Don’t give up on your family.
“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).
One of the easiest areas to give up or “lose heart” (NASV) as we pray concerns our relatives, who seem to have no faith in Jesus nor any interest in faith. This concern is often accentuated around Christian holidays when we might want to share the Christmas or Easter story but our family members get lost in meals, materialism, or marshmallow chicks.
Our family members might be the people whom we most earnestly desire to come to personal faith in Christ, but they simultaneously are often the people most resistant to our evangelistic or outreach efforts. Most of us come to the point with our unbelieving relatives where all we can do is pray. But prayer is tough. Prayer is hard work. It’s long-term. And prayer doesn’t reduce itself to a neat and tidy formula of cause and effect.
We come from very different religious backgrounds. Christie came from a religious family, but religiousness without a personalized Christian faith. She came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in her freshman year of college. She fervently desired that her family would come to a similar personal faith, and she immediately became a “prayer warrior” for her family. Her brother became a Christian after 15 years of her prayers and witness. Her mother trusted Christ 19 years after Christie began praying. And her father called on the mercy of Christ at age 83, 29 years after Christie’s prayers for her family members began.
Paul on the other hand came from a strong, somewhat legalistic, Christian family. He and his two siblings actively rejected the faith as young teenagers. He repented and came to faith at age 17, but his siblings, who continued in their rejection of Christian faith, stopped attending church at age 18. They remain people who are still spiritually “in process.” Paul has prayed for his siblings since his conversion at age 17, but without Christie’s results. There has been some very positive movement towards faith, but nothing conclusive – at least not yet!
We tell our story because we have been learning the following lessons over the past 40 years as we’ve prayed for our relatives. We want to underscore from the outset that we do not have some sort of “guaranteed formula” to offer. Instead, by sharing what we’ve learned, we hope to encourage you regarding prayer for your family members: keep praying and don’t lose heart.
From our own experience and from listening to the positive and negative experiences of others, here are the five most significant lessons we’ve learned about praying for family members to come to saving faith.
1) Pray FOR your relatives, not against them. When we pray for family members who actively or passively reject the faith, it’s easy to concentrate our prayers on issues related to their behavioral reform. Because we live closer to these folks, we see behaviors close up that irritate or aggravate us. Our relatives’ use of profanity influences our kids. Their chain-smoking stinks up our house and leaves a lingering smell in our furniture. Their materialism taints the true meaning of Christmas, and their drinking mars family holidays – so we pray, “Lord, please bring them to Yourself and make them stop.”
This is especially true when Christian parents pray for their rebellious children. We’re tempted to pray first for behavior modification: “Lord, please clean up his mouth,” or “Make her stop smoking,” or “Tell them to fix their marriage” or “Change their sexual activity.”
We know that conversion involves many life and lifestyle-changing transformations, but we’ve learned (the hard way!) that God’s FIRST concern is for their salvation – life change precedes behavioral change.
In Paul’s family, his well-meaning but overbearing father put lots of pressure on his children, reminding us constantly that he was praying for us to “come back to the Lord.” But this came across to us kids as “I’m praying that you’ll come back to the Lord so that you’ll clean up your act and stop embarrassing me in front of my Christian friends.”
In his early years of young adult rebellion, Paul’s brother got the most pressure from his father concerning issues related to unchristian behavior. This pressure served to drive Paul’s brother further from Christ and the church. After Paul’s father’s death, his Mom adapted a totally different tact. She prayed that her rebellious son would experience the unconditional love of Christ. She welcomed him with her in any context – including church and social settings where judgmental Christian friends would see her. She wanted her son to know that she love and accepted him – tattoos, long hair, motorcycle, live-in girlfriend and all. And her unconditional love dramatically contributed to the softening of his heart.
2) Pray for patience. God’s timing is seldom ours. Years of praying for unsaved relatives have taught us to look back and evaluate what we did right and where we failed. In her early Christian life, Christie dragged her parents to multiple Christian meetings and services always thinking, “You know, God, this would be a perfect time for my parents to become Christians.”
But they never did. So she persevered. She never stopped opening the doors where she could share her life and her faith. She never stopped including them in her spiritual journey. She introduced them to her friends, brought them to hear Paul preach, and included them in the normal course of her life.
They both finally came to faith as a result of two decades of her living out her Christian life before them combined with her helping them through great physical crises. Christie’s testimony parallels the “importunate widow” of Luke 18; she persevered, kept on knocking, and finally the Lord opened the door – but it definitely was not in her timing.
In part two, we cover the last three lessons.
(This post is co-written by Paul and Christie Borthwick).