For years, the first Thursday in May has been designated as the National Day of Prayer. Throughout the United States, groups of believers have come together to pray for God to move – in our churches, in our communities and in our world.
The coronavirus pandemic presents a challenge to a physical prayer gathering, but it cannot and must not stop us from stopping to pray. I have been encouraged to see so many churches adapt to our new circumstances, coming up with creative ways to invite their people to pray together.
Along with Marshal Ausberry, first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and Noe Garcia, our second vice president, let me invite you to join tens of thousands of other believers May 7 in this year’s National Day of Prayer and Fasting.
At 2:30 p.m. Eastern that day, everyone is invited to a brief online gathering. We’ll be joined by other SBC pastors, church planters and missionaries as well as Ronnie Floyd, former president of the National Day of Prayer and our own SBC Executive Committee president and CEO. I hope many of you will join us, too, as we seek the Lord during this especially critical time.
Stay tuned for more details to come in the next few days, but the gathering will be streamed live in several places, including the SBC Executive Committee’s and Baptist Press’ Facebook pages.
Beyond the prayer gathering, let me call you not only to pray on May 7, but to consider fasting as well.
In my time with God over the past few weeks, I have found myself coming back to a classic verse on the importance of prayer: “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” (2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV).
This verse, given to ancient Israel, shows us the heart of God for His people, His willingness to hear their cries for help in times of trouble. Jesus told us that if we ask anything in His name, He will hear us. More than ever before, this invitation from God should mark our response to the current crisis that grips us and the world around us.
A day of fasting offers us a unique opportunity to actively humble ourselves and prayerfully seek God’s face.
When we fast, we turn away from gratifying our natural appetites and turn toward feasting on God and His Word. In a very real way, fasting awakens us to just how much we are driven and controlled by fleshly desires. This recognition calls us to repent and acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ declaration, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
And so we turn away from those things that provide an illusion of physical sustenance and turn toward the only One who can fill and satisfy us.
Some, for medical or other reasons, may not be able to fast from food. A great option would be to choose to fast from social media, television or some other activity. Remember that fasting is not a way for us to impress or manipulate God, but rather a time to recognize our complete dependence on Him.
Some Suggestions for a Successful Fast
1. Pray and ask God to reveal Himself to you during this time.
2. Predetermine the length of your fast and plan for how and when you will break the fast. You may choose to fast for 24 hours or for a set period of the day, such as dawn to dusk.
3. Be sure to stay hydrated – water and juices are excellent for this. Avoid caffeine and lots of added sugar.
4. Plan for specific times of prayer through the day. Be careful not to fill up your day with activities that keep you from praying.
5. Remember that others may be impacted by your choice to fast – family, roommates, etc. Be sure to consider and plan for how this will affect them.
6. Keep your Bible and a journal close by. You’ll want to be alert to what God might say to you as you wait before Him, making notes of insights you gain.
Genesis 1:31: “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”
Psalm 104:24: “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you make them all; the earth is full of your creatures.“
Look up at the vast sky; consider all the beautiful green trees and grass; listen to the birds. All of it is God’s handiwork. It originated in His imagination and was created by His great power. And it shouts how great and beautiful and glorious and creative and powerful He is. Let creation lead your heart to worship God.
Hebrews 1:2-3: “But in these last days He has spoken to us by his Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom also He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.“
The One who created all things by His powerful word is the same who sustains all things by that same word. He is sovereign over all things, faithfully working in every situation to accomplish His good purposes. And as John Piper says in his recent book, “The same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it.”
God’s sovereignty not only sustains, but sees to it that everything, bitter and sweet, works together for our good – the good of those who love God and are called in Christ (Romans 8:28-30).
Take a moment to marvel at the sovereign goodness of God. Thank Him that He is working all things together for our good, even when we do not understand. Rejoice that, though the enemy intends destruction in this current crisis, our God means it for good.
Romans 5:12,15: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. … But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”
God’s incredible creation has been marred by sin – sin for which we all are responsible. Paradise lost. Death spread to all men because all sin. The effects of your sin are devastating, for yourself and for others. What do you need to confess? Where is this crisis uncovering idolatry? Where has a love of comfort and seeking life in things displaced your love for God?
Consider again the sovereign goodness of God. Where has fear caused you to doubt the faithful love of God? Confess where you have foolishly violated James 4, acting as if tomorrow were promised to you (James 4:13-17).
End your time of confession by giving thanks to God for the redemption and forgiveness purchased for us by Christ Jesus.
3. Humbling ourselves before God
Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
Maybe like nothing we’ve ever experienced before, this crisis has brought our mortality into focus. It has certainly exposed our weakness and vulnerability. Ask God to give you a humble heart that rests in His sovereignty, and pray for wisdom as you live each day in light of eternity. Give God thanks for the promise of eternity with Him through Jesus Christ our Lord.
4. Awakening and salvation
Mark 6:34: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.“
As you consider your neighbors and those who live around you, ask God to give you a heart of compassion for those who do not know Him. Pray that God would bring an awakening to your city through this current crisis. Ask God to help people see their need for Him and bring many to salvation. Pray specifically for your ONE, asking God to use this season to turn their hearts toward Him.
5. The medical community
Isaiah 40:28-29: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.“
While our hope is never in our own abilities or the efforts of others, we do want to pray for the medical community as they serve on the front lines of this pandemic. If you know medical personnel, pray for them by name. Pray not only for the doctors and nurses in our own country, but for those around the world.
Ask God to strengthen and sustain medical personnel. Pray that God would protect them and their families. Pray that God would bless the efforts for those who are working to develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. Ask God to heal those who are sick and to mercifully bring an end to this pandemic.
Psalm 145:13b-16: “The Lord is trustworthy in all He promises and faithful in all He does. The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to You, and You give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.“
Every single one of us is dependent on God to provide for us and sustain us. And the scriptures remind us over and over again that God cares for the widow and the orphan and the alien. His heart is turned toward those who are oppressed and cast down. Pray for those who have been and are impacted greatly by this pandemic and the economic fallout. Pray that God would use His people to provide for them. But also ask God to provide in miraculous ways like He did for the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17) or the multitude He fed with a few fishes and loaves of bread.
7. The church
Acts 2:42-46: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.“
What more could we ask for the Church of Jesus Christ in this season? Pray that our churches would be marked by unity and love for one another, that we would care well for each other in this crisis and when it has passed.
Pray that we will be blessed so that we can be a blessing to the communities where God has placed us. Ask God to give wisdom and direction to our pastors and leaders as they shepherd His flock.
Luke 10:2: “He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest field.“
Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth!“
The heart of our God longs for those who are separated from Him. He is not willing that any should perish. He promised that He would be exalted among the nations. And to that end, He told us to pray that workers would be sent out to preach the Good News.
Pray for an increased willingness to go. Ask God to stir your own heart for the nations. Pray that hundreds, even thousands would go to the mission field because of this. Pray that He would open doors for missionaries to go into all the earth.
Ask God to protect those who are on the field now and keep them healthy and safe so that they can continue to be a light in darkness. Pray that God would make this a season of unprecedented advance of the gospel.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – J.D. Greear is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C.)