In talking with fellow believers about praying for our children, I’ve noticed that some of the most urgent, energetic responses come from parents of adult children. It’s as if you’ve touched a nerve they were waiting (and perhaps wishing) for someone to touch.
Sober stories emerge in these conversations, including many about grown children who are wandering from the faith. The subject just needs to be opened, and out comes a rush of concern and sorrow as a parent shares the experience of seeing a child reject church and/or family ties, or the gospel itself. The pain in relation to adult children is a distinct kind of pain.
It’s an important group for the body of Christ to hold in our minds and in our prayers—this crowd of grown children that people in our churches carry around with them in their hearts.
A Crowd We Need to See
Not everyone in the crowd is wandering or estranged; some are only grown and gone. In any case, parents are mindful of them—and the church needs to be, as well. It’s a largely invisible crowd, but a hugely important one, these grown children of the church.
Less and less common these days are churches peopled by multiple generations sitting together in worship services. Families are spread out all over the globe. We don’t routinely think of people interconnected with generations of biological family; in fact, many may resist that process, especially amid declining numbers of marriages and increasing numbers of divorce. Just know me for me right now, so many parents or children might want to say.
But knowing the joy and the prayers of my friend for her son who is working over in China is important to my knowing her. Hearing the heart of a single woman in our church for her parents in another state and her brother in the military in Europe helps me know her, love her, and pray with her more fully. Knowing the prayer-struggles of a couple whose daughter has walked away from the faith is important to my knowing them. Sections of their story are colored in—not necessarily in detail, but enough so that I can embrace this part of who they are and join their prayers for their loved family members.
Our identities do not lie in our earthly families; it is the family of God, the body of Christ, that will last forever. However, God made us to live in families—families that shape us, that teach us about our spiritual family, and that God uses to grow His church generation by generation.
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God …. (Psalm 78:5-7)
When we picture Noah, we see him entering the ark with his wife and three sons and their wives (Gen. 7:13). When we picture Rahab rescued safely from Jericho, it’s with her father’s household and all who belonged to her (Josh. 6:25). In the New Testament, when the Philippian jailer believed Paul’s and Silas’ gospel call to put his faith in the Lord Jesus, he gathered “all who were in his house” to hear the word of the Lord, and “he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:30-33).
The Bible encourages us not to forget God’s transgenerational work. We get to be a part of it. We get to pray for the children and the families of believers, even if they are not in sight. They are part of the story of grace.
A Crowd We Need to Release
From the parents’ perspective, these invisible grown children pull on our hearts, in all kinds of ways. Part of the reason for such an urgent response may be that parents often feel a certain frustrated helplessness to “fix things” for our adult children, even though we would love to do so. With children grown and gone, parents are sometimes left groping after them to help, or to know how best to help without getting in the way.
Here’s where prayer comes in. Prayer is not a last resort. From the beginning of parenting (and all the way through), it is a first resort. Prayer based on God’s Word is ground zero, for Christian parents. It’s the indispensable thing that leads us to do the other things wisely and well. Scripture-shaped words spoken to God filter and flavor our words spoken to others. We need to consider this crucial element of prayer and help each other along in practicing it. Our prayers are urgent—and our prayers bring benefits that we should not fail to enjoy.
We could use the word “blessings” just as well, but “benefits” calls our attention to the way God in His providence actually uses our prayers to bring about good results, as He hears and answers (James 5:13-18). We can speak of such benefits only because of the immeasurable, undeserved benefit of God’s righteousness given to us sinners by grace, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place. We have access to our heavenly Father through Christ our risen Savior; this communion with God is the glorious, eternal benefit of our salvation.
The benefits of prayer for our children include benefits for our own hearts as we pray and commune with our Lord. We have His breathed-out Word to fill our hearts and prayers. We have His Spirit dwelling in us to help us pray. We get to run boldly into God’s throne-room, and see Him, and lay out the entire stories of our lives before this Father who loves us as His children—and whom we can trust entirely with the children He has given us.
There is a release that comes from putting prayers for children into spoken words offered to the Lord. Articulating words of prayer for children is a kind of giving of the children to the Father in heaven, a giving that starts even before they are born. We parents must all ultimately do what Hannah did as she presented young Samuel at the temple and left him there. It happens in various stages for various families, but it must happen. Our children belong to the Lord. Our groping after them ends with finding His hand.
