Special Prayer Days

“In time of war, pestilence, national casualties, and other great afflictions, the pressure of which is felt throughout the churches, it is fitting that the classis proclaim a day of prayer.”

—Article 66, D.K.O.

Already in the earliest redaction of our Church Order, provision was made for the calling of special days of prayer in the churches. Originally the above article of the Church Order read as follows:

“In times of war, pestilence, depression, persecution of churches, and other general calamities, the ministers of the churches shall request the government that upon its authority and order public fast and prayer days be appointed and hallowed.”

Our present reading of Article 66 differs from the original in two respects. It omits the provision calling for fasting and it designates the Classis rather than the government as the body that is to call the day of prayer.

In the latest proposed revision of the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church the provisions of this article are combined with those of Article 67. It is substantially the same as appears in our Church Order with the exception that it leaves the matter of calling special days of prayer up to each church individually although this does not exclude the classis or even the synod from doing so. The proposed revision inasfar as it concerns the article we are discussing reads: “In time of war, pestilence, national calamities, and other great afflictions, the presence of which is felt throughout the churches, it is fitting that they proclaim special days of penitence and prayer.”

It is not strange that the church in former times practiced fasting in connection with these special prayer days. To fast was a common thing already in the Old Testament. We read of it repeatedly and sometimes for a rather extended period of time. Long before the Reformation it had been introduced in the Roman Catholic Church and it is common knowledge that even today that church has its days of fasting. The churches of the Reformation, however, did not go along with this idea. This was not because they felt the idea of fasting in itself was sin. This they did not do as is evident from the fact that at different times it was introduced also in these churches but the practice was never retained very long. The reason for this is to be found in that the Reformation churches condemned the abuses and superstition that were often associated with fasts. For example, it is a very old and widespread belief that with food demons enter into the body of man. Hence, he who wishes to have close fellowship with God must be abstemious in order to become a pure vessel of the Spirit. Especially in the Roman Catholic Church fasting is considered to be meritorious. These are the things that the Reformation condemned and rightly so.

It is debatable whether or not the discontinuance of all fasting for these reasons is justified. It cannot be denied that Scripture sanctions the practice when it is done as it should be. In Old Testament times it was, among other things, one of the visible expressions of repentance and sorrow for sins committed. “The Church Order Commentary” speaks of Scriptural fasting as a practice which “aims to repress and curb the flesh and so constitutes a spiritual exercise. Fasting should be practiced to repress the flesh and to prepare for prayer and humiliation before “God.” The latter was the view of Calvin. When you consider that in former times the people of God in the Reformed Churches would gather in the house of God for a whole day without food or drink to listen to two sermons, the reading of portions of Scripture and offer many prayers, you cannot condemn this practice absolutely. It displays a richer spirituality and consciousness of dependence upon God than one sees in our times when people complain that the sermon is more than fifteen minutes and the entire service extends beyond an hour. The danger of externalism, superstition and abuse in worship is just as real as these same dangers in connection with “fasts” and yet, we do not discontinue the entire practice of worshipping God because of those things.

Even the practice of calling special days of prayer, as provided in this article of the Church Order, is not without its dangers. Not that it is wrong for the church in times of stress to assemble for the purpose of calling upon the name of God. On the contrary for we would emphasize that this is a very desirable and necessary thing, but the perversion of it comes when the prayers that are offered are flagrantly in conflict with the principles of God’s holy Word. Then the very purpose of Prayer Day—which ought to be that it causes within us humiliation and arouses a deeper spirituality—is defeated. This is unquestionably the case with many such special days that have been called by our own government in the past few years and which many churches have heeded. Could it be that this very thing is the reason such services have not been observed in our churches. We do not call days of prayer because it is the popular thing but, to quote from the 66th Article, “because the pressure of affliction is felt throughout the churches.”

