In 2013, I received a devastating phone call from a pediatric gastroenterologist diagnosing our two-year-old son with a rare and serious genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. While relieved to hear an explanation for his elevated liver enzymes following an unidentified virus, because of alpha-1’s genetic nature and potential risk to the liver and lungs, our whole family was tested.

My husband’s and my shock and sadness over one child’s diagnosis was magnified by another life-altering phone call a few weeks later. Scott rushed home from work to join me on our front porch where I haltingly conveyed the pediatrician’s message that two more of our (then) four children also carried the most serious form of alpha-1. Sounds of children playing in our neighborhood filled the silences as our hearts overflowed with grief and sorrow.

As Christians, Scott and I believe in prayer, but the enormity of our situation felt suffocating. Between gut-wrenching sobs, I whispered to my husband, “How do we pray for God to heal three of our children?” Embedded in my question was the assumption that maybe we could ask God to heal one, but asking him to heal three children would be expecting too much. It raised another question, too—what does one pray for someone with a genetic condition?

Even praying for someone with long-term cancer seemed more reasonable. A genetic condition seemed different. Knowing that a gene mutation was written into our children’s DNA before birth made healing seem impossible.

Maybe you too are facing a devastating scenario and you’re not sure how or what to pray. God met Scott and me in that sacred moment, and he wants to meet you in your situation too.

One thing is certain: we’re called to pray. We’re invited to cast our anxieties on God because he cares for us,[1] make our requests known to God,[2] and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).

On our porch that afternoon, my husband and I tearfully confessed, cried out, and committed our family to God. Over the past six years, we’ve continued to petition God on behalf of our children. Their future remains unclear, but as Christian parents, one of the best ways we love our children is to pray for them.

Because of the Fall, we live in a broken and mutated world where disease and death are real and can only be redeemed in light of the gospel and its ultimate cosmic scope. While Scott and I unwittingly carried mixed genotypes into the covenant and union of marriage, we believe that none of our children was an accident and that God numbered their days long before their birth.[3] These theological realities guide our thoughts about our children’s condition and how and what we pray for them.

We pray with the Spirit’s help, pray for relief and healing from suffering, pray for salvation, and pray for God’s glory. Whether you or someone you know is suffering, these are four biblical approaches to prayer available to all believers.

Pray with the Spirit’s Help

Grief, sorrow, loss and mourning dominated those first weeks and months after our children’s diagnosis, and they continue to visit us at unexpected times. When we don’t know what to pray, “…the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words…” (Rom 8:26b). Other times, our prayers are simple:

  • “Jesus, help.”
  • “Jesus, please.”
  • “Jesus, be merciful.”

When we’re weak, the Spirit intercedes for us. We rest assured knowing that because we love God, he’s working all things, even a genetic condition, into his good purpose of making us more like Jesus.[4]

Pray for Relief and Healing from Suffering

God is Creator and Healer. He knows our frame and how our bodies function better than any human doctor. Not only that, but he loves and shows great compassion to his children.[5] It’s right to pray for relief and healing from suffering.

When Jesus placed his muddy spit on a blind man’s eyes, the Bible says that he was healed “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Just as Jesus dramatically healed a man who was “born blind,” whether because of a genetic condition or a birth defect in the womb, he’s able to heal our children of an inherited condition. This same Jesus invites us to ask anything in his name and to draw near to his throne of grace with confidence. [6] James says we’re to “pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

While God is able to heal, healing can take multiple forms. Alpha-1 presents with a variety of symptoms, and our family prays each time our children are sick. “God, protect him from developing a secondary infection.” “God, heal this infection so it doesn’t further compromise her liver or lungs.”

Pray for Salvation

Scott and I learned that we can’t meet the greatest need in our children’s lives long before a genetic test identified alpha-1 in our family. What we desire most for our children is to know and love God in the person of Jesus, but faith is a gracious gift from God. [7] No parent can coerce a child to believe. The same God who knit our children together in my womb is the only one who can save them from their greatest sickness of sin—the brutal, spiritual deficiency that is responsible for this mutation in their bodies.[8]

We ask God to heal our children, but we also pray fervently for the salvation of their souls. While we’d love to see our children’s bodies fully restored, we humbly recognize that their greatest need is for spiritual healing. Bowing our knee to the truth that only God saves creates precedence to bow our knee to how God will choose to work in each of their bodies.

One of our great hopes as believers is that one day, God “will wipe away every tear…and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4). As painful as our suffering in this life may be, nothing is as devastating as eternal separation from God. As joyous as healing in this life would be, it can’t compare with the glories of our future with Christ. Let’s keep salvation for our loved ones in the forefront of our prayers.

Pray for God’s Glory

As uncomfortable and undesirable as our suffering is, it offers a unique opportunity to bring glory to our Savior. Both our prayers and endurance in trials testify to his surpassing worth.

First, the act of prayer is a powerful expression of our complete dependence on God to do what only he can do in our lives and in the lives of those we love. It’s also a declaration of our belief that God hears us[9] and is able to do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20). Our faith-filled prayers in the midst of suffering demonstrate that we hope and trust in God, not doctors or medicine or a procedure or lifestyle changes, and this glorifies God.

Whether or not we witness a dramatic healing like that of the blind man, our suffering—like his—can be used to display God’s works. Whether through grace to endure a trial or rescue from it, we ask God to work in our lives and in our children’s lives for his glory. However he chooses to answer our prayers, we beg him to redeem all our suffering for his glory.

Whether in this life or the next, we ask God to heal, restore, and redeem. Because God’s love is better than life, we worship him in our affliction and look forward to worshiping him when it is only a distant memory.[10]

[1] 1 Pe 5:7

[2] Phil 4:6

[3] Ps 139:16

[4] Rom 8:28-29

[5] Ps 103:13-14

[6] John 14:14 and Heb 4:16

[7] Eph 2:8

[8] Ps 139:13 and 1 Tim 2:5

[9] Heb 11:6

[10] Ps 63:3

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