All posts by Burk Parsons

Burk Parsons serves as associate pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel and the editor of Tabletalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. Parsons is the editor of Assured By God: Living in the Fullness of God’s Grace (P&R) and John Calvin: A Heart For Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxologyl (Reformation Trust), and author of the booklet Why Do We Have Creeds? (P&R). He and his wife, Amber, live in central Florida with their children.

The Page that Changed My Life: Burk Parsons

Words are powerful. They transform lives and make history. They birth nations and topple empires. They make peace and fuel wars. They commence marriage and wound those we most cherish. They change hearts and give news of eternal life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Words are foundational to everything we think, do, and say in all of life; nevertheless, words are not ends in themselves. Words exist because God spoke them into existence that he might communicate with us and that we might commune with him. God has spoken to us in a book, and the Holy Spirit illumines those inspired words to us who trust the God who spoke them. Therefore, we read God's Word not merely to have read and to have said that we've read, but that we might devour every jot and tittle and, thus, be renewed in our minds and continually transformed in our hearts.

In whatever form they take, words mean things. They have particular meanings in particular contexts. Words yield phrases, sentences, and books, and we read books, sentences, and phrases because life requires it. "We read," C. S. Lewis wrote, "to know we're not alone," and we write precisely because we're not alone. We read not merely to laugh or cry, not merely to be entertained or challenged, not merely to gain knowledge or understanding, but we read that we might glean and ponder so that, by God's grace, we might think more accurately, know more comprehensively, speak more meaningfully, write more convincingly, love more affectionately, live more abundantly, and glorify and enjoy God more fully.

In our reading, we've all come across particular units of words in particular paragraphs on particular pages of particular books that change our lives. And with no pomp or circumstance, we bid the authors of such books to become our mentors, dead or alive.

We've all had mentors, and I am grateful to our Lord to have learned life-changing truths from many of them. Similarly, I have enjoyed learning from numerous instructors, both ancient and modern, who daily sit upon my shelves. The teachers upon our shelves have a voice, and though many have died, they still speak to us, albeit on aged, brittle pages with stamped ink and the musty fragrance of the past.

One Powerful Statement

When John Starke asked me to contribute an article to this new series, my mind was drawn to Sinclair Ferguson's book The Holy Spirit (1996). In his preface, on page 13, I came across the following words that changed the focus of my studies, my life, and the gospel ministry of which God has made me a steward:

Theology proceeds from God, teaches us about God, and leads us to God.

In making this statement, Ferguson stands on the shoulders of his theological predecessors Louis Berkhof and Thomas Aquinas. That one statement on that one page in Ferguson's book changed my life---it helped me grasp what theology is, why theology exists, and what theology does. However, I cannot help but recognize that his words in his book affected me in such a way because his words in life humbled me.

Throughout his doctrinal treatise on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Ferguson worked out his guiding principle that what we know about God must come from what he has revealed in his infallible Word, which teaches us about God so that we might know God rightly. But theology doesn't exist as an end in itself. We don't study theology merely to know theology but to know God. The late Welsh pastor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, "As theology is ultimately the knowledge of God, the more theology I know, the more it should drive me to seek to know God." Right, biblical theology that comes from God will necessarily lead us back to know, love, and worship God himself, and that's precisely what Ferguson does in his theology of the Holy Spirit---he leads us to know and worship the Holy Spirit according to the Word of God. His book led me to worship.

This is one reason we read books, why we write books, why Christian publishers publish books, and, for that matter, why we have blogs and use all forms of media that God gives us---namely, that we might glorify and enjoy God more and more in all that we think, say, and do. Phrases, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and entire books are powerful because words are powerful, and words are powerful because truth is powerful. Just as theology leads to God, so do the words that give us our theology. God communicated to us with words so that his words might teach us about him and lead us back to him in order to love and worship him as God.

The end of words is the beginning of words, namely, God.

Teaching Children to Pray: Guiding Principles

[Editor's note: This is the second part of Burk Parson's article on "Teaching Children to Pray." Check out his first installment.]

In all that we teach our children, the greatest and most fundamental thing we can do is model a praying life before their beautiful little eyes and their perceptive little ears. Though we are doing this already, as we continue to depend daily more and more on God and enjoy our communion with him, we would do well to keep in mind the following principles of prayer to the end that the Holy Spirit might use us sinful and broken vessels as models of a dependent and repentant, faithful and prayerful life in communion with our Lord. I’ve separated the following principles into three categories: Foundational Principles, Situational Principles, and Motivational Principles. My hope in this article is to set down some of the principles I’ve learned about prayer in order to provide parents with a few guiding principles that I have tried to model before my children, albeit imperfectly. There are certainly many more principles we could add to this short list, but I offer them simply as a starting point for your own further reflections and study.

