I am riding in the car with one of my teenagers. I ask a question. The response is swift, snarky and hurtful. My defenses are rallied. Words like soldiers line up in my mind ready to be deployed. I am right. My teen is wrong. . . and disrespectful. It takes just milliseconds for my verbal defense to organize. I am ready to launch when I hear a small voice. Would you rather be right or loving?
For months, no, years I have struggled with this very question. In the role of parent, I have entered into my kids’ struggles and helped them solve their problems. I care for their character development more than my own well-being. But one reality has stymied me in all of my campaigns: I can’t change their hearts. My well-intended conversations about truth and honoring God and loving others will not penetrate their heart in a way that causes change.
I am an influencer, but not a changer. The job of change belongs to the Holy Spirit. My job? To speak truth in love. To choose to be loving rather than win the argument. To believe that the Holy Spirit is working in them even when I don’t see evidence. My greatest job as a parent is to hold out faith that God loves and is pursuing my kids.
Sometimes my words get in the way. Sometimes the issue or the disrespect takes center stage. I want to win the argument. I want to make clear that my teen has crossed a line. Admittedly, sometimes I want them to experience an ounce of the pain that they have caused me. I can mount an offensive or a defensive, designed to overcome my teen with words. But I have come to realize that the weapon of words can take a hostage, but they will not change a heart.
What is a parent supposed to do?
During that car ride with my teen, that small voice restrained my intended verbal attack. Instead I lifted a silent prayer that I believe is more powerful than any words I can speak:
Lord, have mercy.
This plea is an ancient one, yet still relevant. It is the prayer of the ten lepers coming to Jesus for healing. It is the prayer of the blind man outside of Jericho begging for healing. It is the prayer of a mom asking Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. It is the petition of a dad asking Jesus to heal his son of seizures.
Jesus himself underscores the importance of this prayer when He tells the parable of the two men praying. The Pharisee proudly lists his achievements to God. He is respectable and respected. He believes God is lucky to have him on His team. The tax collector is despised and dishonorable. He bows his head and pleads, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18: 9-14)
Jesus says that the tax collector was justified and the Pharisee was not.
When I ask God to have mercy, I am taking my place in a long line of sinners who have realized how desperately they need Jesus. I am simultaneously acknowledging my need and God’s power. Embedded in my plea is a belief that God wants to have mercy.
This prayer regrounds me in truth and love. It is both a prayer for me and a prayer for my teen. It acknowledges that the ground between us is level. I am a sinner in need of Jesus’s mercy. My teen is a sinner in need of Jesus’s mercy. I hold out hope for myself. I hold out hope for my teen.
And right away, Jesus gives a partial answer to my prayer. My words are restrained. My focus shifts. Eventually, my anger is displaced, making room for love. I receive mercy. This fuels my belief that mercy is washing over my teen. I am praying for a fresh awareness of God’s love and the courage to repent. For my teen. For me.
This simple prayer has pervaded other areas of my life, too. This world is so broken by pain and divisiveness. Sometimes I am furious and indignant. Sometimes I am sad and despairing. This prayer has become an anchor of hope and purpose.
Jesus, have mercy on all those I love: my husband, our children, our siblings, our parents, my friends. Have mercy on my church - the brothers and sisters I have chosen to join hands with and worship You. Have mercy on our country with its racial inequities, political turmoil and social unrest. Have mercy on those who are complacent and blind. Have mercy on those who are struggling and desperate. Have mercy on those whose lives are full and comfortable. Have mercy on those who live in poverty and insecurity. Have mercy on the strong. Have mercy on the weak. Have mercy on those who are emotionally and physically sick. Have mercy on all who plunge through daily life with no acknowledgement of you. Jesus, have mercy. We are all desperately in need of You.