As a pastor, I talk often with parents or grandparents with family members who grew up in the church but left faith behind when they reached adulthood. Though some parents share stories of their grown children’s struggles with substance abuse, sexual infidelity, or chronic lack of direction in life, many of these young adults have good jobs, happy marriages, and are well-respected in their communities. But they don’t believe in Jesus, or at least don’t make practicing faith a priority in their lives.
This rejection of faith can be deeply painful for parents and grandparents. It also requires some difficult choices: when do I bring up questions of faith? How much do I say? When do I remain silent and assume that those I love know what I think about their rejection of the Christian story?
I thought of many of these questions a few months back as I read a book called Prayers for Prodigals by James Banks. The book includes ninety daily prayers, adapted from Scripture, to help parents bring their wayward children’s needs before our heavenly Father. Banks speaks from experience: his own children are among those he prays for.
There are, of course, no guarantees about how our children will turn out. In my own tradition, we baptize children of believing parents as a sign of God’s promises and an assurance that God’s Spirit does work through our work as parents and a church family. Other theological traditions have different practices. But at some point, we recognize that we cannot make our children’s choices for them. They must claim the promises of God for themselves. They are responsible before God for their own behavior and choices. We cannot do those things for them.
So how can we pray for our grown children? What does it look like to bring their situations before a heavenly Father? Here are a few thoughts that go beyond asking God to change our children’s negative behavior or habits:
1. Pray that you would keep on recognizing that a relationship with Jesus really is a big deal. You’re not crazy to be worried about their relationship with God. Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Don’t talk yourself out of your concern for their spiritual well-being simply because you’re worried about “bothering” them about their faith.
2. Pray that you would realize the limits of your influence as a parent. We can’t make our children’s choices for them. Yes, we’ve made mistakes as parents that we regret or even repent of. But our children’s salvation was never in our hands (Ezekiel 18). Salvation is entirely a gift of God, through the grace given in Jesus Christ. If you’re carrying around the burden of trying to save your children, ask God to lift that burden from your heart.
3. Pray for God’s Spirit to continue to offer opportunities to share the story of salvation. There is a time to speak, and a time to remain silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7). And while there’s no magical solution to identify whether a particular conversation with your children requires speech or silence, trust that God works through both. Focus on the story of Jesus and his grace to you. Share with them what it means to be a forgiven sinner. And trust that God’s Word does not return empty (Isaiah 55:10), even if it does not appear to be at work in any particular moment.
4. Keep praying, and ask others to pray with you. Prayer is a powerful and effective discipline (James 5:16), even when God doesn’t appear to give immediate answers. But it’s not something we are expected to do alone. Ask some trusted Christian friends to pray with you for your children. Talk to your pastor about regularly including wayward adult children in congregational prayer, even if they’re not named specifically. When the New Testament church prayed together, the building shook (Acts 4:31). Don’t be so fearful of what others think of your parents that you avoid corporate prayer for those you love.
5. Pray that God would give you the grace to trust him with your heartache. Parenting is, in many ways, an exercise in learning trust. We trust that as we pray for our children, God works in our hearts just as he works in the hearts of our children. As parents, we trust that God can work even through and despite our mistakes, for his glory (Rom. 8:28). So even as we cry out, “How long, O Lord?” we put our faith in the only One who can save both us and our children.
Jesus once told a story about a father whose son turned his back on the family and on God (Luke 15:11-32). Demanding his inheritance early, in effect wishing his father dead, the son ran off and squandered his new wealth in a distant land with wild living. When his money ran out, so did his friends. Finally, in desperation, he decided to return home and beg his father to allow him to work as a servant in the household. Instead, his father ran and embraced him with compassion to welcome his wandering son home.
On page 67 of Prayers for Prodigals, James Banks writes of this saying, “No one cares more about prodigals than Jesus. Jesus loves my prodigal son and welcomes my prayers for him. Jesus wants to restore him to the Father and welcome him home. He has called me to join in His search and rescue mission. Together, we’re going after my son.”
So if you’re worried about a wayward child, don’t lose heart. God has a special place in his heart for you, and for your son or daughter.