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Helping Children Pray

Following is part two of Truth78’s interview with Bible teacher, Nancy Guthrie. Nancy and David Guthrie experienced the death of two of their children and now lead respite retreats for parents in similar seasons of suffering.

Steve Watters: How do we help children pray for things and especially pray in the midst of difficult situations?

Nancy Guthrie: This is a very significant and personal question for me because when our son was in second grade, he had a sister who was only going to live a short time. He went to a Christian school and every day at the end of the school day, they prayed. So what do you think all those kids prayed for? They prayed that Hope would live.

I remember picking up Matt from school and waiting in the carpool line. And he hops in the car and immediately he says, “Mom, is there any chance Hope might live?” And I knew why he was asking. I knew they were praying for that every day. And he’s thinking it through, which is great. He’s thinking it through, “Should I expect that?” And I said to him, “Well, Matt, here’s what I know. I know no children have ever lived very long who have this condition that Hope has. But here’s the other thing I know, I know that Hope is in God’s hands. And whether she’s here with us, or she’s home with Him, she’s in God’s hands.”

So I think the challenge for us in helping kids know how to pray through these things is really the challenge we have with adults knowing how to pray for these things. And that is: we are oriented primarily to ask God to take this suffering away, rather than being oriented to pray and ask God to use the suffering in our lives to conform us to His image. That’s His purpose in it. He wants to use it to discipline us, to mature us. He wants to use it to give us the opportunity to live out genuine faith.

There are lots of verses in Scripture that say, “this happened, so that” and those verses are answering the question, “Why?” Both with adults and with children, my plea would be, “Look at what the scriptures say God intends to do in and through suffering, and pray for God to accomplish those things.”

That’s a whole kind of reorientation. I suppose a kid is going to state the request, “pray that this happens.” And sometimes we just ask. Isn’t it great that God is our father and we can just ask Him for what we need? But I love the Westminster Catechism which says that prayer is asking God for what He’s promised to give, not just for what I want. And, and you know what? He has promised to give sufficient grace. He’s promised to give divine power. He’s promised that His holy spirit would work for us. And so those are the things we should ask for.

A child might say, “Teacher, I want you to pray that God will give my family a new house to live in.” That was one that was in a class I was in recently. I said, “Would you give this family a new house? But more than that, Lord, would you give them contentment with what you are providing right now with what you’re providing to them?

In children’s ministry we have the opportunity to train children not to focus on prayer being solely asking God for these things or these situations that we want, but instead for inviting God to work in the situations we don’t want.


When Jesus responded to the disciples’ request to teach them to pray, He gave them the Lord’s Prayer as a model. He shows us what should be in the believer’s heart when he comes to his Heavenly Father in prayer. For an in-depth look at how the Jesus teaches us to pray, consider our 13-week study for children and adults, Lord, Teach Us to Pray.

 


Read Part 1 of our interview with Nancy Guthrie: Helping Children Prepare for Suffering

Dad’s Unmatched Spiritual Influence

Steve Watters recently caught up with Bill Farley to ask about the need for family discipleship, for dads to take the lead as spiritual example and guide, and the challenges dads can expect to face and what to do about them. Farley is a retired pastor, father, grandfather, and author of Gospel Powered Parenting: How the Gospel Shapes and Transforms Parenting.

Steve Watters: What is the significance of a dad’s leadership in family discipleship?

Bill Farley: The big significance of a father is very simple: he is the one who is called by God to do it. The Bible repeatedly commands fathers to raise up children in the way they should go. That command is rarely ever, if at all, given to the wife or the mother. Her role is to be supportive. His role is to take responsibility and to lead the family spiritually. No one can substitute for that. Nothing is as effective as dad taking up his position as the leader of his home.

In Gospel Powered Parenting I cite a Swiss study that looked for any correlation between a father’s devotion to Christ and his children’s devotion to Christ. After studying hundreds of couples and their children, researchers came to the conclusion that the fathers’ involvement in religious activities was crucial.

When a dad attended church regularly along with his wife, 33% of the kids ended up attending church regularly. When the dad was non-practicing, but the mother went to church regularly, only 2% of the kids ended up going to church. When dad went to church irregularly, but his wife was non-practicing (she didn’t go to church at all), 25% of the kids still went to church.