Foundational Principles of Prayer for Children

  1. Let them see that prayer is grounded in the Word. Prayer is nourished, and strengthened by God’s Word. E.M. Bounds wrote, “The Word of God is the food by which prayer is nourished and made strong.”
  2. Let them see that prayer is united to the Word. Prayer is communion with God and thus twofold in essence: Listening to God as he speaks to us in his Word by the Holy Spirit, and communing with God by communicating to him, verbally or nonverbally.
  3. Let them see that prayer is conformed by the Word. If our minds are not informed, and thus renewed by the Spirit through the Word, and our hearts not conformed by the Word, then our prayers will be futile intellectual musings on the one hand or moody emotional ramblings on the other.
  4. Let them see that God is not simply responding to our prayers, he is responding to us his children through the means of prayer. He doesn’t simply answer prayers. He answers us, his people, and he always answers us, sometimes saying yes, no, wait, or yes but even greater than you could have imagined.
  5. Let them see that while sometimes our prayers include all aspects of our communion with God, our prayers often include simply one aspect of prayer. When John prays at the end of Revelation, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20), he is directly supplicating Jesus to return, and although he only employs one aspect of prayer—supplication—he is still truly praying.
  6. Let them see that just as the disciples went to the Lord and asked him to teach them to pray, so we can and should ask the Lord to help us in our prayer, in our weakness, ignorance, and stubbornness.
  7. Let them see that prayer isn’t simply telling God what we want or need but responding to him in dependent adoration from a heart overflowing with what we know he wants for our holiness and for his glory and his kingdom. We pray with our eyes focused on his kingdom, not our own kingdoms.

Situational Principles of Prayer for Children

  1. Let them see that prayer is continual communion with our Lord, with life’s regular interruptions and the sins of our hearts. John Wesley wrote, “In souls filled with love, the desire to please God is continual prayer.”
  2. Let them see that prayer is not something we need to get ourselves cleaned up for, in the right attitude for, or in the right mood for, but that we simply pray and let the Holy Spirit do his necessary work in us and through us. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The true spirit of prayer is no other than God’s own Spirit dwelling in the hearts of the saints. And as this spirit comes from God, so doth it naturally tend to God in holy breathings and pantings. It naturally leads to God, to converse with him by prayer.”
  3. Let them see that we pray not just in generalities but in particulars, as we fervently keep asking, seeking, and knocking as we go to our Father who wants to hear us and commune with us as we ask him for even the littlest things in life as we focus on his glory and our enjoyment of him.
  4. Let them see that our words of prayer don’t necessarily need to be complicated and weighty and poetically beautiful in order to be genuine, but that they can be short and simple, especially when our children are young so that we are not exasperating them. And let us be careful not to instill cleverly worded rhyming prayers that they may simply memorize them for the sake of a quick cute prayer that can easily become a prayer of meaningless empty platitudes. Samuel Chadwick wrote, “Prayer is not a collection of balanced phrases; it is the pouring out of the soul.”
  5. Let them see authenticity, not only in our own prayer lives but in our prayers themselves. We don’t want to live our lives in such a way as to show off our life of prayer. Our prayer cannot be an act or a performance. Martin Luther wrote, “Prayer is not performance but climbing up to the heart of God.”
  6. Let them see and hear us pray the Lord’s prayer as young as they are able to learn it and let them see us expand on each petition of the Lord’s prayer in our own prayers. And as we use certain patterns of prayer that we are accustomed to, let us make sure that we’re careful not to demand that pattern as the only biblical pattern from which if they depart then they will fear they are not praying properly.
  7. Let them see that there is not just one appropriate posture for prayer, but that even as evinced in Scripture, we can pray in many postures. Let us be discerning as to whether we force them to close their eyes and position their heads or bodies in precisely the same way we do. Let them simply observe our devotion, however we express it in a particular situation. Let them see that they can pray while kneeling, bowing, smiling, singing, hugging, crying, with faces down, with faces up, with hands folded, holding hands, or hands outstretched—there is not one right way to pray at all times and situations. Day by day, our children will observe our posture in prayer and, by God’s guiding grace, will naturally find themselves showing reverence to the Lord in manifold postures.

