For one short season of our parenting journey, my husband and I felt as if we were hanging on to the reins of a runaway horse. Daily battles over curfews and negotiations around boundary lines had taken the place of warm conversation and laughter around the table. We mourned the loss as we searched for words to pray over family life in what felt like a war zone.
We were desperately trying to hold the line against hormonally fueled pressure to relax biblical standards of holiness in the home, while also negotiating the pressure of imminent college and career decisions, and it drove us to our knees. But at a time when prayer should have been a crucial lifeline, I found that I did not trust my own prayers for my teen children.
Could I even know what to ask God for when I was feeling unsure about my own motives? How does a mother ask God for help in dealing with the daily arguments without lapsing into imprecatory psalms?
Prayer in the Pressure Cooker
Because I’m of a practical frame of mind, my prayers for the people I love are mostly bound by everyday concerns. Even so, I am learning to embrace the prayers that God gives us in his word — prayers of much more lasting import than I’m usually inclined to pray.
Jesus’s prayer for his disciples in John 17 comes from the pressure cooker of his final earthly hours. In a dark and dismaying context of betrayal and mental anguish, he managed to put words around his deepest longings for his beloved friends. Following three years of intensive ministry, of loving and leading an unruly band of disciples (who were young adults themselves), Jesus poured out words of hope for their future. His prayer extended beyond their immediate impact to touch a world that still desperately needs to behold his glory.
Praying Jesus’s words for my teens lifts my eyes beyond every immediate need to the greater and more pressing concerns that Jesus voiced for his followers of all time, those who were with him at the Last Supper and those who sit around our dining room tables today.
1. Lord, they are yours.
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me. . . . I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” (John 17:6, 9)
Jesus was aware that each of his faithful disciples was a gift from God. He said it out loud as he prepared to leave them, trusting in the sanctifying power of God’s word to keep them (John 17:17).
Handing our children over to God when they were infants was relatively easy compared with the task of entrusting them to God’s care now that they are jingling car keys in their pockets and making their first financial decisions. “Lord, this boy is yours, and your love for him is more perfect and pure than my own” becomes an important admission on the way to a quiet heart. The power of the word and the Spirit is still at work, and is not diminished by my fear or my faithlessness.
2. Lord, make us one.
“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:11)
Jesus was born into a divided world. The us-versus-them of Jew-Gentile interactions that characterized first-century Palestine had been painted on a canvas of Roman occupation. He chose twelve disciples whose ideological bandwidth ran from political zealot to professional tax collector, and his prayer for unity among believers still reverberates along today’s ethnic and racial fault lines. In our pews and in our homes, God calls us to be one.
With the increasing independence and the natural pulling away of these teen years, I continue to pray that our family unity will be unharmed by the tug of opinions and politics or by the stretching that comes with geography and schedules. I pray that Jesus himself will unite us, despite all our differences and distance.
There is also an internal oneness or integrity that can feel elusive but is crucial to the spiritual formation of a young adult. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard defined purity of heart as the ability “to will one thing,” and my prayer for my believing young adults is that this “one thing” would be the glory of God.
3. Lord, keep them from evil.
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)
On a dark night when evil seemed to have the upper hand, Jesus prayed for protection for those he loved. He knew that their effectiveness would require intimate contact with the world and all its messiness, but he put his trust in the power of God to keep them pure, faithful, and unstained.
One moment of inattention, a slip of judgment, an immature lack of discretion: there are ten thousand ways for a teen to fall unintentionally into evil. (And then there’s the strong possibility that they may go looking for it.)
Rather than allowing my imagination to manufacture hair-raising scenarios, I strive to follow the counsel of Paul Miller in A Praying Life. When we “turn our anxiety toward God,” he says, “we’ll discover that we’ve slipped into continuous praying” (57). That’s not a bad formula for surviving the teen years.
4. Lord, give them your joy.
“But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” (John 17:13)
Aware that joy might be in short supply among his disciples, Jesus prayed that they would go looking for it in the right places. The hatred of the world cannot quench the joy of the Lord.
Teens with indoor plumbing, high-speed internet, and access to antibiotics can still be chronically dissatisfied with life. The classic John Piper quote “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” forms my prayers for all my children. Jesus was consumed with rightly representing God’s glory (John 17:4), and my sons’ greatest joy will also be found in cooperating with God in the fulfillment of his will for his glory.
5. Lord, make them holy.
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)
As we faithfully hold on to the reins, as we pray for wisdom to provide both roots and wings to our growing children, it’s a relief to know that we can also release our teens into an independent pursuit of truth through God’s word. The questions they bring to the dinner table that make us choke on our meatloaf as we grope for a response are a good sign that internal processing is going on behind their eyes.
Pray that the Holy Spirit will use Scripture verses your children memorized in their elementary years. Introduce your teen to classic Christian literature and favorite podcasts that set the table for a feast on truth.
When parents pray over an open Bible, the words of Scripture wrap themselves around the desires of our hearts and give us the words we don’t have. Jesus ends his prayer for his disciples by offering himself, totally set apart for the Father’s will. Perhaps this is what our teens need most: parents with a single-minded determination to follow him. We will not do so perfectly, but our own stumbling progress toward discipleship puts us on the same road as our teens — and what a joy it is to be traveling toward Christ together.