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Worried About Worrying

My daughter Charlotte just got her driver's license and first car. It's been a rocky time for me. Keeping track of where she is. Making sure she doesn't use her phone while she's driving. Struggling not only to accept but also to embrace her acceleration toward independence. Worrying. Yesterday she drove 40 miles to Barnes & Noble. Her goal was to go that far alone, to cross "the big road" into their parking lot (highways terrify her), to order a grande Earl Grey tea, to read in one of their dingy armchairs, and then to come home. All innocent desires. And at least midway through her adventure, I knew she was fine, because my husband, Kris, and I met up with her briefly at the bookstore, where we always go at the end of our weekly date. Still, I worried the whole way home. When police sent us around an accident, I was sure it was Charlotte and made Kris defy the law and bypass the detour to see.

Meanwhile, our younger daughter, Lulu, is a thousand miles away attending what she calls "nerd camp": a college course for high schoolers on politics and literature. So far, it's been mostly about existentialism. They're reading bleak novels arguing that God doesn't exist and only personal choice matters.

"They're so depressing," Lulu told me, "they make me want to go to church."

That statement was startling from a kid who's been unenthusiastic about church of late, maybe because she's 14, or maybe because our family's been visiting different churches for a while looking for one that pleases us all equally—for a church, in other words, that doesn't exist. Wherever we go, both girls act bored during the service and criticize everything afterwards. Soon, they'll be on their own and may not attend church at all, and I wrestle with the worries of all parents with children apathetic about church: Does God matter to them? Do they sense his presence in their lives? Will they abandon not just church but God himself as they escape further and further into a world beyond my influence or control?

Worrying is a sin, my Christian friends always tell me. They point to angels saying "Fear not!" all the time, and they quote Paul's famous advice from his prison cell: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6-7, TNIV). My friends think we should be like Paul: "content in any and every situation" (Philippians 4:12, TNIV).

I tell my friends that worrying is a way of praying. I even have a name for it: pray-worrying. Indeed, what is praying but giving voice to worries as a means of seeking that elusive peace Paul promises God will send?

Nevertheless, I've secretly added worrying itself to my list of worries. I know I worry too much. Not only about dramatic disasters, like Charlotte's being killed or maimed in a car accident, but about my daughters' coming under the tutelage of ardent atheists or questioning matters of faith or making bad choices in life.

I worry, in short, about my daughters' growing up—when growing up is exactly what teenagers should be doing. How awful it would be if they weren't growing up, I remind myself, suddenly thankful. What if they weren't making choices, good or bad, but were just waiting—like newborns, like our dogs—for me to decide everything for them? What if they weren't asking questions about faith? What if they didn't care about faith at all?

God's plan is for us to grow up. To step forth from where we start, even though doing so inevitably means making mistakes. To grow up is to question everything and pursue faith not from habit or compulsion, but from free will.

Allowing one's children to grow up and find faith on their own is, I'm thinking, the crux of Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. It's always perplexed me that the father—who represents God in the story—gives his son the inheritance in the first place. Any parenting book would say that indulging such greedy desires is a mistake—just as my sister told me that buying my daughter a car was a mistake, although a car is a virtual necessity of growing up and working and being involved in activities in rural areas like ours.

"You're spoiling her!" my sister complained. And I worry she's right.

Either way, the father in Jesus' story sounds like the classic enabler, helping his son into a life of misery and sin. Various pastors have explained the story's purpose is not to model parenting but to illustrate salvation. I wonder, though.

Maybe God's showing me—through this story so real-sounding it could be from my life—that letting kids grow up means allowing them independence, although it will inevitably result in their messing up. Perhaps it's OK to worry about them, just as that father in the parable surely does. When the prodigal son finally returns home, the father sees him while he's "still a long way off" (Luke 15:20, TNIV). Clearly, the father's been searching the horizon, pray-worrying that his son will turn out all right. God himself worries about his children. Just before he destroyed most of Earth's inhabitants in the Flood, he looked down on them, and "his heart was deeply troubled" (Genesis 6:6, TNIV).

I don't mean to defend worrying here, but I do think it's unavoidable, in parenting at least. Perhaps worrying even plays a role in securing the contentment in all things Paul prescribes. His injunction against worrying is, after all, part of a larger message of thanks to the Philippians for their worries on his behalf: "I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me" (Philippians 4:10, TNIV).

Worrying can lead to action as when the concerned Philippians sent Paul aid. Or worrying might lead to new insight, like my sudden thankfulness that my children are growing up. Certainly, as Paul suggests, we shouldn't wallow in anxiety but, rather, step forth from our worries into faith. We should scan the horizon daily, hourly even, and know God's will, his splendid purpose for each of us, will certainly come to pass.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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