The most interesting finding was that the greatest number of kids—fully 44%—who ended up as churchgoers came from homes where the dad went to church regularly and the mom was not practicing. In other words, when the kids saw their dad pushing through the obstacle of having a wife who did not want to go to church, and he went anyway, that had the biggest impact on the children. Dad’s involvement is crucial.

SW: Are family devotions the full extent of a dad’s responsibility to raise his children in the fear and instruction of the Lord? Is there more to that expectation than just family devotions?

BF: Family devotions are just part of the package. A father’s own spiritual example is crucial. How his kids perceive his relationship with Christ, and whether it’s driven by passion or whether it’s driven by religious duty, is crucial to the kids as they grow up. Kids are watching all the time. The kids are also picking up from mom and dad that religion is for men, or something only for women and children. When kids pick up that it’s also for men, the boys grow up more likely to follow Christ and the young ladies grow up more likely to choose husbands that will be men who will follow Christ. There’s a robustness that comes to the family when the dad is the one who is the spiritual leader in the home. And when dads are the spiritual heads of their homes, everything changes.

SW: What are the core elements of family devotions?

BF: Bible reading and prayer.

In our experience, family devotions don’t need to be long. 15 minutes is fine. When you’re doing family devotions you’re teaching your children the Bible, but you’re also modeling for them, and the modeling is essential. Every time you meet for family devotions, you’re saying to your kids, “This is the most important thing. Our home revolves around Christ—not our children, or our felt needs—and that is a stake that goes in deeply and stays with kids for a lifetime. I’ve never said to any of my grown children, “you need to do family devotions.” But they have all married Christians and they’re all doing family devotions without us ever saying a word. They know it’s important because we set that example for them. It would be hard for you to overestimate the long-term impact of consistent family devotions with your children.

SW: Many dads know they should lead in family discipleship, but studies show there’s a gap between those who know they should lead, and those who are consistently leading in something like the family devotions you describe. What challenges have you seen that are causing that gap?

BF: I think one of the big challenges among men is a feeling of inadequacy. Men look around and think, “You know I’m not perfect, how could I lead my kids?” Or “my wife knows the Bible much better than I do; maybe she should lead the family.”

The other problem is he’s distracted. Dad just doesn’t see the long-term impact of family devotions. Maybe he’s thinking, “Oh, this is just a religious duty and it’s not going to have any big impact. My kids are just going to grow up and they’re going to think, ‘I don’t want to be involved in that same kind of legalism that my parents were involved in.'” But our experience is just the opposite. If it’s a loving home, and you lead by example, and occasionally do things that are fun during family devotions, that will have a long-term impact on your kids and they’ll want to do that when they grow up and have their own families.

I often tell the story of a 70-year-old friend, Tim, whose mother died when he was a boy. He was the youngest child of five kids. After all his older brothers and sisters were grown and gone, his mother died choking to death on a piece of food while she was standing in line at a bank. He was left alone with his father.

His father was a janitor. His father could barely read. But every night his dad got out the old, big King James Bible with his son and they sat at the dinner table and Dad and Tim would read the King James Bible together. It was his father’s example that had a huge impact on Tim for the rest of his life. He raised his kids the same way his dad raised him. It’s not how much you know. It’s that you’re willing to learn as you study along with your kids, and communicating to your kids that God is the center of our family.

SW: Did you run into any practical challenges as you worked to have a consistent devotional time with your family?

BF: Of course! For devotions to work, you need to have a time during the day when your whole family is together. It’s usually going to be dinner, or if dad works the night shift, it’s breakfast. But there needs to be some time when the family’s all together. Our biggest obstacle was when the kids got into junior high and high school: sports, tennis lessons, drill team lessons and on and on and on; music lessons, piano, flute, etc., etc. It was hard for us to gather the family for a dinner hour. Somebody was always gone. So, I put my foot down and said, “We’re not going to be gone during the dinner hour. We’re going to be here. None of this other stuff is nearly as important as our family being together and family devotions.”

I’m sure it’s much worse today than it was when our kids were younger, in terms of distractions. You have to be really committed or it’s never going to happen. If you don’t protect the time, you won’t have a family dinner (or breakfast) hour and if you don’t have a regular family hour, you’re probably not going to have family devotions.

SW: How would you apply a passage like 1 Thessalonians 5:14, to encourage men who say they’re having difficulty leading their family spiritually?

BF: That passage says, “Admonish the idle. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Be patient with them all.” That’s a classic example of what it looks like to parent children!  Admonish the idle. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Be patient will all.

