Christian parents teach their children to pray. It’s part of growing up Christian—going to Sunday school, seeing the world through Christian glasses, and praying.
The claims made for prayer in the Bible are hard to overestimate. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Jesus said, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). Jesus said, “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do” (John 14:12).
Having the all-powerful creator of the universe just a prayer away is a lot of power. It’s an inconceivable amount of power. And we’re going to trust that to children??
Christians will say that there’s no cause for concern because God will make sure to only grant safe wishes, but that’s not what the Bible says. The verses above, in context, don’t have such a limitation. Little Tommy could pray for his rival on the football team to get sick so he can start in the next game. He could pray that Susie returns his affections. He could pray that his science teacher dies so he doesn’t have to take that test on Friday.
One Christian response is to say that prayer can come with caveats. For example, in James 4:3, we are cautioned that we won’t receive when we “ask with wrong motives,” and little Tommy’s motives are pretty selfish.
There are a couple of skeptic responses. First: What part of, “The gospel of Matthew says, ‘Ask and it will be given to you’” do you not understand? Second: at best this admits that the Bible is contradictory. Ordinary, fallible Christians are left putting the pieces together, trying to make sense out of the contradiction (or discarding it as manmade mythology).
Another Christian response is to say that prayer has lots of purposes—confessing sins, thanking God for the good things in life, reassuring God that he’s fantastic, and so on. But this is a smokescreen, and the prayer of petition remains the primary kind of prayer in the Bible.Let’s admit that prayer can be beneficial in the same way that meditation can, but when you’re praying for someone else, meditation is not the point. The idea behind person A praying for person B isn’t for person A to feel better, it’s for a specific good thing to happen to person B.
Christian parents are in a bind. Does prayer work the way Jesus said it does? Prayer as described by Jesus is powerful medicine, though there are different kinds of medicine. A bottle of sleeping pills left in the kitchen where small children could find it is reckless … unless it’s homeopathic medicine, which is just pretend medicine. Is prayer like homeopathic medicine—powerful in name only?
Prayer can be given to children with the confidence that it can’t be used for bad requests because it can’t be used for good requests, either.
We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—
its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness;
see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it.
Conquer the world by intelligence,
and not merely by being slavishly subdued
by the terror that comes from it.
— Bertrand Russell
Image credit: Nancy Big Crow, flickr, CC