Life As Prayer: How Parents Learn to Pray Continually
Imagine six short months ago: someone from the future tells you that in just a few weeks, a deadly virus will sweep the Earth. Countries on every continent will go into lockdown. You will be unable to leave your home except to purchase food and basic necessities, and even this will be discouraged unless it’s an emergency. Professional and college sports will abruptly be cancelled (as in, players will be ordered to leave the floor in the middle of a game) with no plans to reschedule. Schools and businesses will be ordered to cease operations. Churches will close their doors and begin offering online services only. Masks will become mandatory in some places. And there will be no toilet paper.
Would you have believed it? Could you have imagined such a dystopian-sounding future mere months ago?
Probably not. And yet, every bit of it happened.
For most of us, the past several weeks have driven home the reality that life as we know it can change in an instant, and we have little control over what happens to us. This sobering realization may have caused many Christian parents to pray more and with greater intensity than ever before. Fears and uncertainties about sickness, death, and economic ruin have abruptly shifted our focus away from things we once believed were important. Prayer often seems more natural in a time of crisis; when things are going smoothly many of us tend to let our prayer life slide. As we parent our kids during this time, our prayers for them have never seemed more vitally important than they are in the face of a global pandemic.
But this will pass, and weeks or months from now when the crisis is no longer front and center of our lives we may find ourselves drifting back into our “regular” prayer habits. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Could we incorporate the some of the lessons we’ve learned in the past few months to bring an urgency and intensity to our practice of prayer and as a result of that, pray better for our kids?
In the fifth chapter of his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gives a list of instructions to the believers there. In verse 17, he writes simply “pray continually.” Paul doesn’t elaborate on this command, apparently feeling it doesn’t need much explanation. But that verse has always raised a lot of questions for me. How does one pray continually when there are bills to be paid, homework to be supervised, dogs to take to the vet, and messy houses to be cleaned up? What, exactly, does praying continually look like?
As I considered this question, it occurred to me that I am guilty of seeing prayer as a finite activity with a beginning and an end. I relax in my favorite chair in a quiet room, prayer journal open in my lap, and begin to pray. I wrap it up with an “amen,” and then I am on to other things. But in order to pray continually, prayer has to be more than finding time to sit quietly with a list of confessions and petitions. In order to pray continually, we must incorporate prayer into everything we do.
So what are some ways to do a better job of praying continually when it comes to our kids?
Keep at it. One way we can fulfill Paul’s instruction is to pray with persistence. The Amplified Bible translation shows verse 17 as “be unceasing and persistent in prayer.” Note the word “persistent.” The dictionary definition mentions the qualities of being tenacious and not giving up in spite of opposition, obstacles, or discouragement. Note, too, that persistence has a different meaning than insistence, which means “to demand.” God clearly wants us to keep coming to him with our prayers, but we must not fall into the trap of believing that persistence will lead to God always answering as we want Him to. Praying with persistence does not mean presenting to God our preferred outcome to a situation and expecting him to bless it.
With persistence, our hearts will change, and as a result, our prayers will too. As God answers or asks us to wait, our requests will begin to evolve in conformity with His will. For example, our prayer for our son’s college decision will of course be different as those acceptance or rejection letters come in. We will begin to see prayer as an ongoing dialog that shifts with God’s responses.
Keep it interesting. Another way to pray continually is to vary how and what we pray for. For years, most of my prayers revolved around an ever-lengthening prayer list. After a time I realized I was overwhelmed with the number of requests I was praying for and underwhelmed with the overall vitality of my prayer life. Sometimes we might need to shake our prayer life up a bit to keep us praying continually. While interceding for others is vital, we should also remember that prayer is much more than checking off a list of requests. Explore other aspects of prayer, perhaps even occasionally spending your entire time focusing on:
Praise: Our schedules are busy, and distractions come furiously at us from all directions. It can become too easy to get so preoccupied at times that we take the incredible gift of God’s presence and saving grace He heaped upon us through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for granted. Remind yourself of God’s holiness, his provision, and his generosity. Praise Him for his beautiful creation and for giving you breath to witness it. Remember that our first response to God should always be worship and praise for who He is. While God is a great giver of gifts, He is first and foremost the holy and righteous creator of the universe and the source of all life. Immerse yourself in rediscovering praise through prayer and you will open doors to ways to pray for your kids that move beyond rote prayer requests.
Confession: I have too frequently been guilty of approaching God with a blanket confession and then moving right on to other, less uncomfortable things. You know, the old “forgive me for my sins. Now, here’s who I’m praying for today.” But we miss an incredible opportunity for growth in our faith when we take confession too lightly. Dig deep and dwell on both your sinful nature as well as specific sins and the way those two work together to put up a barrier to full communication with God. Be specific and be prepared to go into those places you’d rather just ignore or rationalize away – sins of the heart such as prejudice, anger, disappointment, and addiction. As you confront your own sin, you will likely discover areas where you might need to approach parenting in a different way. Through honest confession, we tap into the attribute of God that will have us longing for prayerful communication more often: his forgiveness. Knowing we serve a God who never fails to forgive a penitent heart will make us feel incomplete until we’ve sought the forgiveness we need.
Thanksgiving: Counting your blessings is a surefire way to energize your prayer life and make you eager to pray more. Look for the small blessings – it’s amazing how often we overlook them. Spend a little time being thankful for each of your children individually. Again, look for those blessings that might not seem so obvious – your son’s easygoing nature, your daughter’s watchful curiosity. These are gifts from their Creator, given for a purpose. Pray for eyes to see your kids the way God sees them, thankful for the purpose they serve in His kingdom.
Finally, keep the Holy Spirit as a constant companion. Here is where praying continually becomes as natural as breathing: if we view God through the Holy Spirit as ever present within and beside us, our every act, word and thought becomes an invitation to pray. Remembering your daughter’s hilarious story from dinner last night becomes a chance to whisper “Thank you, Lord, for her wacky sense of humor. May it be a way for her to attract others to the joy of following you.” That flare of anger you feel when his teacher emails to say he hasn’t turned in his last two assignments might be an opportunity to search your own actions and ask “What am I missing here, Lord? Show me why this has become a problem and how I can help him.” Keeping the Holy Spirit close reminds us that nothing we do or say or think is unimportant to God. When we feel God’s presence in everything we do, our natural response becomes to acknowledge, give thanks, ask for direction, and praise him through constant, ongoing communication.
Jesus himself provides the best example of praying continually. He prayed publicly and privately, frequently escaping to a quiet place for communion with God. He instructed his disciples, who, despite His presence and example, struggled with the question of how to pray. Even in his darkest and most painful moments on the cross, Jesus never lost the thread of constant communication with His Father.
As we emerge into the “new normal” of post-pandemic life, we, too, can make a commitment to remember those feelings of helplessness and complete dependence on God, using them to give new vitality to our prayers for our kids. Then we can look for ways to fulfill Paul’s command to pray continually, bringing a new awareness of God into every facet of our lives.