For Parents and Educators
The Life Benefits of Prayer
At the risk of sounding crass about praying to God and listening to the Spirit, it should seem obvious to all of us that "prayer is a life coping mechanism" that produces real physiological effects, as well as spiritual ones. Decades of research confirms what most praying people have experienced and what the Bible has been trying to teach us -- that mind and body, heart and soul are intertwined. We are indeed, "fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
Given the many physical, social, and mental health benefits of prayer, not to mention the spiritual ones, you'd think parents and churches would be doing a better job of developing the prayer-practices of children and youth. But alas, what passes for "prayer" in many churches and homes sounds more like MAKING LISTS* than contemplative listening and soul sharing. (*Lists = "God bless grandma and grandpa, thank you for my dog, etc.) Pastoral prayers in many churches are often not much better. Many are little more than thinly-veiled mini-sermons and "cause of the day" petitions reeled off at unlistenable speed with lofty vocabulary. (But I digress).
In order to get to "how" most people need to know "why," ...so let's start there.
Here's a summary of the "life" and/or "physiological" benefits of prayer and/or meditation from the Care2.com website which provides supporting links for each assertion. This list is similar to what you can find in other scholarly articles and research.
Prayer can help us...
- Increase self-control
- Cope with stress
- Improve our relationships with others (people you pray for, forgive, empathize)
- Combat Depression
- Control Pain
- Activate the body's natural defenses and healing processes
- Promote physical and mental health
- Live longer
I would add "Develop Humility" as #9. Seeking a relationship with a higher power puts "YOU" into proper perspective. Humility breeds grace and tolerance. It builds self-esteem by taking away the power of fear and guilt, replacing it with love and acceptance. And we know from 12 Step programs that submitting yourself to a higher power through prayer can help control addiction.
What "benefit of prayer" would you add?
Relief, Clarity, Joy, and Resolve are not only things which humans need and God loves to give, they also release wonderful chemicals in the brain and body (God's original healing gifts).
All of these things have benefits to families and parent-child relationships. So much so in fact that you have to wonder WHY many parents aren't actively encouraging or modeling an active prayer~meditation life to their children? As Jesus said in Matthew 7:9, "what parent knowing their child needed bread would give them a stone."
Looking again at that list you might also realize that it addresses key aspects of MENTAL HEALTH -- a concern throughout our society these days. As we know, mental health is not a guaranteed right or even "easy" to get and maintain. Rather, mental health is the product of genetic inheritance and brain chemistry, your upbringing, formative relationships, and life experiences, ...AND healthy practices like prayer or meditation, worship and exercise.
I found that the above list is very similar to other such lists easily searchable and found on reputable health websites and research-based resources, including the National Institutes of Health which has studied the measurable positive effect of prayer on patient health.
It should be noted that these are "non-denominational benefits." People of other religious and non-religious persuasions also experience them -- proving the point that we are ALL God's children in need of bread, ...and God has not given us stones.
Here in 2019, "meditation" has been expanded to include what some are calling "mindfulness." There are some differences between meditation and mindfulness, but also many similarities, such as the use of silence, stillness, breathing, awareness.
Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other training. (Wiki)
Some Christians may be afraid of meditative and mindful practices because they sound "foreign," but one simply has to read Psalm 23 to see the same techniques at play. Emptying (I shall not want), Green pastures, still waters (stillness, calmness), contemplating (darkest valley), visualizing (table before me in the presence of enemies, my cup runneth over), Recentering on the goal (dwell in the house of the Lord).
According to Psychology Today...
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When we are mindful, we carefully observe our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. Mindfulness can also be a healthy way to identify and manage hidden emotions that may be causing problems in our personal and professional relationships. It means living in the moment and awakening to our current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. Mindfulness is frequently used in meditation and certain kinds of therapy. It has many positive benefits, including lowering stress levels, reducing harmful ruminating, improving our overall health, and protecting against depression and anxiety. Research even suggests that mindfulness can help people better cope with rejection and social isolation.
Mindfulness reminds me of life moments that feel similar to prayer and often have the same effect:
- a walk in the woods
- a conversation around a campfire
- comforting a child at night
- sitting with a sick friend
- soaking in the ocean
- a song that transports me
- discovering a burning bush
- receiving unexpected good news
- visiting Jesus at night with questions almost too deep for words
- walking to Emmaus and back
When I experience these things, I often feel renewed, repurposed, and grateful to God. And isn't that the purpose of prayer? Which is to say, there's more to prayer than words. Indeed, Paul said as much in Romans 8:26 when he wrote:
"when we don't know what to pray for, the Spirit prays for us in ways (groanings) that cannot be put into words." (CEV)
Somewhere, there's a parent or teacher murmuring, "mindless is more like it." I've met adults who don't think children have much of an inner life, which is probably why they don't encourage it. The disciples didn't either until Jesus told them in Luke 18 that "to such" belongs the Kingdom of God.
So our task is before us -- to encourage the inner life of our children, their prayers, their mindfulness, and yes, even a sense of humble emptiness. And like everything else they need to learn, it must be taught, encouraged, and practiced as an example before them.
We Should Teach Our Children to
Be comfortable by themselves in quiet time.
Put away or turn off distractions.
Take walks, preferably in natural settings.
Talk about important things.
Share their feelings, even the empty ones.
See meaning that's too deep for words.
Fill their minds with uplifting thoughts, literature, scriptures, music, and conversation.
Surround themselves with positive people who have depth of heart and character.
And if you are going to ask for anything in prayer, think NOT of what God can do for you, but what you can do for God.
Keep in mind, that sometimes what you can "do" for God is to simply be QUIET. Remember Elijah and the still small voice?
In addition to being taught and demonstrated in Sunday School, all of the above are things should be MODELING at home, in worship, in Sunday School -- because the life benefits of prayer are gifts from God for each of us.
Your comments welcome.
In case you need to know, this was written for Rotation.org by Neil MacQueen, a Presbyterian minister specializing in Christian education.