What is the connection between prayer and fasting?

Question: "What is the connection between prayer and fasting?"

Although the connection between prayer and fasting is not specifically explained in Scripture—nor is it commanded—a common thread connecting the two seems to run through all the instances of prayer and fasting that are recorded for us. In the Old Testament, it appears that fasting with prayer has to do with a sense of need and dependence, and/or of abject helplessness in the face of actual or anticipated calamity. Prayer and fasting are combined in the Old Testament in times of mourning, repentance and/or deep spiritual need.

Nehemiah’s prayer and fasting as described in the first chapter of his book resulted from his deep distress over the news that Jerusalem had been desolated. His many days of prayer were characterized by tears, fasting, confession on behalf of his people, and pleas to God for the mercy he knew the people did not deserve. So intense and heartfelt was the outpouring of his concerns that it’s almost inconceivable that he could “take a break” in the middle of such prayers to eat and drink. The devastation that befell Jerusalem also prompted Daniel to adopt a similar posture: “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Like Nehemiah, Daniel fasted and prayed that God would have mercy upon the people, saying “we have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws” (v. 5).

In several instances, fasting is linked with supplicatory, intercessory prayer. David prayed and fasted over his sick child (2 Samuel 12:16), weeping before the Lord in earnest intercession (vv. 21-22). Esther urged Mordecai and the Jews to fast for her as she planned to appear before her husband the king (Esther 4:16). Clearly, fasting and petition are here one and the same.

There are instances of prayer and fasting in the New Testament, but they are not connected with repentance or confession. The prophetess Anna “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:37). At age 84, her prayer and fasting were part of her service to the Lord in His temple as she awaited the long-promised Savior of Israel. Also in the New Testament, the church at Antioch was fasting in connection with their worship when the Holy Spirit spoke to them about commissioning Saul and Barnabas to the Lord’s work. At that point, they prayed and fasted, placed their hands on the two men and sent them off. So we see these examples of prayer and fasting as components of worshipping the Lord and seeking His favor. Nowhere, however, is there any indication that the Lord is more likely to answer prayers if they are accompanied by fasting. Rather, fasting along with prayer seems to indicate the sincerity of the pray-ers and the critical nature of the situations in which they find themselves.

One thing is clear: the theology of fasting is a theology of priorities in which believers are given the opportunity to express themselves in an undivided and intensive devotion to the Lord and to the concerns of the spiritual life. This devotion will be expressed by abstaining for a short while from such normal and good things as food and drink, so as to enjoy a time of uninterrupted communion with our Father. Our "full freedom to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus" (Hebrews 10:19), whether fasting or not fasting, is one of the most delightful parts of that "better thing" which is ours in Christ. Prayer and fasting should not be a burden or a duty, but rather should be a consecrated celebration of God's goodness and mercy to His children.

Recommended Resource: A Hunger for God by John Piper.

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What is the connection between prayer and fasting?