Pray Like Children

By David Feddes

Do you ever pray? If so, do you know what to say? Or do you find it hard to pray? Maybe you’re not sure where to start or what words to use. But to really pray, you don’t have to be a great performer. You just need to be like a little child.

If you can’t give great speeches, if you’re not sure you know all the right words to produce an impressive prayer, don’t worry. You can pray anyway. On the other hand, if you can’t relate to God and talk to him as a little child to a Father, then prayer is a problem for you.

In real prayer, you’re not performing to impress the judge of a talent show. You’re pouring out your heart to your Father. Jesus says in his great Sermon on the Mount,

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need even before you ask him.”

According to Jesus, prayer isn’t a public performance; it’s a personal conversation. It’s not giving a big speech to impress a stranger; it’s talking to your Father who understands you and knows what’s on your mind even before you tell him.

Learning to Talk

For many of us, this is good news. It makes prayer simpler. If you can’t pray the way you’ve heard some religious leaders pray, don’t worry about it. Prayer is between you and God. Just go somewhere by yourself, where nobody else can see you or hear you. Tell your Father in heaven what’s on your heart. God loves to hear his children pray.

Maybe you’re new to praying. You feel like a baby in the faith. You feel like you hardly know how to talk. You haven’t learned all the words that long-time church people use when they pray. Don’t let that bother you. Don’t let it stop you from praying. Your Father in heaven loves to hear you trying to talk to him for the first time.

When a baby says, “Da–da, dah–dee,” does a father say, “Bad baby! You didn’t pronounce that right”? No! When a baby gurgles a noise that sounds anything like “Daddy,” the father’s face lights up. Likewise, when you stumble along in your first prayers, your heavenly Father doesn’t frown and scribble notes with a red pen, criticizing the way you pray. God delights to hear his children’s first words of prayer.

Think for a minute about some of the first words we use as children when we’re learning to talk, words like “Daddy,” “Wow,” “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” “Please,” “Thank you”, and “Why?” Did you know that expressions like these can be found in many prayers in the Bible? Prayer is so personal and so simple that even a child just learning to talk knows most of the basics for praying to God.

“Daddy”

The starting point of prayer—and perhaps the most important part—is the way we address God. Jesus teaches his people to call God “our Father in heaven.” Sometimes Jesus even used the word “Abba” when praying to his Father. “Abba” is what little Hebrew boys and girls would call their father. It’s a word like “Papa” or “Daddy,” a word of trust and closeness, of love and respect. What a privilege, to be able to speak to God this way!

Sometimes, though, we may be tempted to bring God down to our level, to make him our buddy and equal. That’s when we need to remember that Jesus taught us to speak to our Father in heaven. God is near but he’s also infinitely above us.

In any healthy father‑child relationship, there’s a lot of love, but there’s also great respect for the father. A father isn’t just a buddy or an equal. He’s a father! Some parents may say they just want to be friends with their children, but that’s foolish. Sure, there should be love and affection, but a father is a father, not a just a pal. A good father is wiser and more powerful than his child, and he deserves respect.

Now, if that’s true of earthly fathers, it’s far truer of our heavenly Father. Yes, we can speak to our Father like a child to a daddy, but we must also remember that God is in heaven, that he is great and glorious and holy beyond anything we can imagine. Even Jesus himself sometimes addressed his Father as “Holy Father” and “Righteous Father” (John 17:11,25). If even Jesus spoke of the Father with such respect, we certainly should.

Prayer begins with lovingly and respectfully calling God “our Father.” If you trust Jesus and have his Spirit in your heart, and if you know how to say the word “Daddy” or “Father,” then you’re ready to pray.

“Wow!”

The word “Wow!” is short and simple. It’s among the first words you learn as a child. As you get a little older, you might also use the word “Awesome!” Prayer involves a lot of “Wow!” and “Awesome!” Who is more awesome than God? Who deserves a bigger “Wow!” than the almighty Creator and Savior?

One of the greatest things we can ever enjoy is a sense of sheer wonder and awe as we are overwhelmed by something so astonishing we can hardly describe it. A big part of prayer is praising and adoring the Lord, bowing before him and exclaiming “Wow!” and telling our Father how awesome he is. The prayers of the Bible are filled with this kind of praise. “You are awesome, O God” (Psalm 68:35). “Great is the Lord in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations. Let them praise your great and awesome name—he is holy” (Psalm 99:2‑3). “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?” (Revelation 15:3‑4).

Jesus teaches that one of the most basic parts of prayer is to say, “Hallowed be thy name.” We praise God, and we pray that God’s name will be praised by every living thing. We forget ourselves, we forget everything around us, and we’re overwhelmed with awe at God and at his great name.

