[Note: This is an image of a proclamation of a National Fast-Day on August 12, 1861 by Abraham Lincoln, taken from volume five of The Writings Of Abraham Lincoln (1886), p.350-351 and in the public domain.]
What is the natural response to calamity and disaster? Much depends on our own natures. In 1861, even in the midst of Civil War, both the quarreling sides of North and South believed (accurately) that God is in charge of history and that He could be appealed to as help and aid in times of crisis and disaster. The fact that the cause of the Confederacy was unjust did not mean that it was wrong for them to seek God’s help, but it rather means that the help they received was the destruction of the idolatry of their own culture and civilization. Of course, it must be admitted that the North itself was not entirely just, and required some level of punishment for the profit that it had received from the unrewarded labor of slaves. The desire of Abraham Lincoln, as is the desire of all good statesmen, was for the well-being of his nation, all regions of it, and for the United States to be restored to God’s good graces and to receive once again the blessings that had been bestowed in times past. And that is what godly people wish for today.
How did Lincoln seek to demonstrate that America was ready for that mercy? Lincoln said: “It is fit and becoming in all people at all times to acknowledge and revere the supreme government of God, to bow in humble submission to His chastisements, to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and to pray with all fervency and contrition for the pardon of their past offenses and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action.” We continue to affirm this today. Apart from whatever blame we wish to affix on other parties for our problems, the existence of crisis can lead us to reflect upon our society and its state and how far that society is from God and how much it needs to repent and return to God to see a restoration of the blessings that are imperiled but that we have long enjoyed. And our heavenly Father is free to respond to our prayers with the positive answer we seek, a negative answer that suggests that we have much to learn, or with silence.
What is the purpose of such fasting? Lincoln again is clear here that it is to bow in humble submission in the knowledge that the crises and trials of our lives are in part of the way in which we are reminded that we have need to repent of the sins and transgressions of our lives and of our societies. There is no debate, either right or left, that we and our society have sins and transgressions. On the side of the left, such sins are labeled as a lack of equity in dealing with people, a lack of generosity, and the like. On the side of the right, such sins are labeled as a lack of obedience to God’s ways, and an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for our lives. I happen to think, at least personally, that both sides are accurate in what they speak out about sins, and it is part of our great tragedy that we are unwilling to see the justice of the complaints of the other side and unable to convince the other side of the justice of our perspective. There is no shortage of the sins for which we commit and are to be held responsible. The right ditch and left ditch are departures for the path to the Kingdom of Heaven alike, however different in specifics. And if one’s car is stuck in a ditch, it hardly matters which ditch it is.
Do circumstances exist in our present day that would warrant a national day of fasting and humiliation for us to reflect on our personal and societal sins? Indeed, they do. Whether we reflect on the divided nature of our own lives or families or institutions or society as a whole, there are many things to lament. What is our response to such circumstance? At the moment, humility appears to be in short supply. Everyone thinks that they are an expert in diagnosing the problems of society and institutions but such advice is not taken by others, because while we are quick to judge and quick to condemn, we refuse to bow our knees to repent. And if we are to avoid judgment both now and hereafter, such repentance is necessary. Demonstrating a bit of self-restraint with regards to our prodigious appetites and reflecting upon the judgment and calamity we face and repenting of our arrogance and of our sins and transgressions can only be a good start for seeing the restoration of the blessings we have long taken for granted.