Mrs. Lubbers is a wife and mother in Grandville Protestant Reformed Church of Grandville, Michigan.
“Suffer the little children to come unto me….”
If a woman doesn’t know much about fine needlework, it is probably best that she not give lessons in crocheting. If a man has never ventured out on the high seas, it is undoubtedly the better part of wisdom to let someone else give pointers on the techniques of sailing. So it is with teaching children to pray—one must himself be instant in prayer, a man or woman in close communion with God, and a believer who has practiced the art of prayer in order to teach another how to pray. It is sobering business for oneself to pray, how much more to teach another how to pray. Even though one may be perfectly capable of teaching the key elements of prayer and possesses a certain degree of eloquence, what about the humility, the sincerity, and the heartfelt devotion implicit in true prayer? Can that be taught as well? Regrettably, it is possible that one will merely be teaching one’s own bad theology or thoughtless habits as one teaches another how to pray. Nevertheless, Scripture assures us that “prayer is within reach of all—the sick, the aged, the infirm, the paralytic, the blind, the poor, the unlearned—all can pray. It avails you nothing to plead want of memory, and want of learning, and want of books, and want of scholarship in this matter. So long as you have a tongue to tell your soul’s state, you may and ought to pray” (The Duties of Parents, by John Charles Ryle).
Even the disciples, grown men all and certainly skilled in the traditions of Hebrew prayer, felt a lack in their prayer life. On one occasion, when Jesus had just finished praying, they ask Him: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1, 2). Having been with Jesus in so many different situations, they must have noticed the striking difference between the integrity of Jesus’ prayers and their own stilted prayers. Undoubtedly, Jesus had already taught them how to pray by His example. Now, they ask for a model prayer that will include all the elements of acceptable prayer.
Jesus instructs them “to pray after this manner” and recites to them the very familiar Lord’s Prayer.
Immediately, one notices that this prayer is comparatively short and concise. Nothing in it is complicated. Its beauty is its simplicity. The scribes and Pharisees, by contrast, were known for long, wordy prayers. Next, a careful observer notices that Jesus has addressed God as “Our Father.” This is a first for the disciples, since the accepted Jewish address in prayer was the less intimate “God” or “Lord.” Finally, it is clearly a prayer that exalts God and humbles man, makes a simple request for daily bread, and a plea for forgiveness of sin, all based on who God is and what advances his kingdom.
Teach this prayer to your children first of all. It is a perfect prayer. It cannot be improved upon. Although this prayer is not intended to be prayed literally only, neither should one be embarrassed to pray it regularly. In Luther’s Small Catechism, each simple prayer that he teaches to the children includes the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. As the children gain understanding, explain the richness of this prayer and talk about it, for as the Heidelberg Catechism explains: prayer must contain all things necessary for soul and body. The Lord’s Prayer does.
Since the prayers of God’s children are a sweet-smelling savor to God as well as the chief means of expressing our thankfulness to Him, we must teach our children to send this perfume to God. From the years of highchair to high school, we as parents, teachers, and ministers must train the children to pray. They will not learn proper prayer by osmosis. They must be taught how and what to pray from earliest infancy. In their book The Family, authors Palmer and Alexander rightly claim: “It is a useful lesson for the speechless babe, to acquire the patient stillness of the hour of prayer” (p. 67). Children and young people learn how to pray by listening to father and mother pray, but another level in a child’s prayer life is reached when he is able to pray aloud. There is indeed a place for silent prayer in the life of each believer, but young children are not best served by doing so. Children learn best by engaging their senses in a concrete, tactile way. Close your eyes. Fold your hands. Repeat after me. Memorized, repetitious, audible prayers are as beneficial for children as they can be for adults.
Whether or not one prefers ex tempore prayers to prepared prayers, there is merit to written or formula prayers (The Book of Common Prayer, and the prayer book of the Puritans, The Valley of Vision, come to mind), and if today they have no other purpose, they can effectively serve as springboards for one’s individual prayer subjects. Children, especially, should learn the elements of prayer by following the pattern of a prayer that is reverent, orderly, definite, thorough, and fitting for the occasion. For this reason, our baptism and communion forms include prepared prayers as well.