Motivational Principles of Prayer for Children

  1. Let them see that prayer is not foremost a programmatic rite but the natural, organic overflow of a heart that belongs to God—that prayer is like breathing as we inhale adoration and thanksgiving, we exhale confessions and supplications. Thomas Watson wrote,Prayer is the soul’s breathing itself into the bosom of its heavenly Father.” Oswald Chambers wrote, “If we think of prayer as the breath of our lungs and the blood from our hearts, we think rightly. The blood flows and the breathing continues—we are not conscious of it but it is always going on.”
  2. Let them see that we pray not because we are partially in need of something from God, but because we are in desperate need for God himself—that what he gives or withholds is secondary, but that he himself is our great reward, our inheritance, our life, our all.
  3. Let them see that prayer is the soul’s greatest instinct and passion and that we pray because we can’t help but pray and desire communion with our Father. Help them to see that we pray not primarily so that we can tell someone we have prayed but simply because we feel like praying so that they can see that we are sincerely passionate about prayer because we are sincerely passionate about God. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Prayer seemed to be natural to me, as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent.”
  4. Help them see that prayer is not only a means to an end but an end in itself, namely, communion with our Lord, just as our worship of him is an end in itself.
  5. Help them to see us pray genuinely and with genuine motives. When we’re having a tough day or when there has been an argument in the home or when our kids know that we may be sad or upset let us not instantly put on the façade of a superficial smile, but show them that we can go directly to the Lord without hesitation and let them see us pray for help to pray, for comfort, for joy, for a tender heart, and for a child-like faith that clings to Christ as our only hope.
  6. Let them see that we pray not as foreigners but as members of a covenant household of faith and that prayer is not only something that we do in public, in private, before eating, before bed, during our time of disciplining them, but that it is something we have the great privilege of participating in at any time because we are the children of our heavenly Father who can always come to him and who will never be ignored.
  7. Let them see that our communion with our Father is the most important and the most enjoyable engagement of our day because it is the occasion when we get tell our Father we love him, trust him, and need him—just as our children want daily to express their love, trust, and need of us. Let them see that while pray throughout our day, we also have a regular habit of scheduled daily prayer. J.C. Ryle wrote, “Oh, dear friend, if you love your children, I charge you, do not let the early impression of a habit of prayer slip by. If you train your children to do anything, train them, at least, to have a habit of prayer.” And D. A. Carson wrote, “We will not grow in prayer unless we plan to pray. That means we must self-consciously set aside time to do nothing but pray.”

Most of these principles apply not only to children but to all of us, and as we continue to think, study, and write about prayer, let us remember to pray and to commune with our Lord as we will do forever, glorifying him and enjoying him by the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit and the ongoing intercession of Christ Jesus our great high priest who prays for us even now. Jesus’ prayer for us is the sustaining means of our abundant life in him now and forever.

Teaching Children to Pray

God created us as dependent creatures. We were made to fall on our knees and pray. Men either worship self through the world, the flesh, and the Devil, or by God’s grace, they worship him. God fashioned our hearts with an overwhelming sense and insatiable desire to commune with him. Therefore, we pray not primarily because we must; we pray because we cannot help but pray. In prayer, we go to our father because there is no one else to whom we can go, no one else to whom we can turn, no one else who can hear, and no one else who will answer. We pray out of utter helpless dependence, and we pray out of sheer inexpressible delight. We pray amidst the depths sorrow when words fail us entirely, and we pray amidst the heights of delight in moments of transcendent synchronicity when our words seem entirely inadequate as we pour out our soul’s deepest affections to our Lord with joy inexpressible.

In one sense we don’t need to be taught to pray, nor, in one sense, do we need to teach our children to pray. If they were chosen by the Lord from before the foundation of the world, he will sovereignly regenerate their hearts unto new life in Jesus Christ. As a natural result of their conversion, they will pray, they will love to pray, and they won’t be able to keep themselves from praying. Contrary to Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (p. 354), we aren’t brainwashing our children by deceitfully indoctrinating them with religious rites and religious labels. If our children are eternally God’s beloved covenant children, he will most graciously rip out their rebellious hearts of stone and implant within them new hearts with his law written upon them and give them a sincere desire for divine communion. For just as the Lord, as the primary cause, has sovereignly ordained the ends of all things, so he has ordained the means of all things, including our prayers for our children.

The Great Commission begins at home. Whenever we can and wherever we are, when we rise up and when we walk along the way, we teach our covenant children all that Christ commanded us (Deut. 6; Matt. 28). We teach them what it means to love God, know God, hear God in his Word, confess to God, worship God, and commune with God, as well as what it means to love our neighbors, forgive our neighbors, and pray for our neighbors to the end that we would glorify God and that by grace our neighbors might know him and glorify him as God.

Before we even can commune with our children, we are communing with God in their behalf. The first thing we do with our children is pray for them and with them, even as they mature in their mother’s womb. As we disciple and teach our children to pray, it is crucial that we train them in the fear and admonition of our gracious Lord without them fearing us or us provoking them to rebellious anger.

