Learning to Pray Like a Child
Written by Yasmine. Originally written in simplified Chinese.
I grew up in a small town and entered middle school as a first-class honours student.
So, when school started, I was immediately noticed by all the teachers and students. I enjoyed the attention and admiration, and started becoming very grade conscious, to the point that even my parents would encourage me to go out and play. But I’d still rather spend all my extra time studying so that I can keep my honours position.
By the 9th grade, I had stopped doing all other activities that had nothing to do with academics. All I cared about was getting the top marks in exams all the time. Soon, even being the first in class wasn’t enough; I decided I had to get the highest marks in the whole school.
But I couldn’t, because I had a “rival”—there was another girl who got the best scores for most of the exams.
I became very envious of this girl, who was taller, skinnier, and more likeable than me. She was really smart, too, and she didn’t have to study as hard as I did. She was somehow equally good in all subjects, including physical education, and arts and calligraphy, both subjects that I hated.
So out of envy and obsession with achievement, I would keep praying to God to help me beat my “archnemesis” and come out on top. At that age, I didn’t really have any understanding of religion or Christianity. I only thought of God as a genie who granted people their wishes.
Now that I’m older and have a better grasp of Christianity, I’ve come to learn that prayer is about seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness first. This means assessing our prayers and thinking about whether they are in accordance with God’s will, whether they’re stemming from human desire or out of love for God, and whether God will be pleased to bless and answer the prayers we’ve made.
Praying “proper” prayers
However, after gaining a little understanding of God’s righteousness and holiness, I started to feel like I couldn’t tell God what was really on my heart—I didn’t dare to pray the way I used to as a kid, or to say that I wanted to get excellent grades, a bigger house, to earn more money, or even that I wanted to be healed. I also didn’t dare say anything about feeling envious and hateful towards others.
It came to the point where I would constantly filter my thoughts before praying, worrying about what I should say, and not daring to ask for anything. I’d end up praying only for God to forgive my sins, even though I didn’t dare confess the actual sins.
Soon, it no longer made sense for me to pray. I felt like I was just putting on a front to “protect” myself, so that my prayers would be “holy and righteous”, and more in line with God’s will.
But the truth is, even if we don’t say it, God knows full well what’s inside our hearts, as these verses show us:
“‘Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:24)
“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known.” (Luke 12:2)
“God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:14)
And He hates hypocritical prayers. Matthew 23:25 tells us how Jesus rebukes the hypocrites: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
This verse convicted me that when we use these hypocritical prayers to cover up our own desires, we are not all that different from the teachers of the laws and Pharisees. Moreover, these prayers are worse than the honest prayers we said when we were young, which while selfish, were at least honest reflections of what was in our hearts, which is important to Him (John 4:24).
Persistent like a child
Perhaps there’s something we can learn from children when it comes to prayer.
Even though children don’t really understand what it means to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness, Jesus was full of compassion for them, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
Another example that changed the way I think about prayer is from the parable of a widow and an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), which was told by Jesus Himself:
There was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”
For some time, he refused. But finally, he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”
Thinking about the widow’s persistence reminds me of how children tend to be the same way: they’re usually good at badgering their parents to get them what they want, like a toy they’re eyeing, and they’d keep nagging and pestering the parents until they give in.
What the widow in the story and children have in common is how they’re set on what they want and won’t stop appealing for their requests.
The reason Jesus told this story about the widow was to teach us what it means to “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). Regardless of how He answers our prayers, He wants us to bring our petitions to Him with a sincere heart, knowing the process of approaching Him is, in itself, good for us.
Even when we find it hard to align our petitions with God’s will, He is kind and merciful when we’re willing to keep going to Him and place our honest thoughts before Him (Psalm 145:17).
The Apostle Paul showed us how he, too, was vulnerable to the desires and weakness of the flesh: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). This tells me that God understands our weakness and values our sincere hearts, even if we find that we only have petty requests or frustrations.
How God worked in my selfish prayers
Truth is, most of the “prayers” I made as a child were not answered. I never did beat my “rival”.
But even when what I prayed for was not in line with His will, God still worked within my heart and showed me that He wanted me to keep approaching Him. When I “knocked”, He did “open the door”. Even when the results were not what I wanted, He always restored my hope in Him, such that even when I was sad, I never truly lost heart and became hopeless.
The more I prayed, the more my dependency on God deepened. Every time I faced a crucial test or decision, I would be moved to pray to God, knowing that He is my ultimate guarantee—that by relying on Him, I can get through every difficult moment. Even those selfish prayers were eventually turned into God’s purpose, teaching me that a deeper dependence and trust in Him is His biggest and best blessing for me.
Today, every time I’m alone in a room and praying, I still choose to pray honestly like I did when I was young: “Lord, I want . . . ”, but I’ve learned to add these words at the end of my prayers: “This is what I honestly think and feel, and I don’t want to hide them and I can’t hide them. If it’s possible, would You grant me these requests? If You do, let me know that this comes not from my own strength, but by Your grace and power. And if You don’t, please make other arrangements for me. Whatever the outcome, may Your name be glorified.”
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