I’ve been in several marathon training groups that begin meeting months before a marathon. It’s astonishing to see how a little bit of daily training takes very ordinary, often very unathletic people, and gently but steadily leads us to a place where we can start running twenty-six miles around breakfast time and finish sometime before lunch.
If we took spiritual progress this seriously—and we should (Matt. 5:48)—what “spiritual workout” will move us steadily and consistently toward spiritual fitness?
William Law, a classical writer who taught the church almost three centuries ago, says that one of the most effective workouts we could ever perform for ourselves is regularly praying for our children’s spiritual welfare.
How does praying for our kids help us grow?
Law makes the sensible connection that if a parent is praying regularly for their children’s spiritual growth, that parent is going to be compelled to excel in the same virtues they long for their children to embrace. “How naturally would a parent grow ashamed of lacking the very virtues he or she thinks necessary for their children?”
Psychologically and spiritually, when we want something for our children, it reinforces to our own minds how important that same thing is for us. That’s why praying for our children to grow in faith and character is one of the most effective ways of reminding ourselves of what we need to aspire after.
Jenna was beside herself trying to get her oldest daughter (8) to be more patient with her younger sister. She began praying regularly that God would help her daughter to encourage her sister rather than resent her whenever she made a mistake. When the younger sister spilled some glitter all over the floor, the older sister cried out, “You’re such an idiot!” There was a moment of painful spiritual revelation when Jenna realized her daughter was repeating verbatim what she had heard Jenna say of another driver who cut in front them on their morning trip to school. With sincere conviction, Jenna realized she was praying for her daughter to stop being like…her mom. It’s not a surprise that Jenna began praying for more patience for herself whenever she got into the car with her children.
Another benefit of regular intercessory prayer for our children is that when we earnestly call upon God to show favor to our children, it naturally makes us want to maintain a clean heart before God. William Law writes, “If a father considered himself as an intercessor with God for his children to bless them with his prayers, what more likely means to make him aspire after every degree of holiness that he might thereby be fitter to obtain blessings from heaven for them? How would such thoughts make him avoid everything that was sinful and displeasing to God, lest when he prayed for his children God should reject his prayers?”
James 5:16 tells us that “the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.” So if I want to be spiritually “fit” to be an effective intercessor for my children, I’m going to watch my life, in the same way someone training for a marathon might think twice about having that second helping of ice cream.
The third thing regularly praying for our children accomplishes is that a life of intentional praying inspires a life of more intentional training. If we pray to God that he will work in our children’s hearts, we’re going to want to become his assistant, a partial answer to our own prayers. For example, if we pray that God will move them to value eternal things, we’re less likely to fall into affirming worldly achievements. If I ask God to give my children hearts of purity, I’m not going to bring impure shows into my home, which would undercut my prayers. If I ask God to make my children love kindness, I’m going to think up ways for them to use Christmas, as an example, to display kindness to others rather than just focus on their own wish lists. If I pray they will hunger for God’s Word, I’m going to scour bookstores for Bibles and helps that make the Bible come alive to my young children.
All of these benefits begin with praying for our children: earnestly, passionately, and persistently. Because of God’s kindness, these prayers will surely bless our children. The surprising news, according to William Law, is that they will bless us—the parents who pray—just as much.