Several years ago I wrote an article suggesting seven things we parents can pray for our children. I still personally find them helpful. However, in making these suggestions, I included a qualifier:
Of course, prayers are not magic spells. It’s not a matter of just saying the right things and our children will be blessed with success. Some parents earnestly pray and their children become gifted leaders or scholars or musicians or athletes. Others earnestly pray and their children develop a serious disability or disease or wander through a prodigal wilderness or just struggle more than others socially or academically or athletically. And the truth is, God is answering all these parents’ prayers, but for very different purposes.
The more time passes, the more crucial this qualifier becomes for me. The more accumulated time I spend in Scripture, the more I read history, and the more I observe as I grow older, the less confidence I place in my perceptions of how things appear at any given point.
Trusting God, Not My Perceptions
I’ve lived long enough now to have watched a number of movements within evangelicalism surge and decline. I’ve seen numerous leaders rise and fall. I’ve seen spiritually zealous twentysomethings who got off to a strong, solid start become spiritually disillusioned thirty- or forty-somethings and falter, some abandoning the faith altogether. And I’ve seen spiritually disinterested, and in some cases dissolute, youth become spiritually vibrant, mature adults.
I’ve also been in close proximity to many parents who have raised children to adulthood. I’ve seen children of faithful, prayerful parents reject their parents’ faith, and I’ve seen children of unfaithful parents embrace Christ and follow him in spite of the profound pain they have experienced. This hasn’t made me skeptical of parental faithfulness, but it has made me less given to formulas.
“God is trustworthy, and what I think I see at any given time is not.”
And perhaps more than all that, I’ve also observed myself pass through various seasons of my own life. I’ve had seasons when I was full of faith and enthusiasm, and seasons of discouragement when I was a man of “little faith” (Matthew 6:30). I’ve endured seasons of dark depression and even faith crises. Well into middle age, one thing I know about myself is that I am “beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:2). I can bear witness that God has been unfailingly faithful to me with regard to his word, even though I have frequently not been faithful in trusting him.
Yes, I’ve learned that God is trustworthy, but my perceptions regularly are not. I’ve learned — or more accurately, I’m learning — not to assume too much when it comes to human beings, myself included. Jesus set the example, for he “on his part did not entrust himself to [people] . . . for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24–25).
This is an invaluable lesson when it comes to praying for my children.
Parenting Pushed Me to Prayer
I am the father of five wonderful human beings. They are wonderful to me, not because they are prodigies I can boast in, but because they are human beings, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God himself through the inscrutable historic process and genetic legacy of countless generations of fearful and wonderful humans — of which my wife and I are only the most recent contributors (Psalm 139:14). Sometimes I just stop and observe them, in awe of what and who they are, quite apart from what they do.
They are very much their own persons, very different from each other and their parents. They have unique temperaments, unique strengths and weaknesses, unique interests, and unique proclivities.
“If our children are doing well spiritually, they are not out of the woods. If they are not doing well, their story is not over.”
Like most young parents, my wife and I began our parenting journey with an almost unconscious assumption that if we did parenting “right,” our kids would embrace all we embrace without all the wrestling and pain and questioning we went through to embrace it. Though if you would have asked me that specifically back then, I would have denied it, theoretically knowing better. It’s just hard to avoid that early optimism.
But parenting has humbled me significantly. My weaknesses and limitations, I think, are most clearly exposed in fathering. The net effect this has had is to make me less confident in my abilities and efforts, and more dependent on, feeling more desperation for, the power of God to do for my children what he has done for me — a work of grace that I know my own parents would say occurred in spite of their weaknesses and limitations.
Two of my children have launched into independent adulthood, and three are in their teenage years. Over the years, I have watched many different kinds of spiritual ebbs and flows. They have lived in the same home with the same parents, who live out their faith before them in essentially the same way. They have attended the same churches. Yet they are each walking unique spiritual paths at their own unique speeds.
Ask, Seek, Knock
And here is where a parent’s faith is tested. We of course want our children to truly love the Lord Jesus, the true Pearl of great price, with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 13:45–46; Luke 10:27). We very much want them to experience this as early as possible.
But we don’t know what the best way is for each of them to learn this. We don’t know God’s purposes or his timetable for revealing himself to our children. Nor are we allowed to peer into the mystery of God’s sovereignty in election as it relates to our children (Romans 8:29–30).
But all I have observed and experienced in Scripture and in life teaches me two things: God is trustworthy, and what I think I see at any given time is not. Which means what looks encouraging to me now could very well change in the future, and what looks discouraging to me now could very well change in the future. Therefore, I stand by what I wrote in that article more than ever:
So, pray for your children. Jesus promises us that if we ask, seek, and knock, the Father will give us good in return (Luke 11:9–13), even if the good isn’t apparent for forty years.
“If we ask, seek, and knock, the Father will give us good in return, even if the good isn’t apparent for forty years.”
That last phrase reminds me of Peter Hitchens’s story of his conversion (Peter is the late Christopher Hitchens’s brother). He recounts how, as a 15-year-old, he cast off what he saw as the bonds of religious faith and zealously embraced atheism, publicly burning his Bible to announce his liberation. Then came the slow, unexpected realization well into mature adulthood that what he once thought bondage was true freedom, what he once thought liberation was, in fact, bondage, and what he once thought ignorant darkness was actually light. I doubt anyone who knew the young-adult Peter Hitchens saw that coming.
Do Not Lose Heart
So, let us not give up praying for our children. This ministry of intercession is a lifelong calling. We must not assume too much when it comes to human beings. If our children are living and doing well spiritually, they are not out of the woods. If they are living and not doing well spiritually, their story is not over. Therefore, let us “always . . . pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
God is faithful. He will never default on his word. Let us be faithful to his call on us, and let us be faithful to our children by continually petitioning God on their behalf. He will not allow such a labor, no matter what the result is that he determines in his wisdom, to be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).