Friday, March 19, 2010

Prayer and Children

Dr. Myk Habets, lecturer in systematic theology at Carey Baptist College in Auckland, New Zealand, has graciously offered the following article originally published in New Zealand's The Baptist magazine as a guest post.

Prayer Sydney Style

During the day I teach systematic theology at Carey Baptist College and I publish books and articles on the doctrine of the Trinity and other related topics. Outside of work I am a husband and the father of two lovely little children – a three-year-old daughter named Sydney, and a one-year old-son named Liam. At bedtime my wife and I tuck Sydney in and then pray with her before she goes off to sleep. Early on in this routine I had to ask myself a question – How will I lead Sydney in prayer? Theology is produced by worship and worship is the product of theology, so prayer is an aspect of both theology and worship, something I lecture on all the time to adults. But how to inculcate in my three-year-old daughter good theological habits was the question. Now I don’t believe there is any one right answer to this question so what follows is not a ‘this is what you should do,’ or ‘this is the correct way.’ Rather, what follows is the way that I have adopted in teaching my daughter how to pray that is biblical, God-honouring, and theologically robust.

First some rules of Trinitarian theology the church has found to be faithful to Scripture. 1), God is one being, three persons. 2), each person has a distinct identity and yet each is fully God. 3), it is appropriate to think of the action of the triune God as one and undivided and yet to think of the work of the three divine persons as distinct. 4), Jesus is physically at the right hand of the Father. 5), God is Spirit and thus the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are everywhere present at all times.

That leaves us with prayer Sydney style. This is what I did not want to pray, not because it is incorrect, but because it is ambiguous and teaches, in my opinion, bad habits which rear their ugly fruit in later life. ‘Dear God, thank you for…, Dear God, we ask for…’ The word ‘God’ is perfectly fine, but it lacks any specificity and is, at best, impersonal, at worst it is an idea or concept divorced from the triune God of the Bible. So this is what we pray. ‘Dear God the Father in heaven, and God Jesus Christ in heaven, and God the Holy Spirit who lives inside me. We thank you for…We ask you for…’ Now that Sydney is getting older, we pray the following, ‘Dear God the Father in heaven, and everywhere, God Jesus Christ who is in heaven, and everywhere by his Spirit, and God the Holy Spirit, who is in my heart and the hearts of those who love him. We thank you for…We ask you for…’

I trust it is obvious what I am doing but let me spell it out briefly for the sake of clarity. I am using the word God in reference to the triune God who is intensely personal. This will (hopefully!) avoid Sydney having any ideas that God is an impersonal force, or energy or that he is static. I am using the personal names for God – Father, Son/Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit – in personal ways and in differentiated ways, so that she develops the habit of thinking of God as three persons but one being (not that this language is available to her at present). And I am making it clear that the triune God is personally present to her and at the same time universally present in creation and beyond. I am hoping this will forestall any individualistic notions of her Christianity and yet develop within her an intimacy with the triune God of grace.

Well this is what I am doing and why I am doing it. So if you see Sydney around church or Carey, why not ask her where the Holy Spirit is (or the Father or Jesus) and see what she says? Perhaps a follow up article in a few years is required to see how my experiment is going. I do pray to the triune God that she develops the mind of Christ in worship and comes to know and love God for who he really is, despite my theological and parental limitations.


  1. I appreciate this. I appreciate that it pushes against the lame standard prayers we let slip out that mean nothing, and which we justify in the case of children just because we underestimate them or think a little mystery won't be good for them. I appreciate the effort to embed the children in a prayer life that addresses the triune God. That said, I wonder why not just pray to the Father in the name of the Son by the power of the Spirit so graciously inside? Something closer to the Pauline formula? Maybe it doesn't make a big difference, and I realize that one would have to help the child along to understand the use of the prepositions there. But isn't it important to not just pray to a triune God but to have our prayer enfolded in the story by which that triune God comes to us? It seems to me that if I address God as Father because Jesus, His Son, has adopted me as His brother or sister, and gifted me with His Spirit then I am helped even further along in my prayer life. I don't know. Just thinking this out loud.

    With my kids we've been using the Lord's Prayer a lot, and sometimes adding a triune formula of sorts. We also add things according to the situations of the day and change a few words for their age-level (ie. "bad things" instead of trespasses. I'm looking for a better phrase there.)

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. Thanks so much for this guest post Myk, and for raising this lately, Adam! Theology hitting the ground: Good stuff.

  2. Really good stuff, Myk. I'm also very concerned not to give my kids an impersonal or merely conceptual understanding of God. There is some great food for thought here in that direction.

    My family has been praying the Lord's prayer together pretty consistently for a while now. We pray it as is, though I know much of the language is a bit out of their reach. The primary reason I don't mess with it is so that we pray it together at home the exact same way we pray it together we our church on Sundays. I think this has been helpful to ingrain a knowledge of our membership in God's larger family. I've relied on reading the Bible together and having conversations to instil a knowledge of who God is - conversations with a 7 year old on the trinity are pretty interesting.

  3. I had made up a kid-friendly version of the Lord's Prayer but am more and more convinced it would be better to just use the original (maybe minus the King James language).