What To Teach Kids About Unanswered Prayer

By Natasha Crain

My son Nathan wasn’t feeling well recently so we all prayed together for him to feel better. The next night at prayer time, Kenna pointed out that we prayed for him already but he wasn’t feeling better. She had a look of simultaneous confusion and disappointment on her face.  In a total of about 3 seconds I had the thought that this is the beginning of a lifetime of seeking to understand why God does or does not answer certain prayers AND replied, “We’ll keep praying and trust God that Nathan will feel better.”

I felt a giant theological error well up in my throat. How often we casually imply or even consciously think that if we just “trust God” for a specific prayer outcome, He will answer the way we want!

“Everything will be OK! Just trust in God!”

Yes, everything will be OK . . . perfect actually . . . when Christ returns and God is glorified in His kingdom for eternity. In the meantime this life is a mess. We are sinful people with free choices, surrounded by other sinful people with free choices. There is illness, there is death. There are natural disasters. Christians live in this fallen world and are affected by its consequences as much as non-believers.

Yet, we are to pray. We are to ask God for our hearts’ desires in the midst of all this. If every Christian’s prayer for a specific (positive) outcome was answered, however, we would effectively be in control of the world through God.  Thank God that prayer doesn’t work that way!  It’s actually a little scary to think of millions of people (even if they are Christians) controlling God like a puppet through prayer strings. I would much rather God be in control, in His infinite wisdom and perspective.

The dynamics of prayer are really not unlike our children making requests to us . . . we encourage their requests, consider their requests, and want them to continue making requests, but may not grant them what they want depending on how it would impact themselves, us or others  . . .  just like God relates with us through prayer.

Jesus powerfully demonstrated this himself when he prayed in Mark 14:36: “Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” God CAN do anything but his specific answers to prayer are based on how our requests align with His will.

If we come to believe that God can or should be trusted for specific outcomes, our relationship with Him will be as variable as the ups and downs of life; a good outcome equals happiness with God, a negative outcome equals disappointment or anger with God. This is not what our relationship should look like, yet it is very common.

To put this in a simple framework for my kids, I’ve boiled it down to these 5 key concepts that I emphasize at home.

    1. God wants us to continuously pray. (e.g., Philippians 4:6-7; Ephesians 6:18)
    2. God hears our prayers. (Implied in the fact he wants us to pray, plus Psalm 34:15)
    3. We can and should pray for our hearts’ desires. (e.g., Matthew 21:22; Matthew 7:7-11; John 14:13-14)
    4. God CAN answer our prayers for specific outcomes, but may not, depending on His will. (e.g., Matthew 6:10; Matthew 26:42; Mark 14:36)
    5. God works all things together for good. This statement, from Romans 8:28, can easily be taken out of context. Paul is not saying that God works all things together for OUR good (at least as we would commonly perceive “good” in this life). He follows in verses 28 and 29 by explaining that the good he is referencing is God’s overall plan for the world leading to His final glorification.

Here is is how I apply these truths for my (young) children:

“We just prayed for (fill in the blank). Do we know God WANTS us to pray? (yes) Do we know God hears ALL of our prayers? (yes) Do we know that God CAN answer any prayer he chooses? (yes) Does God answer EVERY prayer the way we ask? (no) What is important is that we always pray because God wants us to, but we have to remember that only God can decide how he is going to answer our prayers.”

In this way I hope to teach them that we should not limit or censor our prayers, but at the same time we need to respect and trust in God’s infinite wisdom . . . not our own.

What To Teach Kids About Unanswered Prayer

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6 replies
  1. toby says:

    What is the purpose of prayer in light of god being assumed to know all things and being perfect and having a plan? If we make these assumptions about god then he already knows what a person wants, needs, wishes and whether or not he’ll grant that. Also it doesn’t seem that we are able in any way to add or subtract from his maximal greatness by anything we do. So prayer seems to not be effective at all. If god knows how everything will be in the end and it’s his plan and it’s all good, then whether anyone asks for anything in prayer will be indistinguishable from random chance. Which is what we observe. There is no good response from apologists that praying that a stain comes out of their favorite pants—and it does—is more important to gods plan than someone praying for their next meal and being denied. If that is part of a plan, then the plan is either bad or indistinguishable from random occurrence.

    • TGM says:

      Prayer is such a funny thing. Prayer basically asks someone else to do something for you. Prayer requests are even worse. That’s asking someone to ask someone else to do something for you. If I were God I’d ignore all these lazy people too. Except I’d be a megalomaniac, so I’d probably exult in the glorification. Then I’d ignore them.

