Helping Children Make Sense of Unanswered Prayer

Like adults, children are pained and puzzled when their prayers are unanswered.

By Victor M. Parachin

A child hears her parents arguing loudly. One threatens divorce. The other begins to cry. Before sleeping that night, the child prays, asking God to keep her mother and father together. A month later they separate.

A single mother of two young children is financially strapped. She is concerned about being downsized from her position. Her children, aware of her concern and stress, pray asking God to “let Mom keep her job.” A few weeks later she becomes unemployed.

Like adults, children are pained and puzzled when their prayers are unanswered. Unlike adults, they may not always express their disappointment or know how to talk about it. Yet, if they are to grow and evolve spiritually, they must be helped to deal with this issue. Here are some ways of helping children make sense of unanswered prayer.

Begin with Scripture. Children grow up learning and loving Bible stories. Scripture is a good starting point, especially the Psalms. It appeared to David, the man children know as the slayer of Goliath, that his prayers were not answered, so he began Psalm 13 this way: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2). There are also these words from a person discouraged by unanswered prayer: “…the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold… I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God” (Psalm 69:1-3). Then there are these desperate words about unanswered prayer: “I cry to you for help, O Lord… Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:13-14). These three examples show a child that to be perplexed by unanswered prayer is not a new experience to the people of faith.

Gently teach children that sometimes God’s answer is “no.” An effective way to do this is by sharing examples of unanswered prayers from important biblical figures. Help children see that even important and prominent people in the Bible receive “no” for an answer and were left frustrated by unanswered prayer but retained their faith nevertheless. For example:

David prayed for the healing of his sick son in 2 Samuel 12:16: “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground” (NIV). But his son died.

Jesus prayed to be spared the violent death on the cross in Matthew 26:39: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” But he was arrested and tried shortly after offering the prayer.

King Zedekiah sought, through prayer, help in defeating the attacking armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, in Jeremiah 21:1-2. But Israel was not spared being conquered and carried into captivity.

Paul prayed for relief from a “thorn”: “three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me, but…” (2 Corinthians 12:8). But the thorn in his flesh remained.

These examples from significant biblical personalities can help children adjust their faith view to the reality that sometimes the answer to a prayer is “no.”

Instruct children that a higher wisdom may be at work. In the Bible it is clear that God’s agenda does not always mesh with ours: “ ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Explain to the children the lesson in this verse: When we are disappointed with life and with God, there may be a larger and greater wisdom operating. It can help to provide a child with a contemporary example such as this one. A woman tells the story of her grandfather who worked as a carpenter during the Great Depression. One day he was building wooden crates for clothing his church was sending to an orphanage in China. On his way home, the man reached into his shirt pocket for his glasses and found they were missing. Replaying his earlier steps that day he realized that the glasses had slipped out of his pocket and fallen into one of the crates which he’d nailed shut. His brand new glasses were on their way to China. The Depression was particularly hard for him and his family of six children, and that very day he’d paid $20 for those glasses. As he was driving home, this prayer of lament ran through his mind: “It’s not fair, God. I’ve been very faithful in giving of my time and money to your work, and now this!”

Many months later, the director of the orphanage who received the crated clothing was on furlough in the United States. He was visiting all the churches which had supported the orphanage and came to speak one Sunday at the man’s small church in Chicago. The director began by thanking the people for their support of the orphanage, adding: “But most of all I must than you for the glasses you sent last year.” He explained his part of China was in civil war and that soldiers came through the orphanage destroying the property “including my glasses.” He said: “Even if I had the money, there was simply no way of replacing those glasses. Along without being able to see well, I experiences headaches every day, so my coworkers and I were in much prayer about this.” Then the crates arrived. When the covers were removed he found a pair of glasses lying on top. Pausing to let his words sink in, the director added: “When I tried them on it was as though they had been custom-made just for me! I want to thank you for being part of that.”

Remind children that God knows what’s best. Every child has had the experience of a parent say “no” to a request. For example, a child seeing a parent light a match may very likely want to do the same. When he or she asks to play with matches, a parent will simply say “no” because it’s unsafe. Though the child may cry over that answer, the “no” is not meant to be unkind but to protect the child. Help children to see that a similar but larger wisdom is operative when it comes to unanswered prayer. Teach them God is good; God is loving; God is all-wise, always acting for our best interest.

Encourage children to continue trusting God. Even though they may be deeply disappointed by unanswered prayer, encourage them to continue trusting in God. Faith is deepened when one continues to believe in spite of spiritual disappointment. When children are disappointed, teach them to offer this prayer of faith written by Boniface, the 8th century missionary to Germans:

Eternal God, the refuge of all your children,
in our weakness you are our strength,
in our darkness our light,
in our sorrow our comfort and peace.
May we live in your presence,
and serve you in our daily lives.

Victor M. Parachin is a journalist and author of a dozen books including The Nine Habits of Highly Effective Christians (Resurrection Press).

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