Praying with Purpose

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Rembrandt's Prodigal Son

The dutiful, obedient older brother with folded hands misses the gospel and his Father's embrace. (Luke 15:11-32)

In the last two posts we’ve explored the connection between prayer and surrender. In prayer we come to grips with our powerlessness to affect change in our children. We let go of our parent dreams of happiness, safety, and success in favor of God’s more dangerous and compelling dream of using triumph, failure, joy, and sadness to mold your son or daughter into the image of Christ.  But while we surrender to God in prayer, we do not surrender our responsibility to pray with directness, specificity, and expectation.

The story of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32) tells us that everyone has a heart motivation that drives us from God, the Father.  It exists in everyone from the openly rebellious pagan (the younger son) to the dutiful, moral religious person (the older brother).  If God’s purpose was to make moral people, then praying for your child to behave would be enough. Jesus calls us to a higher life that is more than doing the right thing.  It is living a life that is motivated by a devotion to God and a love for our neighbor.  Good deeds inspired  by a wrong heart motivation will cause us to miss the feast of God’s grace.

Here’s what I mean.  I was a dutiful son.  Not perfect. I had a real temper as my brothers and sister can attest to, but I had a real drive to meet the expectations of those around me.  That heart motivation made me a moral person.  I didn’t rebel as a teenager.  I did well in school. I had friends.  I didn’t experiment with drugs or alcohol.  I didn’t get anyone pregnant. Why? Because, I wanted my parents to be proud of me.  I wanted the admiration of my peers.

How can you pray with desperation for such a son?  What more does God want than a child who stays clean, does well in school, and is liked by his peers?  God wanted my heart.  He wanted me to do all these things because I loved Him, but I was motivated by a heart of fear. What if I fail?  What if you don’t like me?  What if you are disappointed?

Blaise Pascal the brilliant mathematician and a faithful follower of Jesus wrote:

We do not keep ourselves virtuous by our own power, but by the counterbalance of two opposing vices, just as we stay upright between two contrary winds.  Take one of these vices away and we fall into the other.

I was an upright child because my desires to be outwardly rebellious were held in check by my fear of losing approval.  But what happened when I was alone and there was no one watching?  What about those times when following Jesus means losing the approval of those whose opinions I valued?  What if sticking up for the bullied kid means earning the scorn of your friends? What if the winds change and my desire to be liked is no longer aligned with drive to be good?

How do I need prayer?  I need to hear daily the words that Jesus heard at his baptism, “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  Only when those words become real will I be able to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and live a life of devotion to God.  A life that sacrifices the self in order to live courageously for the other.  It’s more than being a nice person. I needed to know that through the gospel, my righteousness comes not from the opinions of others, but is a gift from Jesus that is received by faith.  Could you imagine how my life would be different if I actually believed that?

All children are unique, but what they have in common is a heart motivation that left alone will drive them from their Heavenly Father. My heart was driven for a desperate search for approval.  Others are driven by winning, control, popularity, being right, being free from rules, a desire to live in comfort and never do anything unpleasant, or finding a boy or girl who will satisfy their hearts.  These motivations may push your child to be “successful” or they may drive them into the pig sty of failure, but either way they are far from their true Father’s home.  God is not about making them productive members of society, but true sons and daughters who are moved by the love of God.

Take some time today and study your children.  What is it that drives my son or daughter’s heart? Ask your spouse for help and invite the Holy Spirit to show you.  As you understand your child’s heart, then begin to ask the question: ” How can the gospel speak to that heart motivation?”  “What aspect of the gospel needs to become real to them?”  And then pray with boldness and real conviction.

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Prayer: Surrendering to God’s Dreams for your Children

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Jacob wrestles with the Angel of the LORD.

Jacob wrestles with the Angel of the LORD.

The are certain prayers that flow naturally out of a parent’s heart.  We want our kids to be safe.  We want them to do well in school.  We root for them to make the team.  We pray that they get into college.  We want them to have lots of friends. We hope that they find the right spouse and avoid falling for that person that reminds you too much of yourself.  We’ve all prayed prayers of self-preservation, ‘LORD change them.  Make them behave.  Make them listen to me.  Turn them away from the path of self-destruction.’ We didn’t learn these sorts of desperate prayers in a parenting class.  They are inspired by our compassion for our children and a desire to live our lives without popping heartburn medication and anti-depressants.

