A while back, I received a message from a friend who wanted some help explaining one part of prayer to her 9-year-old daughter. The question was specifically about Paul’s words in Romans 8 about how we do not know what to pray for (8:26). Here’s what I wrote which they found helpful. I hope you will too.
Dear ‘Ask the Pastor’,
I have a question: last night, I told the Lord in prayer with my kids that we do not know how we ought to pray. After the prayer, S asked me why I said that. She was thinking, Jesus told us how to pray, as we have studied the Lord’s prayer….I tried to explain how the Holy Spirit perfects our prayers (interceding for us with groanings) because we always ought to pray in God’s will. Honestly, she was baffled, and I must admit, I am amazed. I think I understand, but could you try to put this in 9 year old terms for the two of us? ….
Here’s what I would say to my kids. I hope it helps:
What a great question! Yes, Jesus has given us excellent instructions on how to pray. In the Lord’s Prayer we have a wonderful outline of topics and priorities. However, Jesus didn’t give us an exhaustive prayer list there. Think about the awesome prayers that Paul prays in his letters.
There are also there are times when we don’t know exactly how to pray what to pray for because we don’t know God’s will. Remember in the Lord’s pray that we should pray for his will to be done. The Lord’s Prayer is about his moral will for our lives more than his sovereign will. What’s the difference? God’s moral will is about the things that are right or wrong. Lying is wrong and loving is right. God wants us to do one and not the other. But when we think about the world (and even our lives!) we see that both actually happen. The same person can lie and love. This happens as part of God’s sovereign will. Sovereign is another word for King. So, God’s sovereign will is what he has determined *will* happen as the king of the universe–all of the moments of the lives of all people in the world for all of time. This includes acts of sin as well as righteousness. How does this work? Well, it’s a bit mysterious. But think of the cross where Jesus died. God willed for sinful men to sinfully crucify him. But what happened as a result? The greatest result imaginable–salvation for sinners! We can think of Joseph as well. His brothers sold him into slavery which was sinful but God wanted it to happen so he could provide food for his brothers which allowed them to become the nation of Israel (Gen 50:20). This was God keeping his promise to Abraham for children who would be a great nation (Genesis 15).
So, when we think of praying for someone, Paul says that even bad things can be used for the good of God’s people (Rom 8:28-29). In his own life, God used pain to keep him humble (2 Cor 12:7-10). You can also imagine someone who has gone through a terrible experience in life–someone like Job who loses his wealth and his family all in one day. If we were his friend, we would feel sad for him. Probably so sad that we wouldn’t even know where to begin to pray for him! In that moment of sorrowful prayer where words fail us, the Spirit will take the longings of our heart which cannot be spoken because we are too upset, and offer them to God in prayer.
The same might be true in a less terrible situation. Suppose you have a friend at school who is sick. Should we pray for them to be healed? That’s not a bad thing to pray for. But maybe God doesn’t want them better right away because he knows that by being sick for a while, that person will spend more time with him reading the Bible and praying. This would be a good thing! We can pray through the Lord’s prayer for that person–that they would hallow God’s name, do his will, and live according to his kingdom with great confidence. But we wouldn’t know exactly how to pray for the person’s sickness. So, like Jesus in the garden we can pray “You will be done.”
I hope that helps! More than that, I hope you are encouraged to continue to pray to God, knowing he wants us to pray (Luke 11:9-10) and is more than able to answer any request we give him (Eph 3:20-21).