And how important it is to teach the children at a tender age to praise God by reciting His attributes and virtues! Extolling Jehovah’s holiness, majesty, omnipotence, faithfulness, goodness, creative work, providential care, lovingkindness, and mercy should be taught the children as early as possible to be important elements in their prayers. Petitioning God seems to come naturally—already at a young age we are rather good at asking for things—whereas blessing His name is often put on a back burner, so to speak. Yet, who will tell His praises if we His people are negligent to do so? Must He raise up stones to relate His greatness (Matt. 3:9)?
What are good prayers, then, to teach our children? Since our children most regularly pray at mealtimes and bedtimes, one can do no better than to go to the Psalms for guidance, learning from David’s unmatched outpourings to God.Psalm 103:1, 2 is suitable for a child’s mealtime prayer, as isPsalm 23. Habakkuk 3:17, 18 are fitting verses to memorize for mealtimes. Some parents and teachers like to teach a rhyming prayer, more like poetry. I submit the following prayers with the understanding that the prayer be properly addressed to God our Father (not to Christ as some prayers like “Jesus, Tender Shepherd, Hear Me” erringly do), and that each prayer include the petition for the forgiveness of sins, which petition has fallen on hard times in many Christian circles.
Father great, and God, all good,
We thank Thee for this food.
By Thy hand must we be fed;
Give us, Lord, our daily bread.
Be present, at our table, Lord.
Be here and everywhere adored;
Thy children bless, and grant that we
May eat and drink to honor Thee.
Forgive our many sins.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Lamentations 3:22, 23 is a wonderful morning prayer, as is Psalter number 391. Psalm 139:23, 24 lends itself well to an evening prayer. The seven-word prayer of Nehemiah, “Remember me, O my God, for good,” has merit both as to its covenantal number of words and its content. Its brevity can be refreshing as well. Psalm 19:14 is a wonderful prayer for all occasions, and I often use this prayer with the students at the end of the school day. I remember one traumatic school day when all the first graders were huddled under their desks during a dark, threatening tornado alert. Over the whimpers of the children and the ferocity of the storm, we began to pray the words of Psalm 56 (Psalter number 152). “What time I am afraid I put my trust in Thee; In God I rest, and praise His word, so rich and free.” We sang our prayer that frightening day. Read your Psalter verses and discover the wealth of rich prayers between its covers. Here is a gentle evening prayer for little ones:
Father, teach me to pray,
And now accept my prayer;
Thou hearest every word I say,
For Thou art everywhere.
A little sparrow cannot fall
Unnoticed, Lord, by Thee;
And, though I am so young and small,
Thou dost take care of me.
Teach me to do what’er is right,
And when I sin, forgive;
And make it still my chief delight
To love Thee while I live. Amen.
It has been said that prayer is a holy art. Without question, learning to pray takes practice, discipline, and experience. For children, in addition, it takes correction and encouragement. Each of us adult believers has learned to pray through a lifetime of halting, incremental steps. As very young children, we spend much more time listening to others pray than in leading others in prayer. As we become older we take a few turns leading in family and classroom devotions so that our hearts will not leave our chests in nervousness and wild hammerings if called upon to pray aloud in Young People’s Society or other family, school, and church functions. Then, when at last one is placed at the head of a family, one can “carry forward the blessed institution in which one has been reared, and convey the words of life to coming generations” (The Family, p. 70).
It is of inestimable comfort to know that although I often seem to pray in weakness and insincerity—my prayers not going past the ceiling as it were—that standing in the great gulf that separates me and my Father is One who perfects my prayers and presents them faultless before the Father. The great Intercessor assures that my feeble stammerings are rendered as great paeans of praise to the Father. His life-giving work encourages me to teach the children to pray as well.
My duty, my desire, and my singular delight, then, is to teach the children to pray.