This Sunday, March 22, has been proclaimed a “Day of Prayer”. General Synod 2019 appointed two churches with the mandate to determine, in accordance with Art 54 of the Church Order, when there should be a Day of Prayer.
That article reads:
Days of Prayer
In times of war, general calamities, and other great afflictions the presence of which is felt throughout the Churches, a day of prayer may be proclaimed by the Churches appointed for that purpose by general synod.
Last Saturday evening the two churches appointed for this purpose (Rehoboth Church in Burlington and Providence Church in Edmonton) issued a proclamation designating March 22nd to be such a Day of Prayer. They wrote: “We hereby proclaim Sunday, March 22 a day of prayer for the churches in light of the COVID-19 reality that is sweeping the country.” Since we want to honor the decisions of the major assemblies, and since we have the wellbeing of our country at heart, we will hold a Day of Prayer this coming Sunday.
Perhaps you wonder what the purpose of a Day of Prayer might be. The temptation is to use the opportunity to beseech the Lord to give wisdom to the authorities and strength to the doctors and nurses of our land, and perhaps more specifically to ask God to take the virus out of our country and world. And it’s true; the authorities do need much wisdom and the medical professionals do need abundant strength – and so we’ll certainly prayer for them. But the fact of the matter is that COVID-19, like every disaster, comes from the hand of the Lord (see Amos 3:7). More, the Lord God puts this disaster on our country (and indeed the world) for a reason. He is holy and of purer eyes than to look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13). He told us in Paradise already that the wages of sin is death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). That principle remains consistent through world history (cf Deuteronomy 28:15ff; Matthew 24; Romans 1; Revelation 6); his hand presses heavily upon populations that disregard him and his word. Today’s world -whether it’s China or Italy or Canada- has no regard for the Creator and his Word. As God is unchangingly faithful to his word, we cannot be surprised that the Lord expresses his displeasure on the nations.
A further temptation is to contrast the unbelievers of Canada with the believers as if the unbelievers provoke God’s judgment while Christians do not. It certainly is a fact that Christians may know themselves wonderfully forgiven of their sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. But the fact of the matter is that Christians are not at all perfect – and that includes their ability to recognize their own sins and to repent of them. Each one of us has ample blind spots in our lives so that we do not see our own sins and so don’t repent of them; alternatively we choose not to see our sins.
So it will not suffice to attribute this expression of God’s displeasure on the unbelieving of our land without humbling ourselves on account of our own sins. That’s the purpose of the Day of Prayer; we’re meant to acknowledge that we Christians contribute to God’s displeasure on the land. Rev WWJ vanOene, in his commentary on the Church Order, described the purpose this way:
The purpose of the day of prayer is … not merely or even mainly to “pray away” the disaster and tension but to pray for and receive forgiveness and to implore the Lord to be merciful.
How should we do this Day of Prayer?
Of course, this coming Sunday we’ll do two normal church services, as usual (though attendance will be via livestreaming), be it with greater emphasis on prayer. That prayer will need to be for those in authority over us, those in the medical profession, those who are sick on account of COVID-19 as well as their loved ones, those who cannot now work and so need to wrap their heads and hearts around what that means for paying bills, those suffering from cabin fever on account of quarantine restrictions, etc. But more importantly, we’ll need to pray that the Lord open our eyes to see our own sins more clearly -yes, I speak to myself here too- and pray that the Lord give us the humility we need to confess our sins, repent of them, and change incorrect patterns of behavior.
I think that last is the harder part. How, we wonder, might God open our eyes to see the sins we now don’t see? I think we can begin to answer the question with considering the effects the coronavirus is having among us. Right at the top of that list is that families are forced to spend more time together. With education facilities closed, entertainment facilities closed, even outings to friends discouraged, and all Canadians told to stay home, we have no choice but to spend more time with spouses, children and parents. Why would the Lord press more family time upon us? Might it be that we have been so busy with the activities of life that we have undercut God’s own wish for family life?
I think the question is worth a thought. The Lord is clear on what he wants: spouses are to keep investing deeply in each other as they walk deliberately together to the New Jerusalem. Parents are to show God’s children-by-covenant in very considered manner how to travel the road of life well, with the glory of God in mind. But in the rush to do all the things we had to do (according to the demands of our culture – I think of pursuing the dollar, excelling in sport, checking off destinations on our bucket list), so many couples have drifted apart and so many families have done little in training the children in God’s service; in many cases the latter has been seconded to schools, catechism instruction, church. Now that families are compelled to spend more time together, might it be that the Lord forces us to consider whether we’ve dropped the ball here? I think it’s certainly a question we need to pray about: Lord, have we failed to be the families you want us to be? Are you using our present circumstances to correct our habits?
If in fact we need to confess (individually and perhaps as churches) that we have dropped the ball in how we do family life, we’ll need to acknowledge our error in repentance. Repentance would look like Dad and Mom spending more time together in the Word as they seek the Lord’s instructions and promises concerning the questions of life. It would also look like Dad (and Mom) spending more time teaching the Word to the children. That would include catechizing the children, teaching doctrine, doing memory work together, answering the children’s hard questions, and so much more. This Sunday -and perhaps for the foreseeable future- we will not be in church together; that will give additional time both to reflect on how we do family and improve on our act. A Day of Prayer is certainly a good time to begin to develop better habits on this point.
Should we also fast on this Day of Prayer? There certainly are plenty of instances, both in Scripture and in history, of people who have accompanied their prayers with fasting (eg, Ezra 9:6; Nehemiah 1:4; Acts 13:2f).
I find it striking that the Lord nowhere in Scripture gives the command to fast. The nearest we find to a divine command to fast is the posture the Lord required of Israel for the Day of Atonement; the people were to “afflict” themselves (Lev 16:31; 23:27,32). In other words, sorrow for sin should weigh upon the people. Then yes, the weight of that guilty conscience could dispel any appetite for food – or perhaps other activity. It seems to me that the same would be valid today. It’s not that we must join fasting to our prayers for humility, clear-sightedness, confession and repentance (as if fasting produces better heavenly results); instead, if in fact there is confession of sin and repentance, our sorrow for having grieved God -and so for having contributed to bringing the present plague upon our nation- would surely affect our appetite for food and other activity.
The good news of Jesus Christ is, of course, that there is glorious forgiveness of sin in the blood of the Savior. We may delight in that gospel, and that’s where the ‘journey’ of the Day of Prayer is certainly meant to end up. But especially on a Day of Prayer we want to avoid shortcuts. We want to see how we grieve God, want to learn what the Lord would teach us, want to repent of the specific sins that drove our Savior to the cross, want to live in closer step with our Lord, and want to delight in the good news that specific sins are washed away.
It is my prayer that the
Day of Prayer be a blessing for ourselves, our churches and our nation.
 With Common Consent (google it; the commentary is freely available on the internet), page 255.