And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him [the evil spirit] out? And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting [Matthew 17:19-21].
Jesus offers us insight into the nature of certain malevolent conditions that require uncommon efforts to correct. His disciples had been unable to cast out a particularly unmanageable spirit by conventional declarations and oaths. The Messiah suggests that their faith was insufficient. It had to be bolstered by fasting and prayer, to succeed against such a defiant opponent.
As Jesus pointed out, exorcism is most effective when accompanied by prayer and fasting. Whether at the individual or communal level, prayer and fasting are powerful natural resources for resisting the disintegration of our social order and for liberation and deliverance from personal temptations.
Today, we live in a period of greatly diminished faith. Having abandoned the paths offered by sacred scriptures, we have opened the doors to unprecedented social degeneration. The vacuum created by rejecting faith has been filled by a “banality of evil” that reigns pervasively throughout modern societies. Philosopher Hannah Arendt eloquently expressed this in her analysis of the trial of Nazi leader, Adolph Eichmann:
From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied . . . that this new type of criminal . . . commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong. [Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil].
Grace of God
Our first line of defense against such prevailing depravity is to rely on the grace of God, being faithful in our worship, adhering to high moral principles and avoiding sinfulness. We must remain firm in our personal commitment to Truth, and to persevering in a life of altruistic service. However, under extreme conditions, our personal exorcism must include dedicated prayer and fasting.
A fifth and more weighty reason for fasting is that it is a help to prayer; particularly when we set apart larger portions of time for private prayer. Then especially it is that God is often pleased to lift up the souls of his servants above all the things of earth, and sometimes to rapt them up, as it were, into the third heaven. And it is chiefly as it is a help to prayer that it has so frequently been found a means in the hand of God of confirming and increasing . . . seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility, and tenderness of conscience; deadness to the world and consequently the love of God and every holy and heavenly affection [John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions]
Fasting enhances God-consciousness, humbles the spirit and immerses the mind in repentance. It makes our soul bow even before we prostrate in prayer, diluting our arrogance, shrinking our pride and binding our ego, leaving us free to worship and praise the Almighty Creator uninhibited by affectation and amenities.
In regard, then, to the discipline of which we now treat, whenever supplication is to be made to God on any important occasion, it is befitting to appoint a period for fasting and prayer. Thus when the Christians of Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Paul, that they might the better recommend their ministry, which was of so great importance, they joined fasting and prayer (Acts 13:3). Thus these two apostles afterwards, when they appointed ministers to churches, were wont to use prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23). In general, the only object which they had in fasting was to render themselves more alert and disencumbered for prayer. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion]