09/10/2013 01:55 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

When We're Worried About Our Kids

Worrying about our loved ones is the worst kind of worry in the world, especially when it's our kids for whom we're concerned. From the moment they're born, our youngsters have an unrivaled place in our hearts, and we feel unending concern for their wellbeing. We do our best to provide for them and protect them. But sometimes like the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, they pack their bags and detour into the far country, often without a backward glance. We see them but cannot stop them as they form unwise friendships, make unsafe choices, and follow dangerous paths to perilous places. Sometimes it's not a child, but a spouse or a close friend. Our greatest pain is usually caused by those we love the most.

There are often things we can do -- counsel, call, reason, rescue, intervene, provide a safe place. But sometimes there's little we can do but watch. At such times we can worry ourselves to death or we can fall back on five of the most powerful words in the Bible, found in Exodus 18:19: "Bring the difficulties to God."

I'm convinced from both Scripture and experience that God loves our children even more than we do, and He can do more for them than we can. When there seems little else we can do, we can tap into three great PTL resources. In Christian jargon, those letters usually mean, "Praise the Lord," but in this case they additionally identify three resources God gives us: Prayer, Time, and Love.

Regarding prayer, the Bible says, "The prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective" (James 5:16). When my own children had rough patches, I was sometimes powerless to do anything except pray; but I realized my prayers could span any distance, penetrate any problem, and change the calculus of any situation. As I say in my book, Prayers and Promises for Worried Parents: Prayer is drawing near to God, coming to his footstool, and pleading with him for what he alone can do. The Bible tells us to come boldly to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). Prayer isn't a magic wand; it's a divine partnership. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, prayer is "an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies."

A woman once told me of a daughter who had been ensnared in evil. But the girl eventually repented of her mistakes, found a biblical basis for life, and was reconciled to God and to her mother. "When she came back to the Lord," said the woman, "she credited my prayers and those of my friends. 'I didn't have a chance against your prayers, Mom,' she told me."

I recall awaking one morning in Copenhagen and calculating that the clock was striking midnight in the university town where my daughter lived. For no reason, a sense of panic swept over me. I threw on clothes and braved the morning chill to find a phone booth (this was before the days of cell phones), but no one answered on the other end. Returning to my room, I fought an irrational wave of panic. In my journal I composed a little prayer for her, using seven words that came to mind, all starting with the letter "d." It was a prayer I repeated for years: Lord, give my child discernment and discretion; discipline and diligence; direction in life; devotion to you and delight in Your Word, in Jesus' Name, Amen.

The "T" in PTL stands for Time, one of God's greatest tools. It took time for Prodigal Son in Luke 15 to come to his senses. Maturity is a process, and that means (contrary to the way it often feels) time is on our side. God has built a maturation process into every living thing. When I think of how long the Lord has been dealing with me, it behooves me to be patient as He works on others. As someone said, "Please be patient. God isn't finished with me yet." The Bible promises that God, who has begun a good work in us, will carry it on to completion (Philippians 1:6). We find both wisdom and peace in learning to read God's pocket watch, in developing a sense of his timing. We must give Him time to work.

The "L" of PTL stands for "Love," which, according to 1 Corinthians 13:8, never fails. Love simply means I'm going to do what's best for my children, regardless of whether it seems best for me. It's putting their needs ahead of my desires. Sometimes that means exercising "tough love," which is exceedingly painful for a parent. But most of all, it means doing all we can to keep the channels of communication open. Angry words, demeaning comments, nagging and name-calling should cease, at least on our part. Love is a strong force, but it's kind, gentle, and never rude. It can be firm and forthright, but it never tears down those toward whom it's directed. The last thing a prodigal needs is an angry, argumentative parent. They need us to remain calm when they aren't, to display love when they don't, and to be a rock of stability when they destabilize. By God's grace, we can do that, for that is the essence of love.

So don't give up on your prodigal, and never stop praying, waiting, or loving. Those of us who were problem kids ourselves -- weren't we all? -- can testify that we often learn the brightest lessons in the darkest valleys. As J. I. Packer wrote in Knowing God, "Our God is a God who not merely restores, but takes up our mistakes and follies into His plan for us and brings good out of them. This is part of the wonder of His gracious sovereignty."