We want our children’s experience of life to be better and more rich with meaning than ours. That’s not to say our lives as children were bad necessarily, it’s simply that every parent’s desire is to offer more to their children than they had in every realm. It follows then, that Christians want their child’s experience of God to be deeper and more impactful than theirs was as a child. This begs the question: how will our children come to experience God more deeply and intimately than we did? It won’t magically happen.
When it comes to teaching our children to pray, how do we go about this? How exactly do we teach our children to pray? In what ways do we lead our kids into prayer such that God is seen as an ever-present, ever-loving, always-filled-with-mercy kind of Father who longs to be connected to His children?
We’ll talk about some basics to practice with your children this week: why, what and when. Why pray? What to pray? When to pray?
Why Pray – We Won’t Know What to Pray if We Don’t Know Why to Pray
Hands down, the gift of prayer is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. I know it has nothing to do with college, an inheritance, or a nice home, necessarily. But what if our children’s lives need more than tangible offerings of love? Something more than vacation, a car at 16, the latest technology, etc. Prayer is a guide for navigating pain, anxiety, identity, victory, personal failure and more. It transcends both time and seasons of life. So why pray?
The best way to answer that question is by answering another question. What is prayer anyway? I mean if we’re honest about this whole thing most of us grow weary of it at best or become skeptical of its effectiveness. We often view it as a way to wield our will over God in order to place Him in our debt (i.e. I ask God for this – He must respond). But this is not prayer. That is control sandwiched between the phrases “Dear God” and “Amen”. Truth be told we will not believe in prayer enough to teach our children more than we learned as kids if we do not understand prayer and its purpose ourselves. We can only teach what we know. So let’s endeavor to know more deeply about prayer.
Tim Keller, in his book entitled, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (affiliate link added for your convenience) defines prayer this way: “Prayer is our way of entering into the happiness of God Himself.” Keller expounds on this definition in an interview he did with John Piper at desiringgod.org. He says, “God is infinitely happy because of who He is, and He is just happy in His own glory. [Especially] when you are glorifying Him, when you are adoring and glorifying Him, that is when you, in a sense, are entering into His happiness, because you are doing what He does, and you are experiencing the same joy He has.”
God as a Gift
So to break that down, prayer is more about experiencing God’s loving presence than His practical provision for life. We often approach prayer with expectations that if we say words a certain way or from a certain heart posture God will smile on us and give us what we “need” or ask for. But what if we need more than we ask for? Remember how I said prayer is a greater gift for your children than a college education or a car or an inheritance? As parents we know what is best for our children when they approach us with requests. Much the same way, God knows He can offer His children a greater gift than a new job, a healthy family or a pay raise (none of which are bad things mind you). The point is God is greater than gifts – He’s the giver of good gifts which means He is also the creator of them. Isn’t the Creator greater than the creation? Who do you want to meet? The Mona Lisa or Leonardo Davincci? God wants to give us Himself in prayer. Sometimes God gives us what we ask for in prayer as a way of leading us into experiencing Him – not the just gift itself. Prayer is a small glimpse of what eternity will be like. We will receive God forever, uninhibited, always surrounded and filled with His loving, healing, happy, engulfing presence. God is giving us a taste of heaven when He invites us to pray. He wants to give us Himself – the greatest gift.
So why pray? Because prayer is the usher that leads us into the presence of the greatest being in the universe, God. We receive God when we pray rightly. When we pray from a place of misunderstanding we pray as though things we receive (or sometimes don’t receive) are the point. God is the point of prayer and he offers Himself as the greatest need of our hearts.
What to Pray Helps us with When to Pray
Do you pray this way with your children? Are the words you are teaching them to pray pointing them to a God who is immensely happy and wants to share His love with them? Or is God a mythical genie that one day will let our children down so many times that they not only give up on prayer but on God Himself? Remember this: the way we pray paints a picture of who we think God is. The way we teach our children about prayer is massively important. It introduces their sponge-like minds to the reality of who God is. As we’ve just discussed, prayer is about experiencing God’s loving presence more than our pursuing our version of provision. So with that in mind. What do we teach our children to pray?
We teach them what to say by showing them that prayer is a place where we get to be exactly who we are in God’s presence and be fully loved at the same time. If prayer is receiving God’s presence then our part in prayer is to be honest and vulnerable – He knows it all anyway. Vulnerability is laying the heart open before God, regardless of what’s inside, trusting God with all of it. So we teach them to share their anxieties, concerns, funny thoughts, gratitude, etc., with God because it’s safe and He cares. We don’t simply tell our children, we show them. How often do you pray honest prayers in front of your kids? Are you sharing your own heartfelt concerns or gratitude with God?
Another “what” to pray is truth. It is important for our prayers to not only be from our heart, but also from His heart. Meaning we should learn to incorporate praying scriptural truth as a response to the concerns of our heart in prayer. An example might be: “Father, I do not know how to trust that you will give me what I need today. But your word says that you care for birds of the air even though they don’t store up food or work for it. Help my unbelieving heart to trust in you like a bird does.” There’s our heart, His heart and a petition about aligning our heart with His. This is where we begin to experience and receive God Himself in prayer. What we pray comes from our heart, His heart and asking for guidance in making our heart like His. This is the exchange of the old heart for the new.
Lastly, we pray as often as we are prompted in the Spirit to do so. If prayer is a way of keeping company with God then it makes sense that we can be prayerfully aware of Him throughout the day – involving Him in all our motives and decisions. We can truly lead a life of worship through offering our thoughts and motives to God moment to moment in prayer. So the next time your toddler or your child exclaims, “Oh, look at the moon!” Or, “I like apples,” teach them that enjoying what God created is one of the ways we feel God’s love for us. If they say, “Nana is sick.” Or, “Why does it make me sad when someone makes fun of me,” show them God loves to care for us when we hurt and one of the best ways to know God cares for us is by spending time with Him in prayer.
Teach them that prayer is responding to God’s love for us; His love for us through gifts or the struggles of life. Our friendship with God becomes better when we spend time with Him and prayer is a great way to spend time with Him. Let the endeavor of teaching your children to pray lead you into learning how to receive God’s love all over again!
You can find a bit more in depth conversation about prayer from a video I created here.