When I Can’t See God At Work in My Child

dead winter plant

The view outside my window today is bleak. It’s January. The sky is overcast, the trees are bare, the grass colorless and stiff. Usually my pansies bloom their hardy heads off in the brisk winter wind, but the deep freeze that blasted the country Christmas week may have killed them all. My neighbor pulled out her pansies yesterday, and she knows what to do in the yard because her husband is a horticulturalist. I can’t bring myself to give up on mine yet. 

Sometimes, my  prayers for my children appear as barren as a January landscape. When nothing seems to change my prayers grow faint, then scarce. When I look for blooms and fruit and do not see them, I assume that God has moved on to answering some other mother’s prayers

How long, O Lord, we wonder. We watch our children struggle to make friends, to heal from depression, to get control of a nasty temper, to have an easier time in school, to enjoy restored health, to trust Jesus for their salvation. It’s hard to watch them suffer. We ask God why we can’t see any evidence that he hears our prayers. Sometimes, when their struggles seem to intensify, we despair. 

Patient trust is hard. It’s a fight to believe in things we cannot see, but the pattern of Scripture, the pattern of Jesus’ own life, tells us that God is at work even when we cannot see what he is doing. Our perseverance in prayer demonstrates the faith that pleases God, the “assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, 6). The Holy Spirit groans within us, and God gives us the words: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). 

Just because something appears dead or lifeless doesn’t mean that it is.

Moses dreamed of freeing the people of Israel from Pharoah. He took matters into his own hands and killed an Egyptian slave master for tormenting a Hebrew slave, and for this rashness he was banished into the desert for forty years.

Forty years is a really long time to sit and stew in regret. Moses probably thought God had no use for him and his big ideas anymore, that he had squandered his position of influence in Pharoah’s house, that his sin had rendered him useless for God’s purposes. However, as Ruth Chou Simmons has said, “We don’t have to be blooming to be growing.” 

Moses was so completely humbled by forty years of tending sheep in the wilderness that by the time God called him to return to Egypt and lead Israel to freedom, he no longer believed he was capable of the task. All along God was establishing Moses, causing the roots of his faith to grow down deep into God, rather than into himself. Forty years of invisible work in Moses’ heart wakened gradually to life. That work would bear glorious fruit in the salvation of God’s people.

Remember how those Israelites got to Egypt in the first place. Joseph was a man with a vision, too. God told Joseph he would be a great man, honored by his whole family. Instead, his brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery, and then he went from slavery to jail. Joseph was “buried” like a seed three times over, until the work God had prepared for him was ready. 

Maybe even more miraculous than the shift in Joseph’s situation was the change in his brothers’ hearts. They went from being men so callous that they would sell their brother and tell their father he was dead, to being men willing to lay down their lives to avoid causing their family any more pain. The work of God in their hearts was long and slow, but it was also real and redemptive. The fruit of all that growing was finally and magnificently evident when Judah offered his life for Benjamin’s, as a sign of true and deep repentance.

This pattern is everywhere in the Bible. Abraham and Sarah were way past any reasonable hope for a baby, as were Hannah and Elkanah, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Ruth and Naomi were penniless widows. Samson had been stripped of his strength by his own sin. The widow had no food for her son, much less enough to feed Elijah. Daniel received a death sentence. To all appearances, hope was dead, circumstances beyond repair, change impossible.

God brings new life from death.

All of these stories find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. When all hope was gone, Jesus dead and buried, the disciples scattered, God overcame death with resurrection life. “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). Jesus was that first kernel of wheat to fall to the ground and die, so that we through his death might live. Just like the disciples could not see what was happening between Friday and Sunday, we cannot see clearly what God is doing in our children now. 

This is why Peter says that we have a “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3). The one that we hope in, Jesus Christ, is alive. We cannot see him now, nor can we see all that he is doing in us and through us and around us. But because we know Jesus lives, we hope in what we cannot see: “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24-5).

Persevering with trust in God’s hidden work is especially important when we are impatient to see change in our children. Here in Alabama, the secret to establishing healthy gardens lies in planting our trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall, right before our gardens become bare and dreary. It may appear that we have foolishly planted a stick, but we know that roots are growing underneath the dirt, hidden from sight. We water that pitiful stick in faithful anticipation of blooms to come, until our patience is rewarded with beauty. 

I must not lose faith in God’s ability to work where I cannot see him working in my child’s life. Our faith cannot rest in growth we think we see or do not see. God has proven himself trustworthy; he has proven that he often works in ways we know nothing of until his time is right. We do not put our faith in our child’s rule-following or church going, nor do we trust in our own efforts as mom or dad. We do not put our faith in right friends or right schools or right behavior. These are all good things, but they do not possess the power of resurrection or salvation. Only Jesus does.

Then he who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And he said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful” (Rev. 21: 5).

Anna is a single mom of three young adult sons. She is the Senior Director of Content at Rooted, co-host of the Rooted Parent podcast, a member of Church of the Cross in Birmingham, AL, and the author of God's Grace for Every Family: Biblical Encouragement for Single Parent Families and the Churches That Seek to Love Them Well (Zondervan, 2024). She also wrote Fresh Faith: Topical Devotions and Scripture-Based Prayers for College Students. In her free time, Anna enjoys gardening, great books, running, hiking, hammocks, and ice cream. She wants to live by a mountain stream in Idaho someday.

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