How do Christian parents pray for straying covenant children? For those who know the faith but have long abandoned it?
The Apostle Paul gives us a model in the opening words of Romans 9:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
Here Paul considers his kinsmen according to the flesh, meaning the Jewish people. As he looks upon the nation
- whom God greatly favored above all others as recorded in the Old Testament;
- those who were known as the “children of God;”
- the people to whom God through the centuries sent His signs and prophets;
- those from whom the Messiah came and to whom the Messiah was sent;
- and sees that though their Messiah came to them as Jesus Christ, in large measure they rejected and spurned the Holy One of Israel;
what is his response? Paul expresses that he has a "mega sorrow" (what the Greek says) and an anguish in his heart that will not stop. By way of contrast, the Apostle John said that he had no greater joy than to hear of his children walking in the truth (3 John 4). Certainly then there is no greater, unrelenting sorrow for a parent than a child walking the other way.
And it is most fitting that Romans 9 begins with this expression of grief. For Romans 9 is perhaps one of the most difficult chapters in the Bible for people to receive, as it expounds upon the doctrine of predestination. This chapter of the Bible tells us that not only has God elected some to salvation, but deliberately passed over others. Thus, this expression of Paul here instructs in this manner: the only type of heart that can properly handle doctrines such as predestination is a broken one. A heart that, even when faced with seeing once-professing people exhibit reprobate behavior, still cries out for God to redeem.
In so doing, Paul emulates Jeremiah who wept this way over the children of Israel.
For these things I weep; my eyes run down with water; because far from me is a comforter, one who restores my soul. My children are desolate because the enemy has prevailed (Jer. 1:16).
My eyes run down with streams of water because of the destruction of the daughter of my people. My eyes pour down unceasingly, without stopping, until the LORD looks down and sees from heaven. My eyes bring pain to my soul because of all the daughters of my city (Jer. 3:48-51).
Like Christ weeping over Jerusalem as He foresaw her destruction, Paul said he was speaking the truth, he was not lying, and his conscience bore a Spirit-confirmed witness regarding his unceasing grieving for the lost children of Israel. Certainly the Christian parent is right in doing likewise.
A while ago I read of a Christian relief worker in Sudan. She witnessed thousands of refugees fleeing persecution, with many mothers having to watch their babies die in their arms because the food and medicine were not available to treat them. The relief worker's response in the face of this tragedy was two-fold. First, she spoke Biblical truth to herself. She did not know why the Lord was letting these children perish, but brought to mind truths such as "the secret things belong to God, but things revealed belong to us" and that the Lord takes no pleasure in death. Second, she hugged and cried with the mothers, saying that in her helplessness, when she could do nothing else, she knew it was right to weep.
Paul goes on to make the astounding statement, “I could wish that myself were accursed, separated from God.” The word "wish" here is another word for prayer. These words are similar to the prayer that Moses uttered. When God said he was going to blot out the people of Israel, Moses in turn pled for their forgiveness saying, “Please blot me out of your book that you have written” (Ex. 32:32).
We know that this cannot truly happen, that a Christian parent could give their soul for their child or that one person could be cursed for those apart from God. These prayers are hyperbole of speech. But that does not mean that the true feeling of heart they express is not there. And that heart sorrow is to drive the ones praying for lost children back to where they need to go, to their only hope. To the gospel, where they remember that Christ was separated and cursed by God so that His people could be brought back to Him. Surely each anguished tear of the grieving Christian parent, preserved in His bottle and recorded in His book by the Lord (Ps. 56:8), is a cry to that end.
And they are a testimony to the church that what should bring us all to tears is not only that multitudes in dark nations are perishing apart from the gospel, but that so many are dying in its presence.