In all that we teach our children, the greatest and most fundamental thing we can do is model a praying life before their beautiful little eyes and their perceptive little ears. Though we are doing this already, as we continue to depend daily more and more on God and enjoy our communion with him, we would do well to keep in mind the following principles of prayer to the end that the Holy Spirit might use us sinful and broken vessels as models of a dependent and repentant, faithful and prayerful life in communion with our Lord. I’ve separated the following principles into three categories: Foundational Principles, Situational Principles, and Motivational Principles. My hope in this article is to set down some of the principles I’ve learned about prayer in order to provide parents with a few guiding principles that I have tried to model before my children, albeit imperfectly. There are certainly many more principles we could add to this short list, but I offer them simply as a starting point for your own further reflections and study.
Foundational Principles of Prayer for Children
- Let them see that prayer is grounded in the Word. Prayer is nourished, and strengthened by God’s Word. E.M. Bounds wrote, “The Word of God is the food by which prayer is nourished and made strong.”
- Let them see that prayer is united to the Word. Prayer is communion with God and thus twofold in essence: Listening to God as he speaks to us in his Word by the Holy Spirit, and communing with God by communicating to him, verbally or nonverbally.
- Let them see that prayer is conformed by the Word. If our minds are not informed, and thus renewed by the Spirit through the Word, and our hearts not conformed by the Word, then our prayers will be futile intellectual musings on the one hand or moody emotional ramblings on the other.
- Let them see that God is not simply responding to our prayers, he is responding to us his children through the means of prayer. He doesn’t simply answer prayers. He answers us, his people, and he always answers us, sometimes saying yes, no, wait, or yes but even greater than you could have imagined.
- Let them see that while sometimes our prayers include all aspects of our communion with God, our prayers often include simply one aspect of prayer. When John prays at the end of Revelation, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20), he is directly supplicating Jesus to return, and although he only employs one aspect of prayer—supplication—he is still truly praying.
- Let them see that just as the disciples went to the Lord and asked him to teach them to pray, so we can and should ask the Lord to help us in our prayer, in our weakness, ignorance, and stubbornness.
- Let them see that prayer isn’t simply telling God what we want or need but responding to him in dependent adoration from a heart overflowing with what we know he wants for our holiness and for his glory and his kingdom. We pray with our eyes focused on his kingdom, not our own kingdoms.
Situational Principles of Prayer for Children
- Let them see that prayer is continual communion with our Lord, with life’s regular interruptions and the sins of our hearts. John Wesley wrote, “In souls filled with love, the desire to please God is continual prayer.”
- Let them see that prayer is not something we need to get ourselves cleaned up for, in the right attitude for, or in the right mood for, but that we simply pray and let the Holy Spirit do his necessary work in us and through us. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The true spirit of prayer is no other than God’s own Spirit dwelling in the hearts of the saints. And as this spirit comes from God, so doth it naturally tend to God in holy breathings and pantings. It naturally leads to God, to converse with him by prayer.”
- Let them see that we pray not just in generalities but in particulars, as we fervently keep asking, seeking, and knocking as we go to our Father who wants to hear us and commune with us as we ask him for even the littlest things in life as we focus on his glory and our enjoyment of him.
- Let them see that our words of prayer don’t necessarily need to be complicated and weighty and poetically beautiful in order to be genuine, but that they can be short and simple, especially when our children are young so that we are not exasperating them. And let us be careful not to instill cleverly worded rhyming prayers that they may simply memorize them for the sake of a quick cute prayer that can easily become a prayer of meaningless empty platitudes. Samuel Chadwick wrote, “Prayer is not a collection of balanced phrases; it is the pouring out of the soul.”
- Let them see authenticity, not only in our own prayer lives but in our prayers themselves. We don’t want to live our lives in such a way as to show off our life of prayer. Our prayer cannot be an act or a performance. Martin Luther wrote, “Prayer is not performance but climbing up to the heart of God.”
- Let them see and hear us pray the Lord’s prayer as young as they are able to learn it and let them see us expand on each petition of the Lord’s prayer in our own prayers. And as we use certain patterns of prayer that we are accustomed to, let us make sure that we’re careful not to demand that pattern as the only biblical pattern from which if they depart then they will fear they are not praying properly.
- Let them see that there is not just one appropriate posture for prayer, but that even as evinced in Scripture, we can pray in many postures. Let us be discerning as to whether we force them to close their eyes and position their heads or bodies in precisely the same way we do. Let them simply observe our devotion, however we express it in a particular situation. Let them see that they can pray while kneeling, bowing, smiling, singing, hugging, crying, with faces down, with faces up, with hands folded, holding hands, or hands outstretched—there is not one right way to pray at all times and situations. Day by day, our children will observe our posture in prayer and, by God’s guiding grace, will naturally find themselves showing reverence to the Lord in manifold postures.
Motivational Principles of Prayer for Children
- Let them see that prayer is not foremost a programmatic rite but the natural, organic overflow of a heart that belongs to God—that prayer is like breathing as we inhale adoration and thanksgiving, we exhale confessions and supplications. Thomas Watson wrote, “Prayer is the soul’s breathing itself into the bosom of its heavenly Father.” Oswald Chambers wrote, “If we think of prayer as the breath of our lungs and the blood from our hearts, we think rightly. The blood flows and the breathing continues—we are not conscious of it but it is always going on.”
- Let them see that we pray not because we are partially in need of something from God, but because we are in desperate need for God himself—that what he gives or withholds is secondary, but that he himself is our great reward, our inheritance, our life, our all.
- Let them see that prayer is the soul’s greatest instinct and passion and that we pray because we can’t help but pray and desire communion with our Father. Help them to see that we pray not primarily so that we can tell someone we have prayed but simply because we feel like praying so that they can see that we are sincerely passionate about prayer because we are sincerely passionate about God. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Prayer seemed to be natural to me, as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent.”
- Help them see that prayer is not only a means to an end but an end in itself, namely, communion with our Lord, just as our worship of him is an end in itself.
- Help them to see us pray genuinely and with genuine motives. When we’re having a tough day or when there has been an argument in the home or when our kids know that we may be sad or upset let us not instantly put on the façade of a superficial smile, but show them that we can go directly to the Lord without hesitation and let them see us pray for help to pray, for comfort, for joy, for a tender heart, and for a child-like faith that clings to Christ as our only hope.
- Let them see that we pray not as foreigners but as members of a covenant household of faith and that prayer is not only something that we do in public, in private, before eating, before bed, during our time of disciplining them, but that it is something we have the great privilege of participating in at any time because we are the children of our heavenly Father who can always come to him and who will never be ignored.
- Let them see that our communion with our Father is the most important and the most enjoyable engagement of our day because it is the occasion when we get tell our Father we love him, trust him, and need him—just as our children want daily to express their love, trust, and need of us. Let them see that while pray throughout our day, we also have a regular habit of scheduled daily prayer. J.C. Ryle wrote, “Oh, dear friend, if you love your children, I charge you, do not let the early impression of a habit of prayer slip by. If you train your children to do anything, train them, at least, to have a habit of prayer.” And D. A. Carson wrote, “We will not grow in prayer unless we plan to pray. That means we must self-consciously set aside time to do nothing but pray.”
Most of these principles apply not only to children but to all of us, and as we continue to think, study, and write about prayer, let us remember to pray and to commune with our Lord as we will do forever, glorifying him and enjoying him by the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit and the ongoing intercession of Christ Jesus our great high priest who prays for us even now. Jesus’ prayer for us is the sustaining means of our abundant life in him now and forever.