In the aftermath of a natural disaster in my town, a Facebook user demanded, “All you people who are praying, stop praying, and get out there and help people.”
The statement brought up a valid question: In hands-on, “get out there and do it” ministry, is the power of prayer only in invoking emotion?
Christ gives the verdict. In Mark 9:14, the disciples fail to cast a demon out of a possessed boy. Later, the mystified disciples ask Jesus a pivotal question: Why did their faith fail them?
“So He said to them, ‘This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting’” (Mark 9:29).
His response stirs up another question: Why prayer and fasting?
Asking for prayer seems reasonable enough. After all, prayer can be a natural and simple task that does not have to take more than a few moments at any time or any place. So, sure, it is not too much to offer up prayer, especially when disaster strikes and there is some urgent need.
But fasting? That is another matter altogether. Fasting is not something that can be accomplished in an instant. It takes time for the body to develop genuine hunger, and then more time to voluntarily withhold from what the body desires. Likewise, it takes a determined effort to give up comfort by abstaining from a basic need.
So, to consider the disciples’ situation, how does one prepare for a wholly unexpected situation by fasting beforehand?
That could be a difficult riddle to solve. But there is a more important concept at the center of what Christ says in Mark 9:29. In essence, Jesus is telling His disciples that ministry takes preparation. Before beginning the nitty-gritty work that will bring tangible results, get down on your knees for spiritual labor. And, yes, that may take time. It may absorb total concentration. It may consume all attention for a while. It may even appear to others that the obvious need is being neglected.
Ministry performed through prayer is not focused on the amount of time that passes or the eradication of a need. The focus is on dependence and submission to God. It is the business done with God that will determine the success and power of any human endeavor. Prayer is the first task because ministry rests on God’s faithfulness, not on human expediency. Time spent in prayer, even time enough to allow for fasting, does not hinder God. The situation will not escape His notice and time does not slip fruitlessly through His hands.
So, we can take to heart Christ’s counsel in Mark 9:29. We also see how the disciples progressed in understanding and applying His lesson. The first thing the disciples did after the Ascension was gather in an upper room and continue “with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:14). The ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost were spent in prayer that prepared them to receive the power of the Holy Spirit for the ministry that was about to begin.
There are further instances where prayer and fasting have a symbiotic relationship in the disciples’ ministry. Occasions where prayer and fasting were emphasized often launched episodes of powerful ministry (Acts 13: 2-4; Acts 14:21-26).
Of course, we never know when we will be called upon to step out in faith and serve in a crucial way. Sometimes it will be in the streets with dire needs before us in the sight of a watching crowd. At other times, it may be unseen in an upper room, witnessed by only a few or only by God. In either case, we will be equally unprepared without first having been disciplined in devoting time to prayer and fasting.
And so we are given the instructions for how to be prepared. We are told to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We are given guidelines for why and how to fast (Matthew 16:16-18; 1 Corinthians 7:5). All in all, we are told not to view ministry as accomplishing an isolated, specific task. Instead, we are to live in such a way as to be always ready for action, but also to step aside and humbly deliver the outcome into God’s hands.