“Dear Lord: please help my son to make all A’s, ace the SAT, pass his AP exams with flying colors, and get accepted into a prestigious university. Amen.” What do you think of a prayer like this? Would you pray it for your son or daughter? Some might find it to be asking too much. But what if it is asking too little?
As a history teacher, I am always interested in learning from the wisdom of other Christians who have gone before us. What did our forefathers in the faith pray for when petitioning God on behalf of their students? Fortunately for us, some such prayers were written down and preserved through the centuries. Here are just three from which we can learn a great deal and which could serve as promptings for our own prayers.
Thomas à Kempis: “To know what is worth knowing, to love what is worth loving.”
Thomas à Kempis lived six hundred years ago, but his work The Imitation of Christ remains the most widely-read Christian devotional book of all time. He spent his life working with religious communities devoted to Christian discipleship such as the Brethren of the Common Life. Thomas’s mother was a schoolteacher, so his views on education were doubtlessly shaped by her influence. Consider his prayer:
Grant us, O Lord, to know what is worth knowing, to love what is worth loving, to praise what delights you most, to value what is precious in your sight, and to reject what is evil in your eyes. Grant us true discernment to distinguish between different things. Above all, may we search out and do what is most pleasing to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
What vision of education is being articulated here? Above all it is a vision that transcends the mere accumulation of knowledge, even the acquisition of vital skills. Look back at the verbs in the prayer: we want our students to know, to love, to praise, to value, to reject, to distinguish, to search out and do. The goal of this sort of education goes far beyond test scores. Its markers of success cannot be easily quantified on a report card or a transcript. Instead, this is the sort of education that calls for students to develop as full human beings, becoming the people God intends for them to be in their knowledge, in their desires, and in the pursuit of the things that matter most.
John Calvin: “In whatever kind of study I engage, enable me to remember to keep its proper end in view.”
The sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin wrote a similar prayer for students to pray before going to school. He wrote,
O Lord, who is the fountain of all wisdom and learning, since you of your special goodness have granted that my youth is instructed in good arts which may assist me to honest and holy living, grant also, by enlightening my mind, which otherwise labors under blindness, that I may be fit to acquire knowledge; strengthen my memory faithfully to retain what I may have learned: and govern my heart, that I may be willing and even eager to profit, lest the opportunity which you now give me be lost through my sluggishness…
In whatever kind of study I engage, enable me to remember to keep its proper end in view, namely, to know you in Christ Jesus your Son; and may everything that I learn assist me to observe the right rule of godliness…
Finally, let the only end at which I aim be so to qualify myself in early life, that when I grow up I may serve you in whatever station you may assign me.
What is the goal of education, according to Calvin? Personal growth? Job training? Admission to college? Not quite: it is to enable the student to pursue “honest and holy living,” “to know you in Christ Jesus your Son,” to “observe the right rule of godliness,” and to “serve you in whatever station you may assign me.” To Calvin, “education” was just another word for “discipleship”: Christ is at the center, and the goal is to know God and for him to use one’s education to cultivate the good fruit of a godly life.
(This is only a portion of Calvin’s prayer. You can read it here in its entirety.)
The Apostle Paul: “To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
We think of Paul as an apostle and a missionary, but it’s easy to forget that both roles required him to be a master teacher. If Thomas à Kempis and John Calvin are right that education is inextricably bound up in Christian discipleship, then Paul’s prayers are as relevant for schools as they are for churches. This is a portion of Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)
Paul prays for many things here, but closest to his heart is that the Ephesian Christians would draw close to Christ and experience his love. He inserts a seemingly paradoxical request toward the end: “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” He is simultaneously praying for knowledge while asking for something that transcends knowledge. What does this mean? On one hand, Paul had elsewhere taught that love is greater than knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:2,8). On the other hand, he insisted that we need knowledge in order to love rightly: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10). Whatever Paul is calling for, it is certainly a vision of holiness that grasps the relationship between knowledge and love. Right knowledge enables one to love well, and a life of love gives purpose to knowledge, without which it would be meaningless.
“Our desires are not too strong, but too weak.”
In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis made this observation about human nature:
Our desires are not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Likewise, as we reflect upon our ambitions for our children’s education, it is more likely that we are shooting too low, not too high. High grades, dean’s list ribbons, and impressive transcripts are good and praiseworthy. We should encourage these and celebrate when they are earned. But we serve a God we are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate. He is a God who “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).
Therefore, let me encourage you to pray without ceasing: to pray with Thomas à Kempis that our children would “know what is worth knowing” and “love what is worth loving.” Let us prompt our children and students to begin every day asking, with John Calvin, that “In whatever kind of study I engage,” God would “enable me to remember to keep its proper end in view, namely, to know you in Christ Jesus your Son.” And may we never stop praying, as did Paul, that our children would not only grow in knowledge but also grasp what it is that “surpasses knowledge,” that is, “to know the love of Christ.”
As I think about my own four children, as well as the juniors and seniors I teach, I would surely be gratified to see them achieve and impress according to the outward, measurable standards that the world has set when it defines what it means to be educated. But even more so, I boldly pray that God would transform them on the inside: shaping their minds and hearts in his image, deepening their studies with a love for what is good, true, and beautiful, and accomplishing an extraordinary work in their lives which will not merely gain them admission to college, but will last for eternity.
“The greatest part of education is instilling in the young the desire to be good: a desire that sharpens and shapes their understanding, that motivates and sustains their curiosity, and that imbues their studies with transcendent value.”
– David Hicks