Every night since my son Reese was born, I have prayed this prayer for him as I put him to sleep: “Jesus, I ask that Reese would follow you from an early age.” Because Reese is three years old, it is easy for me and my wife Tiffany to create the conditions for this prayer to be answered. We attend church, pray and read the Bible together, and model the kind of life we think a Christ-follower should live. But there will come a day when Reese has grown up and must choose for himself whether and how to follow Jesus on his own. When that time comes, I will no doubt be praying with greater intensity.
I tell you this in order to tell you that, as a father, I understand the intensity behind Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s words in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5:
So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.
Remember the context of these words: According to Acts 17:1-9, the missionaries spent several weeks evangelizing Thessalonian Jews and Gentile God-fearers. At some point, however, a coalition of Thessalonians initiated a mob action against the missionaries and new Christians, the former eventually fleeing the city under cover of night at the encouragement of the latter. These new Christians immediately began to suffer for their faith (1 Thes. 2:14, 3:3). Paul, Silas, and Timothy were worried whether their short, three-weeks’ work among the Thessalonians had laid strong enough foundations for them to withstand these attacks. They needn’t have worried, for the Thessalonians had stood strong.
Several lessons for fathers and mothers–biological or spiritual–who long for their children to follow Jesus Christ:
First, focus on Jesus Christ. The practice of Christianity goes bad when it begins to focus on peripheral issues rather than central ones. The missionaries’ preaching was simple: “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah” (Acts 17:3). If you want your children to follow Jesus, show them Jesus all the time.
Second, expect temptations and trials. Following Jesus doesn’t mean an easy life. We are “destined for [trials].” Following Jesus helps us resist temptation and emerge victorious from trials.
Third, keep the lines of relationship open so that you can communicate “encouragement and strength” whenever they’re needed. As your children age, your relationship with them changes. But the goal of your relationship doesn’t. You bear a responsibility of helping them love God, neighbor, and self. This is best done by encouragement, not nagging; by example, not command.
Jesus, may our children follow you from an early age and throughout the ages. Amen!