In times of war, pestilence, national calamities, and other great afflictions the church must see the hand of God. She must understand that in these things the Lord speaks as He lowers His hand of judgment upon the earth. The pressure which is felt in the church as well as throughout the world is brought about by that hand. Today that pres sure is felt as never before. Tensions and fears grow stronger by the day. The possibility of self-destruction for mankind has become reality. War, with untold horror and misery, lurks in every corner of the globe. Want and privation persist for millions while others bathe in luxury and over-abundance causing bitter resentment, greed and hatred, which things in turn produce more misery. Must the church in such circumstances call special days of prayer? Indeed so, but not in a proud attempt to dictate to the Most High as to how He is to govern the affairs of the world or to outline before Him a humanly devised program that would correct the evils of the world. We must not become so arrogant as to think that we can instruct God how to improve His management of world affairs. God Himself has put “enmity between seed and seed” in order that through the way of struggle and adversity His wondrous glory may be made manifest in the revelation of His grace to His people. We would with our carnal prayers obliterate that antithesis so that the glory of man, united in his sinful purposes, may be extolled. How foolish and abominable such prayers are. Rather let the people of God assemble to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God; to patiently wait His deliverance and to implore His grace and Spirit that they may continue faithfully amidst mounting pressures unto the very end.

The church that lives in the consciousness of the truth of the Word of God is able to face the adverse facts of life realistically. She knows that there shall be wars and rumors of wars unto the end of all ages. She understands that the disruptions in nature causing affliction and sorrow for man are in effect the operations of the Divine wrath upon the earth that was cursed because of man’s transgression. She realizes that for His own purposes God sometimes releases the powers of wickedness that they may ruthlessly torment and persecute His church, the helpless widow. She is not oblivious of the fact that in this sin-torn world there is nought but “vanity of vanities.” In the midst of all this the church cannot remain unaffected. She feels the pressure, endures hardship, suffers pain, is terrorized by the powers of evil but steadfastly and perseveringly she continues to march like a mighty army of God onward and upward to Zion. To pray that all these things would be otherwise is for her an impossibility and that for several reasons. Firstly, she knows that prayer is not designed to change the plan of God but it is the experience of solitude that brings the child into submission to the Father’s good purposes. Secondly, prayer in its real meaning is not self-centered and aims not to realize man’s foolishness but has its purpose in the glorification of God and, therefore, seeks the fulfillment of that purpose of His will in which His Name shall be praised continually. Thirdly, knowing that all things work together for good .to them that love God and the same things ripen the wicked for the day of judgment, she will not ask that this good be disrupted or the judgment postponed but through fervent prayer will seek the hastening of the coming of the Kingdom.

Our Church Order states that “it is fitting that the Classes proclaim a Day of Prayer.” This does not mean that it is wrong for the Synod to proclaim such a day for all the churches. Neither does it deny the individual consistory the privilege of doing so if and when it should feel this is desirable. It designates the classes because, generally speaking, the needs and circumstances of churches within a limited territory as defined by the classis are the same and so each classis may determine for itself whether such a proclamation is desired.

In the churches of Holland this is somewhat different. They say, “In time of war, etc. . . . a Day of Prayer shall be appointed by the Classis appointed for this purpose by the last General Synod.” A certain Classis is designated by each general Synod, which is charged to appoint special days of prayer for all the churches of the denomination whenever this classis may deem such a step advisable.

In spite of the rulings of the Church Order, however, we seem to be reverting back to the old practice of having the government, rather than any ecclesiastical body, perform this function. If the president issues a proclamation, the churches readily respond. This sense of patriotism is reflected in the modern prayers and practices that center in the slogan, “Our country and God.” The latter is made a secondary agent to be employed in the interests of the former. Such prayer days do not aim to seek God but they are called to promote worldly interests. Such prayers will not be rewarded.

Let us rather heed the good Word of God in Hebrews 12:28, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” And pray without ceasing till that Kingdom is revealed.

—G.V.d.B.