I am the son of a pastor, so prayer was a regular part of my childhood. By the time I got to kindergarten, I knew how to "God is great and God is good" my food by day and "pray the Lord my soul to keep" by night. I knew all the words to those familiar prayers by heart, but to be honest, I had no idea what they meant.
When I had kids of my own, I realized that my experience was not unusual. My girls could parrot our family prayers but had no real sense of what we were saying or why we were saying it. My wife and I recognized that we needed to be more intentional about the way we were planting prayers in our children's hearts.
Jesus cautioned against merely reciting prayers (Matt. 6: 5-8). The vain repetitions of the scribes and Pharisees really got his goat. Instead, Jesus gave his disciples a model for intimate conversations with their heavenly father (Matt. 5: 9-13). That prayer, the basis of what we call the Lord's Prayer, provides parents with a wonderful teaching tool for helping our children understand the purpose of prayer and our amazing God who loves to talk with his children. Here are some ideas to guide you and your children through a discussion of the Lord's Prayer.
Our Father who art in heaven
Amazingly, Jesus invites us to approach the Creator of the universe as if he were our earthly parent. The word Jesus uses for father is Abba, a tender name similar to Daddy or Papa. In other words, we are to approach the Lord informally as if we were crawling up into a loving parent's lap.
Obviously a child's understanding of "father" is going to be based on his relationship with his earthly father. The importance of making that relationship a healthy one can't be minimized.
Thinking about God as our father can help children see God as someone who cares deeply about them. God is holy and mysterious, but he is not distant. He loves us more than we can imagine. Because he is our father, we can pour out our hearts to him with confidence. Talk with your child about the idea of God as our father. What does it feel like to think about God as a daddy? Next time you lead your kids in prayer, start out by saying, "Dear Daddy in heaven … "
Hallowed be thy name
Just because God is a loving daddy doesn't mean we should forget his awesome power and majesty. After all, he is God. This line in the prayer reminds us to come to God in a spirit of reverence and respect. Talk with your children about how they would act if they were in the presence of the President of the United States or the Queen of England.
Consider setting aside a special place in your home that is just for prayer. It can be a comfy chair in the corner of the living room, a pile of pillows on the floor of a bedroom, or even a bench where family members can kneel as they talk to God. Of course your child should know that she can talk to God anywhere, anytime. But a special place set aside for quiet conversations with God can reinforce the idea that talking to our King is also something extraordinary.
Thy kingdom come
Since God is a king, it makes sense that he has a kingdom. The kingdom of God includes our world and all the galaxies of the universe. Best of all, it includes heaven. This part of the Lord's Prayer reminds us that one day all of God's children will live in a place where no one falls down and scrapes a knee, nobody cries or loses their temper, and where we will experience perfect love and happiness. Encourage your children to talk to God about heaven. Be open to their questions about death and eternity.
But this part of the Lord's Prayer also tells us something about how we are to live right now. God sent his son, Jesus, into his kingdom so we would know what God is like. Jesus also taught us what kind of people we are to be if we want to follow God and live in his kingdom. He said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,' and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Luke 10:27).
The perfect joy and peace of heaven is something we should strive for right here on earth. Help your children think of ways your family can make your community more like heaven. Bake up some cookies and bring them to a lonely neighbor. Gather all your outgrown toys and give them to children in need. Invite a single mother and her children out for a picnic. Every time we bring God's love to the life of others, we are offering them a glimpse of God's kingdom.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
The disciples knew that God was in control of the heavenly realm. Jesus wanted them to know that God was just as much in control of what was going on in the world (even when it didn't seem like it). When we ask that God's will be done on earth, it means that we are acknowledging that God's way is the very best way. We are asking him to help us follow his commandments and live the way he wants us to. That includes being kind to others, forgiving people who hurt us, and resisting the temptation to sin.
Consider having a family meeting where you think about ways each of you can do God's will. Write your ideas on a piece of paper and post it on the fridge. The list can remind all of you that you want to be a family who follows God.
Give us this day our daily bread
This phrase is about much more than food. "Daily bread" is an idiom that symbolizes what we need to survive (clothes, shelter, food, water). But the "daily" part of the phrase is as important as the "bread" part. When we pray this prayer, we are asking God to provide enough, not too much. In a culture that preaches that more is better, Jesus' words remind us that we need to be content with what we have and seek joy in God, not possessions.
When you pray with your children, thank the Lord for the ability to buy the things you need. Ask God to give you and your family a sense of satisfaction with what you have and to help you be generous with your surplus.
If your family is struggling financially, this part of the prayer can be a wonderful source of comfort and a promise that God will always provide for his beloved children. Give your children opportunities to pray for your family—mealtimes, family devotions, or bedtime prayers can be a wonderful time for them to express their trust in God's provision.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
Just as our faces, hands, and feet get dirty, so do our hearts. And just as our bodies need a bath or shower every day, so do our insides. Asking for forgiveness means asking God to wash away the things we've done or said that have hurt God or other people. That's great news. But this phrase also challenges us to be forgiving as well and that isn't always easy.
If your children are old enough, have them join you in writing down what each of you did that day that runs counter to God's way of life (you can write down the answers for younger children). Fold the papers in half as you say, "Lord, we are sorry for the things we've done today that hurt you." Then, grab a trash can and ask each person to tear his paper into tiny pieces and throw it away. Assure your children that God's love and forgiveness means their sins are now gone, torn up and forgotten to the heart of God.
Now, ask your children if they are willing to be as forgiving with people who have wronged them. Have your children write down something another person has done that hurt them. Then pray together, "Lord, help me to forgive the people who hurt me." Then, take those papers to the trash and throw them away, too. Talk about how it feels to be forgiven and how it feels to forgive.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
God would never be mean to us or try to trick us. He will never abandon us when we find ourselves in difficult situations. Instead, Jesus says, we can tell God when we're scared or need help making the right choice. He wants us to know that we can call on our Heavenly Father to lead us away from evil people or evil places.
To help your children see God as our protector, read the 23rd Psalm to your family at breakfast. After reading it once, re-read it as a prayer (i.e., "You Lord are our shepherd. We shall not be in want. You make us lie down in green pastures. You lead us beside quiet waters … ") If you want to get really creative, have everybody place their shoes at the front door and then pray over them, "Lord, walk in our shoes with us today and make sure we go where we should."
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever
When we come before God in prayer, we must remember that he already knows what we need. He will grant what he thinks is appropriate and deny what he thinks is harmful. This phrase basically means that we shouldn't get pushy when we pray. We are free to ask for anything, but we must leave the results with our father in heaven and be satisfied with his answers.
Explain that amen is Hebrew for "so be it" or "let it be." It's a simple way of saying yes to God. When we say amen we are connected with millions of God's people who have prayed to him for thousands of years and ended their prayers the same way.
When we say amen, we are also saying that we believe God will answer our prayers. Of course, we need to let our kids know that the answer may be yes, it may be no, or it may be not yet.
Coming before God as a family is a great privilege. So no matter whose turn it is to pray, encourage everybody to say amen together. There's no better ending than that.
Greg Asimakoupoulos has been a pastor for 20 years and holds a Master of Divinity degree from North Park Theological Seminary.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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Fall 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1, Page 32