    • Louie says:

      You’ve got to place yourself in the position of God, and being a parent does a pretty good (but not exact) job of that. You want your kids to talk (pray) to you as their father. You want them to love you and trust in you as their father. You will answer their requests (prayers) if you think it is what is best for them, but you will not if it does not fit in the overall plan for your family. You do not need their prayers/conversations, but you sure enjoy them none the less.

  2. Lisa says:

    The Rolling Stones have a song…”You can’t always get what you want” so it seems that even the”idols” knows this. Jesus experienced this in the Garden of Gethsemane “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt”. Hearing a “no” is part of the human experience, any 2 year old will tell you that. So how do we translate this “NO” to our kids’ understanding in their prayer life? I’m no apologist, but here are some things God has taught me in 25 years. As humans, we can get very bossy in our prayer life if we don’t take time to learn more about God. Sometimes we get impatient and think we can force God’s hand. God is not a genie in a bottle. Rub the magic bottle and *poof* you get your 3 wishes! You don’t use a formula of words (like a spell), incantations, or vain repetitions (makes your jaw hurt anyway) to get favors from God. We don’t use prayer for show either. God is our Father, Jesus is our friend and the Holy Spirit is our Comforter and guides us into all truth. This is the 3 persons in our One God. Prayer is a personal conversation with the One God who cares very much about us, understands us and knows what is best. Prayer is not just requests. It’s sacred time in His presence, in the secret place. Thanksgiving, blessings, praise, worship, confessions, repentance,forgiveness, requests, petitions, intercessions, affirmations, standing in the gap for someone and then a yielding happens in prayer when exercised properly. As my teenager shared with me, he has realized as he prayed to alter weather patterns for his football whims or other silly things, he has come to know that the “No’s” from God have expanded his knowledge of a sovereign God. Combining fasting with prayers are choices in the Kingdom of God but are disciplines that flow from relationship. Jesus is King, you can pray anywhere, any time, any direction and in any position. Prayer is the safest place to be yourself, because He knows everything about you anyways. He has numbered your tears. He knows your strengths and weaknesses. And He even knows the number of hairs on our head..(stuff we don’t even care about until we start losing it). He knows all about it. He wants to hear your whole heart and prayer is a time where you can learn to hear your own heart too. And in time, if modeled well, you will learn to pray in agreement with His will. “Not my will, but Your will be done”-earnest prayers-those are the hard ones. Praying and thinking of ways to genuinely bless your enemies is not easy but doable by God’s grace. Thanksgiving was the first thing we prayed together with our infant/toddler boys. “Thank you God for (fill in the blank).” We always gave thanks for every family member/friends first, then we went on to puppies, toys and stuff. Thank you God for good things and things we don’t understand. Thank you for yeses, nos and please waits. Prayer with the kids is the time to coach about praising and acknowledging God for who he is. Thank you God for being You (powerful, loving, all knowing etc.). When you pray the scriptures it’s easy to thank him for being our Teacher.. We Thank him about His kingdom,His church, His fields, His laborers, His plan, His Word and His increase. Praise and thanksgiving is spiritual warfare. God inhabits the praises of His people. As simple as it is, the disciples prayer that Jesus taught in Matthew 6:9 -ff, we learned to thank Him for our food, his provision. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food”…was the meal prayer that my mother raised me on and that changed as I matured in my understanding. Our requests to keep us from the evil one, to save us from our selves (that’s a daily one) are regular petitions. God reveals in His Word and prayer how to recognize temptation and find the way of escape that God has already given us. The Father shows us how to release the “prisoners” we have locked up in our own “debtors” prison. It’s wise to ask the Father for help, wisdom and understanding. Jesus has given us good examples on forgiveness and prayer. Ask the Father for courage to walk in His footsteps. And when we don’t have anymore words and don’t know how to pray, remember the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. The best part about Jesus being the Great and only High Priest you don’t have to go through another person to be heard. Pray to the Father directly, through Jesus and his authority and Holy Spirit will comfort you in the process. Accountability and confession brings healing too. When you confide in someone make sure it’s some you can trust. God promised his people he would sing over them and quiet them in His Love. Rock your baby/child, sing to them and pray with them on a frequent, daily basis. Memories and relationship like that last. When the relationship with the loving God is nurtured, the heart is ready when he hems you in and says “No”. He will come to you in that lonely place. He is faithful, He will never leave us nor forsake us.

  3. jcb says:

    I wonder how many theists will notice that the prayer asked for God to make the child feel better, and notice that lots of prayers are like this, but then think that The Problem of Evil is not a problem because if God answered any of our prayers, we would be robots! (and that would be bad, so god doesn’t answer them). The point: prayer for god to intervene is inconsistent with saying god could never intervene. But if a perfect being could intervene, then it would have probably done so during the Holocaust, as far as we can tell. But, none did (as far as we can tell), and thus there probably is no perfect being.


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