That’s why we need to do most of our praying when we’re alone. That way we can focus entirely on the Lord and his majesty rather than on the people around us. Instead of trying to show others how pious we are, we can concentrate on telling God how awesome he is. Every prayer should have this “Wow,” this sense of awe and astonishment at the marvel of a God who created everything, who controls the stars and galaxies, who is great and holy and lives in unapproachable light, and who also stoops down to touch and transform our lives.

“I’m Sorry”

Another thing most of us learn to say when we’re little is, “I’m sorry.” Often we don’t like to say it. We don’t want to say it. But when we’ve done something wrong, we need to say it. If you’re a child and you disobey your parents or fight with other children, the best way to make things right again is to say, “I’m sorry” and to ask for forgiveness.

The prayers of the Bible show how God’s children need to tell God, “I’m sorry.” In Psalm 51:3-4 King David says, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

Sometimes we’re too proud to admit we’re wrong. We’d rather pretend we’re good. Jesus tells a story of a very religious man who prayed to God and gave thanks that he wasn’t like other people. He claimed he was extra good and always did what was right. But God did not accept that man. Instead, God accepted a man who had done some terribly bad things but who prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14).

If we never admit we’re wrong, if we never say we’re sorry, we won’t enjoy God’s forgiveness and love. We’ll just get more miserable. In Psalm 32, King David says that the longer he kept quiet and refused to admit his wrong, the sadder he became. Then, finally, says David, “I acknowledged my sin to you… I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’—and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

It’s hard to admit we’re wrong and to say “I’m sorry.” But once we do, it’s wonderful. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

God not only forgives us and makes things right between him and us, but he also moves us to forgive those who have wronged us. In the model prayer Jesus taught us, he told us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” In other words, we tell God we’re sorry for our sins and ask his forgiveness, and we also promise to forgive anyone who hurts us. That kind of prayer keeps our relationship with God healthy, and it keeps our relationship with other people healthy. “I’m sorry”—that’s one of the first things we’re taught to say as children, and it’s a crucial part of prayer.

“I Love You”

Another thing children say a lot—and should hear a lot—is “I love you.” In the Bible God says again and again how much he loves his children. He showed his love by sending his Son to die for us, and his Holy Spirit warms our hearts with a sense of his love. So it’s only right to tell God how much we love him.

Jesus said the most important thing in all the world is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Since loving God is our highest calling, saying “I love you” is an important part of prayer. The writer of Psalm 18 prays, “I love you, O Lord, my strength.” That’s not a fancy prayer, is it? But it pleases God to hear us say we love him.            Every time we say that, we are only echoing what God first said to us. He loved us before we ever loved him, and he delights to hear us say we love him. Just as a father beams happily when a little child smiles and says, “I love you,” so God our Father delights in our prayers of love, he embraces us in his arms of love, and he sings a song of infinite, eternal love that echoes and rings in our hearts. What a wonder prayer is! What joy to know God’s love and to express our love for him!

“Please”

Something else little children do is ask for things. And it’s okay to ask for things. It shows that children know they can’t do everything on their own and that they count on their parents. So it’s good to ask. But it’s also good to learn how to ask. Our parents don’t teach us to say “Gimme.” They teach us to say “Please.” “Please” is a good word. It shows how much we want something, and it shows we’re making a request, not a demand. “Please” means we’re not giving orders; we’re humbly asking. We’re depending on the kindness of the person we’re asking, not demanding our rights.

Whether or not we actually use the word “Please” in our prayers, our attitude should certainly be one of humble asking. Sometimes, even when a father wants to give a child something, he won’t actually give it until the child asks and says “Please.” In the same way, God wants to give us good things, but sometimes he doesn’t give them till we humbly pray and ask him.

The Bible is filled with all kinds of requests. God’s people ask the Lord for healing from illness. They ask God to supply food. They ask God to rescue them from enemies. They ask God for help in finding a wife. They ask for babies. They ask for help dealing with old age. They ask for wisdom in decisions and for all sorts of other things.

These examples from the Bible teach us that we should ask our heavenly Father, humbly and respectfully, for the things we need. This includes our daily needs—and much more. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” But as important as that is, there’s something else that’s even more important. Even before we ask for God to take care of our daily physical needs, says Jesus, we should pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When we’re little, we quickly find that our parents grant some requests but not others. If we ask them for something that’s really good and helpful for us, they’ll give it to us every time. But if we ask to skip schoolwork every day, or to eat candy from morning till evening, our parents are going to say no. In the same way, if we want to really be effective in prayer and see answers from God, we need to learn to ask our Father in heaven for things that are good for us, not just for things we happen to want.