We ourselves need to know more about what prayer is and what prayer isn’t if we are going to teach our children in a way that equips them to pray genuinely on their own, in our absence, just as Jesus taught his disciples to pray upon their request. Incidentally, their request was a prayer in itself: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11).

To get to the very heart of what prayer is, we can define it in the following way: Prayer is our genuine communion with God our Father, through the Holy Spirit, because of Christ Jesus. While prayer certainly includes praise and adoration, confession of our sins and forgiveness of others’ sins, thanksgivings, and supplications (requests), in its essence, prayer is simply our genuine (intentional and sincere) communion (fellowship of praise, confession, forgiveness, thanksgiving, supplication) with God. As our children mature, we can continually explain to them what prayer is. As they grow by God’s grace they themselves will be able to identify more and more with even greater, more all-encompassing explanations of prayer as it’s explained and modeled biblically.

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Editor's Note: Return tomorrow to read the second installment from Burk Parsons on "Teaching Children to Pray."

Strength Depending on Weakness

We have heard people say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Both believers and unbelievers alike cling to this proverbial life principle that gives us a sense of comfort and hope in the midst of our daily anxieties, miseries, and afflictions. This is a universally understood truth that Scripture itself teaches (Rom. 5:3-5; Jam. 1:2-4, 12; 1 Pet. 4:12-19). Trials do indeed make us stronger and more steadfast in our faith. Trials mature us. They help us to grow up. However, this is only one part of the biblical equation.

When we as a human race fell into sin, our affections changed, and we who once had the ability not to sin became a people who could not help but sin and even found pleasure in sin, albeit fleeting pleasure. Sin ravaged our hearts and minds, and, like Tolkien’s Gollum, we began to wallow in the mire of sin-dependent idolatry all the while maintaining our autonomy from God and our supreme, though perceived control over any and all our precious little idols, each of which possessed an uncanny resemblance to ourselves.

Before the fall we were dependent creatures depending on God alone, and after the fall we remain dependent creatures in our sustained existence. However, after the Fall, the object of our affections became manifold, and, in turn, the object of our dependence changed from depending on God alone--worshiping and serving the Creator alone--to worshiping and serving the creature and his comforts.

Without hesitation we happily turned to worship the supreme creature and all the idols we could conjure up as self-proclaimed, autonomous, self-made creators. We became dependent on our own self-made objects of affection, and our dependence was divided between the creature and the Creator.

When trials and temptations come (and if we’re not spiritually calloused or overly cynical, we’ll notice their hourly arrival) we are faced with the decision as to whether we will depend on self or depend on God--whether we’ll depend on our own means of sustenance and satisfaction that leads to daily death independent of God or whether we’ll depend on God’s means of sustenance and ever-present satisfaction that leads to daily life abundant that is dependent on God.

We understand that all of life’s trials and temptations are a direct result of the Fall--our fall from Creator-dependent true worship to self-dependent false worship. And even when we consider the first sins of Satan’s rebellion in the heavens and Adam’s rebellion in the Garden, we can see how they strove to be independent from God when tempted by the titillating notion of such independence.

Our daily temptations, daily anxieties, daily miseries, and daily afflictions are part and parcel of life’s daily trials. These fiery trials sometimes come blazing and sometimes come like a sudden spark out of nowhere, coming both from without and from within--darts from the world and the devil, which we’ve come to expect, and darts from our own hearts that we still surprisingly shoot at ourselves. Both the enemy within us and the enemies outside us exist as a natural result of the Fall, and in their natural course of existence they fight daily to gain our affection, allegiance, and dependence. Like Gollum’s precious little idol that seemed to want to be found, our self-swindling hearts seem to want us to find our immediate and ultimate fulfillment in anything that lures our dependence away from God. Meanwhile, our Enemy is content simply to draw our affections to anything but the one true God, and thus to make us less dependent on God and increasingly dependent on ourselves and on our hearts’ precious idols, which will come alive and do our bidding.

While we do indeed become stronger and more mature as a result of life’s daily trials, ultimately, as the adopted children of God our Father, the trials he sovereignly sends our way are not intended to make us stronger but to make us weaker--less dependent on our own strength and more dependent on God and the power of his strength in which we can delightfully and eternally boast as does our brother Paul:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:8–10).

Whatever doesn’t kill us, by God’s grace, makes us weaker in our self-dependence and more dependent on the strength of God. And this is all through the One who endured the trial of the Cross so that we might regain life dependent. By His grace we remain utterly dependent as we live justified from faith to faith at the foot of the Cross taking up our own crosses daily and dependently. As it is written, the righteous shall live by faith in God, not faith in self.

Do we in our own strength confide? Our striving would indeed be losing.