Every night my girls want me to pray with them and for them. If I do not tuck them in at night, or if I forget to pray when I do tuck them in, I can be sure that sooner or later I will hear feet coming down the stairs and then the question: “Daddy, will you pray with us?” Sometimes I think they are expressing a good and heartfelt desire and other times I think they are merely being superstitious, as if bad dreams will plague them and every shadow will frighten them if I do not pray. Either way, I never refuse them.
The other night I neglected to pray with them. It was at the end of a long day, I had fulfilled my parenting duties, I had gone off the clock, I wanted some “me time.” And then I heard the footsteps on the stairs. I groaned inwardly. “Daddy, you didn’t pray with us!”
So I called them over and prayed with them. It was a perfunctory prayer. It was lacking in enthusiasm and joy and confidence. I have shown more interest in taking out the trash. I sent them back to bed and went back to what I was doing. It was just another little moment in the life of a normal family.
The next morning I woke up and spent some time reading God’s Word. My devotions took me to Philippians where, right from the start of the letter, Paul tells that church how and why he is praying for them. Paul deliberately opens up his prayer life in order to teach this church how they ought to pray. In his commentary, Dennis Johnson writes, “How can we learn to pray? Instruction helps, but example is the key.” We learn to pray by hearing other people’s prayers.
When I had spent a few minutes in the passage, I went for a walk. And as I walked and prayed, and prayed and walked, this thought struck me: When you pray with your children, you are teaching your children to pray. When my girls had crept down the stairs the night before, they gave me an opportunity to teach them. And I had taught them. I had taught them that prayer can be monotone, that prayer can be done in a quick and uninterested and perfunctory manner. I had taught them that prayer is duty more than it is delight. The lessons were not all bad. I had taught them as well that they can, and should, entrust their cares to God and that he is the one who provides for our needs. But still, if that prayer was a teaching opportunity, it was one I mishandled and one I regret.
If my girls had come to me for formal instruction, if they had said, “Daddy, teach us to pray,” I would have taught something far different from what I modeled that night. I would have told them to approach God boldly and confidently, trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ. I would have told them to approach God enthusiastically. I would have warned them of the danger of perfunctory prayers which can all too soon tip over into superstitious prayers. I would have warned them against all the things I did.
Tonight they will come to me again, if I do not first go to them. And again I will have the opportunity to pray with them and to pray for them. But now I know this is not a time to fulfill a duty or cross something off my list. When I pray with my children, I am teaching my children to pray.