If we seek first God’s kingdom, if we seek to do his will and be delivered from evil, we can be sure God is going to say “Yes” when we ask him. If we ask God to fill us with his life and love through his Holy Spirit, we can be sure he’ll do so. Our Father wants what’s best for us. As Jesus said, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though your are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11‑13)

“Thank You”

Once we learn to say “Please” and respectfully ask God for what we’re seeking, then we also need to say “Thank you” for all the great things the Lord does for us. “Thank you” isn’t just a polite little phrase. It’s the heart of happiness. A child who takes for granted everything his parents do for him isn’t nearly as happy as a child who appreciates what his parents do, sees it as an expression of their love, and thanks them for it. Children must know how to say “Thank you,” and God’s children certainly need to know how to say thank you to our Father in heaven.

Sometimes I smile when I hear little children pray. They thank God for sunshine and flowers and puppies, and I think, “How cute!” But is it just cute? Or is it deep and profound prayer? When I look in the Bible, I find many prayers that are just as childlike: praising God for the stars and the sun, thanking him for rain and food and animals and fish, thanking him for health and happiness. Of course, we should also thank God for spiritual blessings and for eternal life in Jesus. But there’s deep insight in a child who sees every good thing as a gift from God and thanks him for it. There’s nothing especially spiritual about forgetting to thank God for flowers and puppies and food and fun and a warm house and a decent income and all the other things he gives us. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1).

“Why? It’s not fair!”

Now let’s talk about another aspect of a child’s prayer, one that might surprise you. When children are confused, they often ask “Why?” When something happens that they think is wrong, they cry out, “It’s not fair.” Did you know that such things are part of prayer as we find it in the Bible?

The Israelite hero Gideon once asked in a time of trouble, “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?” (Judges 6:13). The biblical psalms ask “Why?” again and again. “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) The prophet Habbakuk asked God, “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (1:3) Jeremiah asked the same question. Even Jesus himself asked “Why?” On the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

How does God respond to our cries? Sometimes we find out that God shares our sorrow and opposes an unfair situation. At other times, when we cry out “Why?” or scream “It’s not fair!” God may show us that we need to change our attitude and stop complaining. But even then, it’s better to cry out in prayer and have God change our attitude than it is not to bring our struggles to God at all. He knows what’s on our heart anyway, so we might as well tell him, and then be alert for his response.

Prayers of questioning and complaint don’t always mean a lack of faith. If you’re a child and you never ask your dad questions or say what’s troubling you, is that a sign of trust? No, if you really trust someone, you don’t have to hide anything. When you trust God, you can go to your heavenly Father freely and throw into his lap whatever is on your heart. As children can pour out their questions and complaints to loving parents, so we can be open with our heavenly Father about what is bothering us.

Wordless

If you’re learning to pray, you don’t have to be fancy. If you know the words any child knows, words like “Father,” “Wow,” “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Why?” then you know most of what you need to know in order to talk to your Father in heaven. In fact, there are times when you don’t need say anything. You can pray without any words at all.

When we’re so confused and sad that we don’t have any words left, then, like a child, at least we can still cry, and our Father hears us and knows what we need. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8:26‑27). Sometimes just crying on God’s shoulder is one of the deepest prayers his Spirit creates in us.

Wordless prayer is powerful not only in deep sadness but also in deep gladness. When we’re almost too happy for words, we can just enjoy the Lord’s nearness in silence. Sometimes a father and child sit together and hug each other and enjoy each other’s love, without saying anything at all. Those are very special times. You and I can also do that in our prayer time with God. Don’t say anything. Just bask in his presence, enjoy his love, and feel content that he is your Father and you are his child. There’s no greater prayer than this silence of love.

One more thing: please realize that in order to pray a child’s prayer, you have to be God’s child. To call him your Father, he must be your Father. You must be part of his family.

How do you become part of God’s family? Put your faith in Jesus Christ. Believe that the Son of God became human and died and rose again so that you might become a child of God. Trust Jesus to give you eternal life. Welcome his Spirit to live inside you and adopt you into God’s family. Then rejoice as the Spirit moves you to pray a child’s prayer. Your prayers won’t be grand performances but personal conversations with your Father in heaven.

PRAYER

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. You are so amazing. Move us to marvel and to say “Wow!” at your genius and majesty. You are so good, and we are often so bad. We’re sorry. Forgive our debts as we also forgive our debtors. We love you, Father, and we trust in your love.

Put us in tune with your desires for us, and then grant us the desires of our hearts. May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. As you work your big plans for this world and give us a part in those plans, we ask you to please give us each day our daily bread and meet our personal needs. Thank you for all the good gifts you give us, and thank you above all for the precious gift of salvation in Jesus. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one, that we may stand against Satan’s attacks and do what pleases you.

When times are tough and we’re struggling and we don’t know the reason, hold us in your arms as we voice our questions and ask, “Why?” Thank you that we don’t need to pretend with you, that we can come just as we are with our doubts and problems. Help us to be still and know that you are God, to find in silence the peace that calms our fears and the love that warms our hearts through your Holy Spirit. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.