Fasting: training our body for the life of prayer

I recently read Old Testament Pentecostal scholar Lee Roy Martin’s book, Fasting, A Centre for Pentecostal Theology Short Introduction (Cleveland, TN, CPT Press, 2014). Martin’s book is perhaps the very first ever attempt from Pentecostal orientation, to construct a theology of fasting , based on a thorough analysis of the relevant biblical texts, and an ecumenically-conversant survey of historical practices across Christian traditions, with special to early 20th century Pentecostal exemplars.

I find most salient, two unique approaches Martin develops on the subject of fasting as a spiritual discipline, which he strives to develop from Pentecostal assents. First, is his final chapter titled, “Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Fasting.” Here, he persuasively argues how we can appreciate and engage the practice fasting as a key “component of Pentecostal spirituality” (p. 147). As one component, Martin outlines how “a theology of fasting may be informed by the Fivefold Gospel” (Christ as Saviour, Sanctifier, Spirit Baptiser, Healer, and Coming King) (p. 150-151f). Yet I believe that more important is Martin’s stress on how fasting fits within Pentecostal spirituality when practiced as a means of ordering bodily desires towards a hunger for God’s presence (pp.147-150, 160).

Yet more significant is how Martin earlier develops this fasting as an expression of Pentecostal embodied worship, through his chapter titled, “Toward a Biblical Theology of Fasting.” Recognising fasting as a “natural human response” to “intense affective experience” (p. 79) and particularly exemplified in biblical examples of “lament”-oriented prayer, Martin argues how the practice of fasting demonstrates a holistic approach to prayer that thus goes beyond prayer simply articulated through words “as a product of the mind” (p. 81). Hence, we can appreciate fasting as a whole-body articulation of prayer, particularly lament-oriented or urgency-oriented prayer. Therefore, fasting demonstrates an embodied and affective approach to worship. Hence, a practice that well illustrates Paul’s exhortation to “present” our “bodies” to God as “a living and holy sacrifice”; a “spiritual service for worship” (Rom 12.1) (p. 91-92)

Martin thus suggests we should approach the practice of fasting, as an important mode of physically embodied prayer. Hence, the act of fasting is prayer not just cognitively spoken, but an important act of worship, that affectively speaks expresses prayer through our whole body. Here we should recall the athletic imagery that describes the ancient Christian understanding of asceticism. We should thus approach fasting as an ascetical practice that trains our body to function as a means of embodied prayer. Faster thus helps capacitate our bodies towards acts of worship. This is incidentally, an ancient Christian understanding of fasting within the broader rubric of Christian asceticism. Moderns have often miss-construed the broad drift of acetic practices as expressing a negative orientation towards the body and/or a freeing of one’s spirit from it. Yet actually, historic Christian asceticism rather presumes the integral role of the body towards Christian spirituality; hence, like other ascetical practices, the aim of fasting is ordering the body towards its spiritual purpose, which is worship before God and embodied mission within and towards creation. Through its stress on bodily action within worship and prayer, Pentecostal spirituality affirms and exemplifies this historic ascetical orientation. Martin’s suggestive outline towards a Pentecostal theology of fasting confirms this observation. Namely, via his attempt to do so via the narrative sequence of the Five-fold Gospel; particularly when we thus appreciate the Christ as Coming King motif as inferring the missional and eschatological aim of ascetical practices, including fasting.

Martin concludes with “practical guidelines for fasting,” also recalling his own experiences with fasting and examples on how he has benefited from its practice. Here he also provides a taxonomy of varied types of fasting. Martin’s survey of the biblical data, ecumenically broad survey of varied Christian approaches, and early Pentecostal sources is commendable, and provides a helpful foundation towards constructing a theology and practice of fasting.

Much more can probably be said, and should be said on the affective role and effects of fasting; hence, how fasting fosters transrational modes of knowing, and the receiving of ecstatic experience(s). This would probably necessitate a more trans-disciplinary approach to the topic. Both the fortifying and combative role of within the notion of spiritual warfare also warrants further attention. Yet Martin provides a helpful introduction that is readable at a popular level, pastorally oriented and themed, yet evidencing solid scholarship.

Martin, Lee Roy. Fasting. A Centre for Pentecostal Theology Short Introduction. Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2014.