Robin Barfield provides an approach to a question asked by children and adults worldwide


Prayer can be a tricky subject for children. Not tricky because they don’t pray, but tricky because they do. I’m always amazed at the number of children who pray regularly. But prayer is very often a shopping list and sometimes these can be deep and huge issues like a sick relative, and sometimes these prayers can be less selfless but still heartfelt.

On this occasion the actual question I was asked was,

‘How can you pray to God and tell him to do something, when after you try it doesn’t happen?’

I wonder how you would answer this. It may be easy to dismiss the prayer request for a new bike or a sportscar as trite. It’s not trite to a child and God loves it when they bring their requests before Him, however mixed the motives may be (Phil. 4:6). As with the other big questions that I have covered, the key here is to listen carefully to the child and not to dismiss their concerns lightly. There may be a deeper and bigger prayer request coming down the line.

Needs not Wants

The first step is to ask whether what they asked for is something they need. God gives us what we need, but not always what we want. It is well worth asking a child why they think that is. If we got everything we wanted how might that change us? If you got a massive bar of chocolate every day, how might that change you? Our desires are not always right, in fact often they are wrong and directed to those things that might harm us. God does not want to give us those things that are going to cause us harm because He is a loving heavenly Father.

However, it may not be obvious why something might cause us harm. Why wouldn’t God give me that new bike? This is where trusting God comes in. He is the one who knows all things; the future, every eventuality, what will happen to us. Perhaps he knew that this new bike would cause us to be in an accident, or to cause harm to someone else. Or perhaps it’s not physical harm but he knows that getting what we want will not help us to grow in loving and trusting him.

Yet often that is not obvious. Or even seems to be the opposite of what is obvious. ‘Why did God not make my sister better?’ At these moments we must acknowledge before the child that we don’t know. But that is OK. Not easy, not painless, but it is OK to say that God’s ways are mysterious because he knows so much more than me. This involves trusting him even when we can’t see what He’s doing. Perhaps one day we might look back and see why. Or perhaps we won’t.

God has answered

It may be helpful for the child at this point to say, ‘If you ask Mum for a biscuit, how might she reply?’ Hopefully they will see that Mum might say, ‘yes’. But she might also say, ‘No’. That is an answer. It may not be the answer we want or understand, but it is a response. If we trust that God hears us when we pray, and we are told he does (1 John 5:14-15), then God has answered our prayers by not giving it.

But there is a third answer that Mum might give – ‘Wait’. If it’s half an hour before tea or 7am then it may not be the right time for a chocolate biscuit. God may be saying, ‘Wait’. In which case we can keep on asking. Again, God has answered.

Prayer is Praise

One really important element to stress to a child is that God is a loving Father, and that he loves it when we come and talk to Him. Never give up or stop doing it. I might tell them how long I have been praying for someone and still haven’t seen God answer those prayers. But just coming and crying out to him each day is a sign that I trust him, that I recognise that God is God and I am not. I need him because these are things which I cannot change. This is part of my praise. To keep asking even when it doesn’t feel like God is saying ‘Yes’ shows increasing trust, like the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-6).

Don’t be afraid of questions like these. They are vital as the child works out their faith. Don’t dismiss them as silly or trite, they matter to the child, and they matter to God too!