How to Pray for Unbelieving Family Members
This article is part of the How to Pray series.
God Cares for Us
One of the greatest concerns—and heartaches—for many Christians is with the members of their families who have not come to faith in Christ, or who perhaps have abandoned the faith they grew up with. Many, many of us are burdened in our prayers for such loved-ones, and sometimes it is hard to know how and what to pray.
That can be so even for Christians who are the clearest about the greatness of the gospel of Christ, and the wonder of God’s unfolding salvation, from eternity to eternity, which encompasses this whole wide world. They rightly want to have their prayers focused on God’s big picture, in outward-looking and gospel-centered prayer, not inward-looking and merely domestic prayers. Perhaps at times, we can think, therefore, that our little family is really quite insignificant in the great story of God’s saving plan and purpose for the entire cosmos.
But we mustn’t forget that though our God has the whole world in his hands, he also has you and me, brother and sister! He who names and numbers the stars in the sky also numbers the hairs on our little heads. He cares for us, and our families, even as he controls the vastness of all creation. And he hears the prayers of all the children he loves—including our prayers for those whom we love. He is kind, and he loves to show his children his kindness.
That’s why I love the story in 2 Kings 4 about the childless Shunammite woman to whom God grants a precious son, through the word of the Elisha the prophet. The Bible often signals a hugely significant advance in the unfolding history of the great story of salvation when a barren woman is promised a child, and conceives and gives birth to a son—think of Sarah’s son Isaac, or Hannah’s son Samuel, or Mary’s son, Jesus himself—each one playing a crucial role in the history of salvation—but not here. There is no great significance for the world’s salvation; none at all. Just an unnamed woman, in an ordinary, unimportant family, who is granted an unnamed child—and then, when the boy suddenly dies, he is brought back to life again through the mercy of God. There seems no reason at all for all this–except just the sheer kindness and generosity of God! (We hear of this un-named family once more in 2Kings 8, where again God’s gratuitous kindness in saving them from famine, and later restoring all their land, seems to be the chief point, for they play no ‘significant’ part in the story otherwise.)
Our God is the God who, while he is fulfilling his relentless eternal plan and purpose for the salvation of the entire cosmos, has both the time and the wonderful inclination to show extraordinary kindness and care for ordinary, “unimportant” families! And surely that is what must give us the confidence to come to him in prayer for our families, however ordinary and unimportant we may feel we are.
So, here are some things we can perhaps think about as we seek to do that.
Don’t doubt that the Lord is gracious and desires people to be saved. Pray on for their salvation, trusting in what God has said about himself, and aligning your desires with his.
It can be easy, especially after a long time seeing no apparent change of heart in those we are praying for, to begin to doubt that God really cares about them and that our prayers will never bear fruit. But we need to remind ourselves of the truth revealed in the gospel, that our God loves to save!
That is why Paul urges believers “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” and affirms that “this is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:1 ff). It is what we see in the Lord Jesus himself, who “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” and then urged his disciples, “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt 9:36–38). The same passionate desire is evident in the apostle Paul’s prayers for his own loved ones and fellow Jews: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom. 10:1).
Our God is sovereign; we can’t twist him to fit his will into ours. But he is the sovereign Savior, and we can trust him as we align our desires with his.
Pray for the Lord to open doors.
Pray for times in which you are able to speak openly and clearly about Christ and the gospel with loved ones.
But pray also for him to enable you to make the most of opportunities where you can bring biblical thinking naturally into general conversations, with both wisdom and grace, in ways that will make them see the truth of God’s word.
Often times we find it very frustrating that we seem to have few opportunities to have really open discussions about the gospel with those we long to see come to Christ. But then, we also find ourselves regretting that we did not take opportunities when they did arise or did not get across very well what we would have wanted to explain.
The apostle Paul asked the church to pray “that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ . . . that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3-4). We likewise need to pray for both the chance to speak and for clarity in speech, and we also need to be a part of the answer to our prayer for clarity in articulating the gospel by training ourselves to do that. So pray that the Lord will help you become a clear and competent messenger of the truth.
We also need to make the most of every opportunity we have to speak biblical truth in life, not just when we have a clear opening to share the gospel fully. That is why Paul goes right on to say to the believers in the church, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:5-6)
We shall have many opportunities with our families to speak a seasoned word in the general conversation around the dinner table at Christmas (or Thanksgiving), or on a family walk, or when discussing the news. Every word of witness to God’s truth is a seed sown, and we can pray that some of these will take root, and begin to cause your loved-ones to think. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t seem so—you will likely be the last one to know about it! But God’s word never returns to him void; it is at work achieving his purposes, however unseen and unacknowledged.
Pray also for your wordless communication.
Pray that you can speak gospel truth to your family by your respectful and holy conduct, which will be read, marked, and inwardly digested just as much, and often more, than the words you are able to speak.