It’s the same thing for dads. You may start out saying, “I’m going to do well at this. I need to do this, I’m going to get on the wagon. I’m going to. I’m going to be faithful.” And you do lead for three or four weeks, and then you wake up one day and realize it’s been two weeks since you’ve done family devotions. One thing after another has happened and there have been distractions, and activities, and on and on. You just need to get back on the wagon. Recognize from the start that this is what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be two steps forward and one step back.

If you do family devotions three or four nights a week, you’re doing really well. We’re not talking about doing every night of the week because for most families, that’s not sustainable. Aim for at least three or four nights of the week. Meet together as a family around God’s word.

SW: How do you get the kids talking about the passage you read?

BF: I used the Socratic method, which means I’d ask questions. We’d read a paragraph, maybe one of Paul’s epistles, and then I’d say to the kids, “What’s this text about? What was that paragraph about?” You know, I’d get all kinds of blank stares. So I would ask them more questions; draw them out and get them involved in the text. It’s not a matter of you just lecturing your children.

When your children are really little you can use Bible picture books. You can read Bible story books designed for kids at various age groups. Bruce Ware has a good book to help with this: Big Truths for Young Hearts. There are all kinds of aids you can use to help with family devotions. The important thing is, whatever you do, work consistently at it, and together, with mom and dad on the same page together.

SW: Is there a book in the Bible you encourage dads who are new to this to start with?

BF: I might say the book of Mark. It’s simple in its organization into sections with subheadings. Start at the beginning and read one section and talk about it. You don’t need to have all the answers. Your kids may ask you questions you don’t have the answers for. That’s great. Say, “Hey, next time we meet I’ll get the answer to your question and we’ll talk about it.” You don’t have to be a know-it-all. You just need to get the text in front of your children. When you do that, you’re saying to them, “Our family revolves around God, not around our kids, or our kids’ activities. And the Bible is how we connect with God, and the Bible is really, really important.” Your honoring of Scripture, your honoring of God, will have a huge long-term effect.

SW: Any final encouragements?

BF: There are only two texts on parenting in the New Testament and they both say similar things. “Fathers, do not provoke your children, and bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4, and Colossians 3:21.) Both passages are to fathers. If you read through Proverbs in the Old Testament, you’ll find pretty much the same thing with a few exceptions. In the various places where parenting is discussed in the Bible, it’s assumed that the dad is the chief parent in terms of leading their children’s spiritual instruction.

To every dad reading this, pick up the mantle and your Bible, gather your family, and by faith, go forward.

                                                           

Our newly-released interactive family devotional, Glorious God, Glorious Gospel, is designed especially for dads who are ready to take the lead in the spiritual formation of their children. The book is divided into 15 chapters that use Scripture to explore God’s character, what God requires of us, God’s solution to our problem of sin, and what it means to follow Him.

Glorious God, Glorious Gospel answers questions like:

  • Who is God, and what is He like?
  • Why do I exist? How am I to act toward God?
  • What is my greatest problem and need?
  • What has God done to solve this problem?
  • How Can I be saved?
  • How should I now live?

It includes suggested schedules for breaking each chapter into smaller units, based on the ages and attention spans of your children.

 

Helping Children Prepare for Suffering

Children often grow up believing, on the basis of the cultural messages all around them—as well as the actions of their parents—that God owes them comfort and their “best life now.” But Scripture tells us otherwise. Jesus told us that “in this life you will have tribulation,” Peter said we should not “be surprised when the fiery trial comes upon us to test us, as though something strange were happening to us,” and James commands us to “count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds” (John 16:33, 1 Peter 4:12, James 1:2).

How then should parents talk to their children about suffering? And what, if anything, should they do to prepare them for it? Steve Watters, communications director for Truth78, sat down with Bible teacher Nancy Guthrie to ask how parents can help their children process and prepare for suffering. Nancy and David Guthrie experienced the death of two of their children and now lead respite retreats for parents in similar seasons of suffering.

T78: How do children learn from parents how to face suffering?

Nancy Guthrie: Most of us as parents think that the primary way we teach our children about suffering, or anything else, is by what we say to them. David and I talk with lots of couples where someone in the family has a cancer diagnosis or something like that and they wonder, “how am I going to talk to the kids about this?” I don’t think though, that it’s primarily through what we say to our children that our children learn the most. I think the primary way they learn about suffering, how to think about it, how to feel about it, how to talk about it, is by what they observe in us.

