Parents on Mission
As parents, we are all on a mission from the Lord to announce the love of the Father to our children and to encourage them, as much as we can, to believe it. We’re to tell them of the law so that they know that they need rescue, and then we’re to tell them of the Rescuer who has freed them from the law’s curse. But this monumental task is utterly impossible for us to accomplish on our own. We need rescue; we need a Rescuer too. So we need to pray for help. What follows are some examples of the prayers that Paul prayed. They will enlighten and direct our prayer away from the kinds of prayer that we’re tempted as parents to pray—Lord, just make them behave!—to those that more clearly reflect our mission as Christ’s representatives.
Paul’s prayers to the different churches have similar patterns. As we explore these patterns, we can learn how to pray for our personal mission field.
Thankful for Our Children
I (Jessica) have learned that the first section of Paul’s prayers is always filled with thankfulness for the people to whom he was speaking. In fact, he simply gushes with thanksgiving, speaking of his love for those people in astounding terms. Listen to the warm language he uses with his family in Philippi: “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). Paul longed to see the Thessalonians and wondered, “What thanksgiving can we return to God for you?” (1 Thess. 3:9). To the Romans he was filled with thanks and longing to be with them (Rom. 1:8, 11). He told the Ephesians that he did not cease to give thanks for them, remembering them in his prayers (Eph. 1:16).
Paul never shied away from praying with fervent fondness for his children in Christ. In the same way, our prayers for our children should overflow with thanksgiving. Of course, Paul didn’t have to wake up at 3:00 am to feed a screaming baby, to break up the fourteenth fight of the day, or to bear the cruel remarks of an angry teenager. I know that Paul didn’t have to do those things, but he loved all those churches as if they were his children. He did have to rebuke them and bear with them as they sinned against him and each other. These weren’t model churches with perfect congregations; they were churches made up of God’s children, sinners in need of grace. Paul was trying to see them the way Christ saw them and trying to love them the way he had been loved.
In the same way, we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us see our children like he does, with great hope and love. We can ask him to help us be “grace detectives,” to be more aware of how the Lord is working in their life than in how they are failing. I’m trying to learn to start each of my prayers for my kids with words something like this: Lord, I thank you for Johnnie. Please help me see where you’re working in him. Thank you that you’ve sustained his life. Thank you that he’s not pretending to be a believer. Thank you that he’s still in our home.
Praying for Our Children
After Paul’s time of thanksgiving for the people, he goes on to tell them of his prayer for them. He prays for them the same sort of Christian-living prayers we typically pray. He prays that they would walk worthy of their calling, do good, and be filled with knowledge and wisdom. He prays that the Lord would give them grace to love each other more and that they would be restored to perfect fellowship with the Lord and with one another. These are the types of prayers I previously offered for our children. I was focused solely on their behavior. Lord, please help Josh to be kind today and have self-control. We can pray for our children’s salvation or for their future spouse, but typically I limited my prayers to the behaviors that affected me most.
After these first two steps, Paul’s prayers differ from the way I normally pray. He does pray that they would love one another, but always in light of the way they have been loved. He prays that they would have knowledge and insight, but always a knowledge and insight about Christ’s love for them. He prays that they would know Jesus’s power at work in them. Yes, he does pray that they would do good but not so that he would look good or because he has worked so hard for them. He prays that they would respond in gratitude for Jesus Christ. He asks the Lord to help them become pure and blameless but only in light of the fact that they are already called pure and blameless by God.
If we have unregenerate children, we should be fervently calling out to God, pleading that they would see the riches and fullness of Christ’s grace. In fact, praying that every member of the family would believe in his grace should be our constant prayer. Our prayers should echo Paul’s, prayers asking that our children’s eyes would be open to the glorious power of God that created the heavens and yet intimately cares for their souls.
Trusting God with Our Children
Paul exuded confidence in every prayer in God’s work in the churches. When we listen, we can hear him praying and believing that his prayers had already born fruit. This confidence didn’t come from his trust in his fellow saints; he was very well acquainted with their failures. Instead his confidence came from God. He knew that by the faithful Lord’s power, the Lord would establish and guard them. He prayed that each one would be “strengthened with power through his Spirit” (Eph. 3:16), because “he who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24). Paul was confident in his prayers, because he believed Christ’s words on the cross. When Jesus uttered those three glorious words, “It is finished” (John 19:30), it meant that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6).
I (Jessica) admit that at times my prayer for my children is nothing more than vocalized unbelief aimed at God. Imagine that my son has been angry and unkind, hurting me and others for the past two hours. When he finally comes to me and asks for prayer, I can barely muster, “Lord, help him to stop crying and be nice.” I pray that way because I am angry and because I have forgotten who is at work here. I don’t believe that anything more than feigned repentance is happening. I doubt that he’ll ever change. So, when he asks me to pray, I do, but I don’t have any thanksgiving or faith to see what the Lord is up to. I’m forgetting that it is not my feeble attempts at parenting that are going to change this child. I forget that it is God at work in him.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit reminds me that I can pray with confidence that he will be changed, not because of my great prayer or parenting but because this is what God is working toward also. But in those moments of anger, I feel alone and helpless in my parenting. I feel utterly confused and weak in my parenting. But the truth is I am not alone, I have the Helper, and he is teaching me that I must have confidence in his strength, not my own.
So, by faith I’m learning to rephrase my prayer. Instead of praying that our son would stop crying and be nice, I begin to thank God for him. I thank God that our son has been entrusted to our family. I thank God that our son has come to me for help and that he is beginning to believe that prayer can make a difference. I do pray that the Lord would help him love his siblings, and then I begin to remind both of us of what Jesus has already done for us. Jesus lived in a family with irritating siblings. They certainly were selfish and sinned against him, yet he loved them. I remind myself and my dear son in prayer that this matters because, if he would believe it, this record of love can be his too. The Lord has beautifully transformed my heart. Instead of being focused on all that I am suffering, I am able to remember his sufferings and look to him for grace.