Often those to whom we are the closest are the hardest for us to engage in an open discussion about the gospel. There are many reasons for this, not least the complexity of balancing the respect and the responsibilities which intergenerational family relationships bring. But those who are very close to us know us very well, and we can’t hide from them; the credo we want to share with them will be constantly evaluated with the character we show them. So we need to pray for grace to display real, attractive, Christ-like, wholesome lives—lived truth which speaks volumes about the gospel we believe, alongside the spoken truth we hope also to share with them.
This is what Peter is speaking about in 1 Peter 3:1–2, where he says that even hostile, unbelieving husbands “may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” I take it that, though the particularity of the situation he addresses there is that of wives witnessing to husbands, the same would hold true for unbelieving wives (and in the context there are injunctions “likewise” to Christian husbands about their behavior being a vital matter), and also to a great extent in other close family relationships similarly.
This is certainly not an excuse to avoid speaking clearly—and even boldly—to our families about the gospel (as above). But it is a reminder that we are actually speaking to them all the time, whether we like it or not, in wordless communication—which will either be softening them and warming them to the message of Christ, or else—God forbid—turning them away from Christ because we, as his ambassador in this family, are showing our King and his kingdom in a false and bad light.
So we need to pray for help in living the truth, clearly and consistently, for our loved ones to see real Christianity in the flesh.
Pray that the Lord will use all seasons.
Pray that even times of illness and bereavement in the family would awaken your loved-ones to the ultimate realities.
It is oftentimes of sadness, as well as times of celebration, that bring families together in these days when members are often scattered across the country, or even the world. A death in the family brings the funeral gathering, but likewise, the diagnosis of a serious illness will likely bring a flurry of communication as the news is shared and talked about.
In God’s gracious providence these sad times of family crisis can be among the rare occasions when the unavoidable realities of our frail mortality intrude into the consciousness of those who usually manage successfully to shut these things out. Of course, we must be very sensitive in how we respond and what we say at such times; we must not exploit grief or suffering in any callous or crass way, as sometimes Christians can do, through ill-chosen words or actions. But, we can pray (and do all we can, humanly speaking, to ensure) that the words spoken at a funeral, for example, will give clear challenge and testimony to the truth of the gospel.
What an encouragement that we have the assurance that the Holy Spirit himself stands ready to help us, and when we are at a loss “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
And we should also pray, echoing the prayer of Moses, that whatever the crisis of this kind, our loved ones would be confronted with unavoidable eternal realities, and so learn to number their days, and get a heart for wisdom:
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.—Psalm 90:9–12
Pray for Persistency
When family members have drifted from the Lord, pray for the Lord to grant you a spirit of persistent faithfulness, and also of loving gentleness, to be an instrument of his restoring grace.
One of the greatest sadnesses in any Christian family is when one of our dear ones for whatever reason drifts away from the Lord and is living a lifestyle we know is grieving to God, and also to us. Often today—perhaps especially if it is a son or daughter, or another younger relative—this may involve a sexual relationship that is contrary to Scripture, and which can be such a powerful lure away from the way of salvation.
But even when those we love have become terribly caught up in sin and are living in disobedience, the Lord can use our prayers and actions as a means to bring restoration. So we should pray for that, as Paul did for such a situation in the Corinthian church: “Your restoration is what we pray for” (2 Cor. 13:9). But we need to recognize that, alongside our devotion in prayer for them, our demeanor in person towards them requires great wisdom and grace, and so we need to pray as much for ourselves as for our loved one: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:1–2).
When you don’t know what to pray specifically, remember the Lord knows what is in your heart, and pray anyway!
Very often we find ourselves in the situation where we just don’t know exactly what to pray, for those we love and are concerned for. What an encouragement that we have the assurance that the Holy Spirit himself stands ready to help us, and when we are at a loss “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” When we are unable even to pray as we ought, he “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26–27).
And so, even if our judgments are misplaced, and we pray for the wrong specific things, when our hearts are right the Spirit of God translates our prayer in transmission, as it were, so that we are heard praying what we would have prayed had we known better to be the will of God—even if we had actually been asking for the opposite specific outcome!
For example, we may have been praying fervently that a loved one move to a particular place because it will bring them into the reach of a good church, but in fact they move elsewhere. Yet, in that other place, where we thought there would be much less hope, the Lord has brought them into the path of a Christian who came into their life and led them to faith in Christ, or led them back from their wandering away—all in a way that was a wonderful answer to our prayer, even though we were actually praying for the opposite move!
There is a wonderful example of this in David’s desire to build the temple of the Lord, where God’s answer to that specific request was that no, it was not for him to build but for his son Solomon. But as Solomon proclaimed years later, as he dedicated the temple he had himself built, “The LORD said to David my father, ‘Whereas it was in your heart to build a house for my name, you did well that it was in your heart’ (1 Kings 8:18).
As C. S. Lewis puts it in his book That Hideous Strength, “This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, he always takes you to have meant better than you knew.” How kind and wonderfully generous is our God: he hears the cries of our hearts, and even when we ask for the wrong things, he answers us with the right things “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20)!
William Philip is the author of Why We Pray.
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