By presidential proclamation, today marks the National Day of Prayer. This year’s official theme draws on the words of Jesus in John 13:34, “Love One Another.”
This call comes at a critical juncture. As political civility wanes, institutional trust declines, and resurgent international terrorism dominates headlines, America faces a spiritual crisis. Because of this unease, over 56 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and only 20 percent favorably view their leaders in Washington.
Despite increasing numbers of religious “nones,” religion is still a critical part of the fabric of America. According to Pew Research, 80 percent of Americans believe in the God of the Bible. Undoubtedly, this reflects the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
Calls for national prayer in times of crisis can be traced back to 1775 when the Continental Congress designated a day to pray for the new nation. Then Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, also observed a day of “fasting, humiliation, and prayer” in 1779. Presidents John Adams, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln also called their fellow citizens to pray.
Today’s observance traces its roots to the mid-twentieth century. As the United States found itself entangled in yet another war, evangelist Billy Graham expressed what he sensed was widespread desire to set aside a day to pray for the nation. Congress heeded Graham’s recommendation and in 1952 unanimously passed a bill that would establish a Day of Prayer. Every year since the sitting president has signed a prayer proclamation.
The National Day of Prayer is intentionally non-sectarian and non-political. Its stated goal is to mobilize public prayer for God’s blessing on America. Nationwide, Americans observe the day through local prayer breakfasts, concerts, rallies, prayer vigils, and flagpole gatherings.
Theologically speaking, the urge people feel for a National Day of Prayer is a reminder of humanity’s finite nature. The reflex to pray points to what philosopher Blaise Pascal once called the “God-shaped vacuum” in every human heart. Ultimately, because of limited resources, knowledge, and time, everyone is forced to admit they are inadequate and unprepared for life’s biggest challenges. Include humanity’s inclination toward bias, prejudice, and sin, and it is inevitable that many of our decisions are motivated by pride and greed. Prayer, however, counteracts these natural impulses by recognizing man’s dependency on God.
Additionally, Christians in particular are called to a life marked by prayer. Colossians 4:2 contains the admonition to “continue steadfastly in prayer” and 1 Thessalonians 5:17 charges believers to “pray without ceasing.” Jesus himself modeled a posture of prayer throughout his ministry, withdrawing to pray from the constant crowds .
Incredibly, Christians pray at God’s invitation. A primary reason for Christian prayer is the opportunity to receive God’s grace. Moreover, Jesus explicitly commands his followers to pray.
Thus, fundamentally, prayer is an act of surrender. In prayer, the supplicant admits they do not have answers to all of life’s questions and that they need God’s guidance. This is true on a personal and a national level.
For a nation, setting aside a special day of prayer has biblical precedent. For instance, Nehemiah proclaimed a national fast for the people to seek God’s help.
One of the most well-known verses in the Old Testament is a public call to prayer. 2 Chronicles 7:14 says: “if my people who are called by my name 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.”
Although this promise was given to Israel as the unique people of God, the principle still applies to nations today. In the New Testament, God’s people are again exhorted to pray for their national leaders. After all, as the writer of Proverbs reminds us, “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord.” Christians who believe in the sovereignty of God nevertheless believe that prayer is commanded for those who are in positions of authority. Jesus commanded us to pray, and the Bible promises that God hears us when we pray.
In the challenging times we live in, prayer is a lifeline to God. Although cultural elites increasingly ridicule and deride it, prayer, as modeled in the Bible, is not an empty gesture. Instead, prayer is the believer’s petition to the Creator of the universe for justice and righteousness. That is why, throughout the Bible, God’s people prayed in all situations, including national emergencies.
Their example is worth emulating.
Thus, on this National Day of Prayer, Americans have an opportunity to set aside partisan bickering and the politics of division to unite in prayer for their nation, leaders, and local communities. Hopefully, as we “humble ourselves and unify in prevailing prayer for the next great move of God in America,” God will receive honor and be pleased to send revival and refreshment to our nation.