fasting result in a lasting cure for chronic ailments. They heal workings of our mind that trigger pathological behaviors just as restoration of the boy’s neurological function cured his autism and epilepsy.

We all have issues we can’t allow to linger indefinitely. They trouble our minds too severely, seize us with behaviors we can’t control, and distress those who love us. When our plates are full of lingering problems, the most effective way to clear them for good is by literally emptying our plates. As we enter the Lenten season, I strongly urge each of us to consider aspects of our lives in need of permanent healing. Instead of sacrificing an insignificant “guilty pleasure,” we can make the most of this period of self-denial by opening our minds to meaningful prayer and disciplined fasting.

Clearing our plates of lingering problems starts by literally emptying our plates. 

(Tomorrow: Humbled)

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