But what if God’s plans for our children go deeper than a life of happiness, success, safety, and good behavior?   How would that challenge the way we pray? Think about the opening words of Jesus’ prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  There is surrender in those words.  Our dreams for our children contain visions of peace, happiness, love, success, and behavior, but God’s dream is deeper, stronger, darker, but more compelling.  When we pray, we are not only acknowledging our powerlessness, we are surrendering our dreams for God’s dreams for our children.  ‘Your will, not my will, be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

So what does God value more than safety, success, and happiness?  Paul captures God’s dream in Romans 8:28:

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

So what is this good that God works in all things in our lives and in the lives of our children?  Paul writes:

Romans 8:29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son …

Here is God’s dream for your child, that they become like Jesus.  The hope this passage gives us is not that God will make lemonade out of the lemons of our lives.  Rather, that God will use your child’s successes, failures, sins, triumphs, joys, and sorrows to deepen their faith and mold them into the image of God’s Son, Jesus.  The truth is, only God knows what your child needs to make this happen.

It was Peter’s public failure where he denied Christ three times that broke his heart open to God.  For Abraham, following God meant leaving his family for a far-off country from which he would never return.  Mary’s journey with God took her through the terrifying experience of a teenage pregnancy. David’s best moment came not after his triumphs, but after his greatest moral failure, his adultery with Bathsheba and the ensuing cover-up (see Psalm 51).  Jacob became a true man by wrestling with God and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

We surrender to God in prayer, not because we believe that he protect our children from disappointment, failure, and pain, but because we believe that God can and will work through all these struggles to make our children like Jesus.  Think of this: what if God answered our natural prayers?  What if our kids sailed through life with the perfect marriage, the successful career, and the sterling public reputation, but they were never brought to the place where they were confronted by their need for Christ?  What if they our children are so satisfied with this life, that they lose their desire for the next one?

Prayer, at its heart, is a terrifying surrender to the will of God.  It is owning God’s dreams for our children and abandoning our own. How can we take such a step of faith? Our thoughts go to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed with sweat pouring off him like drops of blood.  He has the option of walking away from the cross, but instead he prays:

Luke 22:42 Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.

Prayer and Powerless Parenting

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Mark 4:26 This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know why.

Paul Miller in his book, A Praying Life, argues that the greatest thing a parent can do for their children is to pray for them.  I used to think that was a cop out.  I’ll resign myself to prayer because nothing else seems to be working.  I refuse to believe that I am that powerless.  But what if we are?

My greatest fear as a parent is that my children will not believe the gospel and not follow Christ.  What happens if my son and daughter comes to the end of their life without surrendering to Christ?  Then what? That question leads to these kinds of fears.  What if I am failing my kids?  Are there things I should be doing that will “make them” believe the gospel? If only I set a better example for them and wasn’t so short tempered.  Will it be my fault if they grow up to be unbelievers?

I believe these types of fears and self-doubt mask our deepest fear that we as parents are unable to control our children’s decision to believe the gospel.  Here is what Paul Miller writes about coming to that realization:

[Emily – Paul’s daughter] walked a little ahead of me, so I slowed down and prayed, ‘God you have got to give Emily faith this year.  You have no choice.’  I was keenly aware of my inability to grow faith in her heart.  God just had to do it … Was this a name-it-and-claim-it-prayer? No, I wasn’t trying to control God.  I certainly wasn’t in control of Emily.  I was simply praying God’s own heart back to him.

At the heart of prayer is a surrendering to our powerlessness, not to give up, but to tap into a power source that is greater than ourselves.  I am convinced that we can not parent our kids effectively until we allow God to bring us to this place.  It is only in the place of powerlessness and desperation where true prayer can emerge.

Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a garden and gardener..  A gardener tills the soil, plants the seeds, pulls weeds, puts down fertilizer, and does pest control.  While he works hard to create the conditions  for life to flourish, the power to create life is beyond his control.  We as parents provide a stable home, model the Christian faith, correct our kids, bring them to church, teach the faith in our homes and pray with them. We do our best to create an environment to foster faith.  But the ability to create faith is no more within our grasp, than a gardener is able to coax life out of a dead seed.  We put in the effort, we pour in the love, but it is God who supplies the power.

The farmer plants the seed and tills the ground but at the end of the day he must pray to the LORD of the harvest to cause the seed to germinate and  to send the rains and the sun.  And so it is with us.  Through prayer we surrender to our powerlessness, so that by faith we might believe that God can and will channel his power through imperfect people likes us so that in our weakness we might be the gospel for our children.

It was Paul who came face to face with his powerlessness when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus.  After a lifetime of effort, Jesus asks him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.”  (see Acts 9) In that moment self-reliant Saul died only to be resurrected as weak Paul who lived by a new and greater power.   Paul writes this of his experience.

2 Corinthians 12:19 But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Could it be that parenting is our own Damascus road experience where God confronts us with our powerlessness, forces us to our knees, and moves into a new joy where we discover God’s power shining through our weakness?  Maybe that’s the point.