If, when we’re going through a season of suffering, they observe anger, they’re probably going to absorb a sense of “this is not right; somebody out there has wronged us; God has wronged us”–they’re going to absorb that angry response. Also, they’re going to absorb an attitude about how things work in the world, that I deserve something different than to experience the brokenness of this world that is universal to everyone in the world. Kids can absorb a sense of presumption that somehow, I shouldn’t have to experience this, and surprise about suffering.

One thing we do have to say as parents is that the word of God tells us, “don’t be surprised at suffering. This is common to everyone in the world.” The Bible’s message about suffering is expect to suffer. Know that God will be with you in this suffering and your suffering is not meaningless, but purposeful. If you belong to Christ, your suffering is not meaningless, but purposeful. He can and will use it to accomplish in your life, and in the world around you, His good and glorious purposes. As you believe that, you can transmit that to your kids.

T78: What are the consequences when children don’t hear that, when they aren’t prepared for suffering?

NG: When they do experience suffering, they become hard and bitter toward God. They can see themselves as victims, rather than disciples who are living in a broken world, anticipating that part of living in this world that’s under a curse is experiencing the suffering of this world. They need to have a sense that this life is not all there is. Isn’t that something our kids need to understand more than anything else? They’re not going to get that message from the world, television, their friends at school, the culture around us—those are always telling us: this is where life is; this is where you’ve got to make a mark on this world; this is where you’ve got to grab all the Gusto you can get, in the here and now; you can be anything you want to be. People think this is some kind of self-empowerment message for kids.

I think a far better message is, “you can trust that God will work in you, to call you to His purposes, and will equip you to do and be all that He’s called you to do and be.” That’s a God-centered view that sets some expectations for your life in this world, rather than setting this expectation that you’ve got to accomplish your dream; you’ve got to become somebody. That sets kids up for bitterness when all of those things don’t happen, instead of acceptance of the sovereignty of God in their life.

T78: When we face suffering, what does that suffering tend to reveal in our lives?

NG: My husband David and I host weekend retreats for couples who have lost children. We’ve done retreats the last two weekends, and last weekend, there were a number of couples who were verbalizing their anger toward God. One way I pushed back on that is to say, “Whether it’s anger toward God or anger toward any person or situation, anger reveals an expectation—I expected this would be different. If I’m angry at you, it’s because I expected you would do or say something different. You have done something I didn’t want you to do, or you didn’t do something I expected you to do. Our frustration when the car breaks down or when somebody damages something of ours, reveals we have an expectation that these things shouldn’t happen to us.

Similarly, in terms of anger with God, a lot of times that’s based on having expectations of who God is and what He ought to be doing in our lives. We think that if we have been so smart, so spiritual, to choose Him, that now He’s got to do His job and His job should be to protect us from suffering in this life, and to bless us; to fulfill all these things we want to do and be in this world.

We sometimes have this expectation that God is our servant rather than we are His servants; expectations that God’s role is to give us the life that we think will be best for us, that we think that will be more comfortable. When those are our expectations, and suffering comes into our life, it makes complete sense that we’d be angry with God. The anger reveals the assumption and the expectations.

What I challenged those couples to do at our retreat was to say, “Identify what your expectations were, and then ask the question, on what basis did you expect that?” What that reveals, first of all, it kind of forces us to say, “I thought God was going to take care of me so that I wouldn’t have to suffer. I thought all my prayers for my kids were going to mean that I wouldn’t have to bury one of my children.”

Then you go onto the next question, “On what basis was that your expectation?” Then you ask, where do you see this promise in the Scripture? What that actually gets at a lot of times is the errors we make in interpretation; the promises we read in the Scriptures that we misunderstand, or misapply. Once you get to that point, you can deal with it.


Children need the deep, unshakable foundation of God’s sovereignty that is clearly taught in God’s Word. Truth78 has woven the topic of suffering, as well as God’s sovereignty, throughout our scope and sequence. For more help on teaching children about suffering, see:

When Life is Hard God is …

Helping Children Understand the Cost of Following Jesus

Mommy… Daddy… I’m Sad

24 Things Your Children Should Know About God’s Providence


Read Part 2 of our interview with Nancy Guthrie: Helping Children Pray