There's an old cartoon that depicts a boy in prayer. Distraught, the boy cries out: "Aunt Harriet hasn't gotten married, Uncle Hubert hasn't found a job, and Daddy's hair is still falling out. I'm getting tired of praying for this family without getting any results."
Many children have questions concerning prayer. One mom says that her son, Vinnie, asked God, "Are you OK?" one evening during prayer. When she remarked on the unusual words, he replied, "You said God will speak to my heart. Since I can't hear anything, I'm wondering if He's OK."
Unanswered questions about prayer may cause kids to have misconceptions or misunderstandings. We can help correct those misunderstandings as we teach our kids how to draw closer to God through prayer.
Persistence and patience
To answer little Vinnie's question: Yes, God is OK. He is all-sufficient. But Vinnie was hinting at a bigger question: Why does it sometimes seem that God doesn't respond to prayer?
Persistence in prayer — crying out to God "day and night" — is an essential part of faith. Help your kids see that being persistent is not being a nuisance. Indeed, Jesus teaches us to pray this way (Luke 18:1-7).
Persistence is necessary even if we are praying a request that God will not grant. Jesus prayed three times, expressing a very human desire to avoid the pain of crucifixion: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39). His persistence in prayer came from a troubled heart, yet also confirmed that the Cross was the only option. God's silence revealed the necessity of Jesus' sacrifice. Humanity was getting a Savior.
Likewise, the apostle Paul "pleaded with the Lord" three times concerning one of his personal needs. For a time, God was silent, eventually telling Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). God's silence taught Paul to practice persistence and grew his faith in God's power.
We need to help our children learn similar lessons. God's silence doesn't mean our needs are unimportant. God's silence may tell us that He won't grant a certain request, and like Paul learned, it may also be His way of saying: "Draw closer to Me. Grow in relationship with Me!"
Gratitude for His goodness
One morning, 4-year-old Lois prayed, "Dear God, I don't think anybody could be a better God. And I'm not just saying that because You already are God." Lois wanted to register her gratitude — a crucial ingredient in prayer.
When He prayed, Jesus modeled praise: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name" (Matthew 6:9). The word hallowed means "holy." When we mention an attribute of God, such as His power or His love, it's a form of thanking Him for who He is. No, God doesn't need the ego boost, but we do need a greater awareness of who God is. Praising God benefits us. We're actually telling Him that we are aware of His goodness and for that we are most thankful.
This pattern of praising God in prayer is demonstrated throughout Scripture. We are told to "enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise" (Psalm 100:4).
One mom, Erika, says her goal was to model to her children that prayer was a simple statement of praise to God — but "simple" doesn't mean useless or unimportant. She always starts prayer with thanks and appreciation to God. As her children began to pray, they learned that praise precedes request. They thanked God for friends and family, even beloved pets and toys.
That demonstration of prayer is different from the popular misconception. One little boy confessed, "My mom talks to God when we need more money."
Praise should be a foundational element of our prayer life.
Seeking His forgiveness
Six-year-old Debbie misunderstood the Golden Rule: "God, do You really mean 'Do unto others as they do unto you'? Because I'm really going to get my brother."
Debbie's prayer revealed the struggle of many hearts: forgiveness. Indeed, many people avoid praying altogether because they struggle to forgive.
As Christian parents, we teach our kids that confessing sins and seeking God's forgiveness is a big part of prayer. But Jesus also teaches that those prayers aren't answered if we don't forgive others (Matthew 6:15). Just as God freely grants us forgiveness, we must do the same.
Kids may struggle to forgive friends or siblings because they are angry. We shouldn't dismiss their resentment. These emotions are real. But we can help them recognize that when forgiveness is not extended, the actions of others become like a great weight we carry around. The pain becomes heavier whenever we think about it, and when someone else wrongs us, it only adds to the burden. Through prayer, we ask for God's help in forgiving others, relieving us of this weight.
God never wants us to walk around with heavy burdens that make life cumbersome. He doesn't want us loaded with guilt over our own mistakes or with bitterness over other people's actions. He invites us into His presence to unload these burdens.
Prayer is a relationship
The children's director at my church often helps kids understand prayer by saying, "Just talk to God like you're talking to a friend."
Jesus' own prayers demonstrated a close, intimate relationship with the Father. He often withdrew from crowds to be alone with God.
Through prayer, we also connect in relationship with God. We ask God for help, seeking His wisdom and direction (James 1:5). Prayer also helps us think through and examine our motives and attitudes.
Help your kids understand that when we feel weak or discouraged, prayer connects us with God's strength. We can look to the model of Daniel: While living in a hostile kingdom, Daniel set aside a regular time and place to pray to God for strength in dealing with oppression (Daniel 6:10).
The throne room has an open-door policy. Prayer means talking to a wise and loving King about all the things we're facing.David Ireland is the founder and lead pastor of Christ Church, a multisite church in New Jersey. Portions of this article are adapted from Raising a Child Who Prays, © 2016 by David Ireland. Used by permission of Charisma House.