Don’t get me wrong—we desperately need to turn to God in prayer! But it always makes me uncomfortable when man-made decrees dictate religious actions, and then we feel good about ourselves thinking we’ve done something very spiritual! Jesus Himself warned of having a false sense of spiritual security based on form without substance.
It’s not to say that calls to national prayer cannot be of substance.
On June 12, 1775, the Continental Congress called on the colonists to set aside July 20, quote, “as a day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer; that we may, with united hearts and voices … confess and deplore our many sins; … humbly beseeching him to forgive our iniquities, to remove our present calamities.” It even called for everyone to “abstain from servile labour and recreations.”
George Washington later proclaimed a national day of prayer “as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer … to deprecate deserved punishment for our Sins and Ingratitiude, to unitedly implore the Protection of Heaven.”
And during the Civil War, President Lincoln, designating “a day for National prayer and humiliation,” wrote, “it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
These are powerful words! What’s that noise? Oh, sorry—I’m just imagining the shrieking if a president today uttered such beliefs!
Lincoln continued: “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”
Now those were words of substance!
In 1952 Congress proclaimed an annual National Day of Prayer, and in 1988 it was assigned to be on the first Thursday in May. So now it’s on the annual calendar: Presidents make lofty proclamations, and religions promote it with diverse events. Here’s the problem: When a call to devote ourselves to prayer becomes routine, based on designated dates, then we have institutionalized spiritual form and sacrificed spiritual substance.
I’ve already seen a website with a prewritten prayer to be distributed and read on May 2. The words are good; but folks, when someone writes and recites our prayers for us, we are missing the point of what turning to God really means. Jesus said, “When you pray, do not use vain repetitions!” God is looking for heart, not speeches. As He told Solomon, “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to prayer made in this place.”
Humbling ourselves, praying in sincerity and truth, seeking God’s face, and turning from wicked ways is the stuff of substance. It’s deeply personal; it’s prayer from the heart; it’s genuinely repentant and ready to change. It’s not form, and it’s not done by formula—an annual routine on a designated date.
What’s the greatest danger of the National Day of Prayer? The same one that Jesus Himself warned of when addressing the most prominent religious leaders of His day: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Can we be in the same boat?
If we, individually, really turn to God with all our hearts, then every day will be a day of heartfelt prayer. If we don’t, an institutionalized National Day of Prayer will be nothing more than a religious pep rally and exercise in form but not substance.
For Life, Hope & Truth, I’m Clyde Kilough.