A Crowd We Need to Share
We are not meant to experience this process alone. We can help each other trust God with our families, as we believers who walk together pray together.
As older parents worship and interact with younger believers in the church, we have opportunity to observe close-up some of the generational differences that can become issues between parents and grown children. On a practical level, we can quietly observe that they often do many things a little or a lot differently from the way we did them: from meals and entertaining, to dressing for church, to career planning, to social media practices, to home decorating. As many of my friends have also discovered, they do not seem to want our furniture. All this is good for us to take in with humility. It helps us see through to what is important, in our prayers and in all our words about and with them.
As I’ve prayed for various younger women in my church Bible study groups, I’ve thought more and more about the fact that I’m praying for someone’s child. This younger woman may need a spiritual mother—or an additional spiritual mother—praying for her. We need to call in the prayer troops for the next generation.
I’ve also been conscious of the prayers of other spiritual mothers and fathers for my children; they need those prayers. Our son and his wife and child in Indonesia need the prayers of the body of Christ around them; the believers close to them in that part of the world can pray in ways I don’t know how to pray. Our sons and their families in business professions need the prayers of godly people who know the pressures of serving God in those callings. A son who is a pastor needs the prayers of his elders and congregation; how I thank God for those prayers.
When we think of of the “crisscrossed” prayers of all of us believers for the children of the church, we can thank God this is a crowd we share. God has a generational plan for His people, and we can join the flow of that plan, in our prayers.
A Crowd We Need to Send
Praying for this crowd of growing and grown children stretches our hearts. We begin to sense God’s global raising up of generations, as He calls a people for Himself from all the nations of the world—even as He began through the seed of one man, Abraham, and his children. Why did He choose to accomplish His plan that way?
When we think of the “crisscrossed” prayers of all of us believers for the children of the church, we can thank God this is a crowd we share. God has a generational plan for His people, and we can join the flow of that plan, in our prayers.
That’s too big a question for us to answer, but we get a start by glimpsing the way families reveal our God to us. According to the Scriptures, a husband and wife picture deep truths about Christ and the church. Parents and children reveal deep truths about our Father God, His love for His Son, His amazing love that gave His Son to become sin and suffer His wrath, in order to save us and make us His children.
In their best and most godly forms, our family relationships hint at the glorious fellowship of God’s eternal family, redeemed through Christ our Savior. In their sinful, broken manifestations, these family relationships lead us to long for the family we were made for—with the perfectly loving Father, the perfectly obedient Son, and the Spirit poured out to give power and resurrection life to all God’s children, forever. We long to see that family in its fullness.
The great missionary movements of any time and place include not just the ones who go but also the ones who send—including, crucially, the parents who by God’s grace release and rejoice and pray. During our years serving at Christian colleges, my husband and I saw many Christian parents who struggled with this role; it brings its own pain of physical disconnection. It is not easy.
In 1810, Adoniram Judson wrote a letter to the father of Ann Hasseltine, the godly young woman from New England whom he wished to marry and take with him across the ocean to Asia; this was the starting point of American foreign missions. Adoniram wrote to Ann’s father:
“I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure for a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and suffering of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God?” (I recommend Sharon James’ biography “My Heart in His Hands: Ann Judson of Burma,” Evangelical Press, 1998. See pp. 34-35.)
If you look up Ann’s story, be sure to read not only about her family’s loving release and support of her and her husband, but also about their church’s stalwart love and prayers throughout the years of their service—ultimately in Burma, today Myanmar.
What if we could pray for our earthly families with the heavenly family in clearer view? What if we local congregations could become even more effective prayer-troops, called up to support and send generation after generation of believers to grow God’s family all over the earth?
Perhaps, then, the groping hands of us parents of adult children would become steadier hands, hands linked with other members of God’s family, hands full of help for the ones God puts around us, hands lifted in prayer to the Lord who oversees His whole family perfectly, to the end.
Kathleen Nielson is an author and speaker who loves working with women in studying the Scriptures. She has taught literature (PhD, Vanderbilt University), directed women’s Bible studies in local churches, and served as director of The Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Initiatives from 2010 to 2017. This article is adapted from her book “Prayers of a Parent for Adult Children” published by P&R Publishing.