HOW TO WALK WITH A CHILD THROUGH THE PAIN OF UNANSWERED PRAYER
By Anna Kohen
I can still remember the place I sat in the classroom, sandwiched between two extremes – the boy who incessantly made fun of others and the boy who would give his lunch up if someone needed it.
I sat there for two years, learning from our beautiful, young teacher. She taught me history, English, and the Bible daily, but more organically and profoundly, she taught me to love Jesus. According to her, He cared deeply for us and His heart was in tune with our needs. We prayed every day, bringing our requests and pouring our hearts out to our Friend.
I’ll never forget the day when she started prayer time emptied of her typical zest and joy. Tears were in her eyes as she shared with us that her father had been diagnosed with cancer.
We didn’t know how to react. It felt too big to rush through our typical jaunty prayer routine, and yet the Civil War map that we were working on still needed to progress. The class resumed, but heaviness lingered. Every day for the next several months, we prayed passionately and compassionately, expecting God to show up and perform the miracle that we just knew He was going to do.
Disappointment is too mild a word to express what followed.
The day when we were told that he had succumbed to his illness felt like darkness, disbelief…even a hint of betrayal. Why would God not answer our prayers?
I felt distinctly that if my teacher’s fervent prayers were not answered, what hope did I have of ever believing that mine would be? The God who “cared so deeply” was silent.
I am not alone in my childhood experience of unanswered prayer. I’m sure we all have stories of confusion and sadness over times when God seemed distant, not to be bothered with our pleadings. Maybe we have stories from walking with our own children or our Sunday school class, not knowing how to navigate our own disappointment, let alone how to answer those sweet little ones as they turn to us with hurt in their eyes. The question has to be asked...how do we walk faithfully with children through these dark times? How do we avoid the pat answers and reach deeper through the reality of broken trust and disappointed expectations?
I do not pretend to have all the answers. I’m sure entire books have been written on this subject matter. However, please allow me to give five suggestions that have guided my family in our own wrestling:
1. ENTER THEIR PAIN AND SIT WITH THEM THERE.
The church often struggles with this one. We want the resurrection, not the cross! We want to chase away the sadness, questions, disappointment, and darkness. Out of genuine care, we don’t like the hard places.
However, to the one that is walking in the shadows, loneliness is often a constant companion. They aren’t as concerned about you fixing the problem (likely you won’t be able to anyway) as they are about your presence. Don’t feel the need to rush the process nor feel a sense of failure if you see no immediate changes. Just show up. Sit in it. Let them know they are not alone.
Jesus modeled this so beautifully with Mary and Martha after Lazarus died. He’s God. He knew that resurrection life was coming. He knew that all tears would be wiped away. He could have called out their lack of faith. BUT. HE. DIDN’T. Instead, He wept. He sat with them in their moment of pain.
2. ADMIT YOU DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.
I’ve heard more answers in regard to unanswered prayer than I care to admit. Well-meaning person after person trying to put words and explanations to things that likely have no explanation on this side of Heaven. Some of the most powerful responses that I’ve ever heard contain a few simple, humble words, “I don’t know why…”
This is honest and profound in its simplicity. We don’t have to rush to put qualifiers on it or try to show that we actually do have a tidy box to put the situation in. It's ok to not have an answer and leave it there.
This might be a good moment to remind ourselves to, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
3. HUMBLE YOURSELVES BEFORE THE VASTNESS OF GOD’S WAYS.
This follows directly on the heels of the last point. This is the reason not having an answer is actually profoundly helpful. In meekly confessing our ignorance, we tangibly turn away from the power of our flawed human abilities and humble ourselves before the vastness of God’s truth. We recognize that we “see through a glass darkly,“ and we take comfort in knowing that is exactly how God has chosen to work out His plan in our lives.
4. TURN TO THE PSALMS AND TEACH YOUR CHILD HOW TO LAMENT.
Lament is something that the church seems reticent toward, and yet I find a lot of comfort in the fact that Scripture doesn’t shy away from it at all. The longest book in the Bible, located right in the middle, is chock full of lament. We are told that David, who wrote a majority of the Psalms, was a man after God’s own heart. I can’t imagine we would think a man very godly if he got up during testimony time proclaiming,
“Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. Darkness is my closest friend” or, “God, why are You so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer!”
Lament is an honest cry before God. It is unfiltered, unpolished… a broken heart crying for redemption. Both through the Psalms and through the story of Job, we see that this is something that honors the heart of God. He is not afraid of lament. We don’t need to be either.
5. TEACH YOUR CHILD HOW TO HOPE AGAIN.
Speaking of Job, this book gives us a front-row seat to the agony, confusion, searching, humility, and triumph of a child of God.
A big portion of the book describes Job who is absorbed with his own righteousness and the injustice of God’s dealings with him. However, toward the end of the book he encounters God’s majesty. He doesn’t get answers, but he gets the clarity, peace, and restored hope that he was searching for. All because he caught a glimpse of God’s greatness. “I am not worthy to speak! What can I say? I will put my hand over my mouth.” (Job 40:4)
We have just talked about the importance of allowing lament, but there is more. We need to help our children take their eyes off themselves and fix them on Jesus. The best way to do that is to acknowledge His greatness through praise and worship.
This is the model that we see in the Psalms as well. Darkness making way for faith. Speaking words of confidence about who God is in spite of what the circumstances seem to tell us. God is working behind the scenes and we know that because we know who He is and what He has done in the past. Help your kids find rootedness in Him, rather than through their circumstances. Pray that their eyes would be opened to see how He is working and even more importantly, who He is!
It would be nice to think that these seasons of lament and unanswered questions would be few and far between. Unfortunately, in a world increasingly broken by sin, I’m not sure we can even call these “seasons”. That would indicate that they come and go. As much as I wish that were true, it hasn’t been my experience. In our church body or our families, someone is always going to be walking with a limp. May we learn how to walk with them well and hope that someone will walk with us in the same manner when our time of need comes!