I recently implemented a behavior reward system for my 3-year-old twins, and they absolutely love it. They get a star to put on a chart when they obey the first time I ask for something, when they do helpful things without being asked, and when they are especially kind to one another. When, between the two of them, they have filled in the chart with all 50 stars, everyone gets to go out for ice cream.
There is an important catch here: they don’t get a star EVERY time they do one of these things. As I have explained to them, if they get a star every time they do something good, they will learn to do good simply because of what they get in return. The stars are only there to help them get in the habit of thinking in the right way.
Now, if they were a little older they would figure out that the general pattern is a star every other time a qualifying “event” occurs. It can’t be every time, but if stars are too infrequent, I know they will lose interest and no longer be incentivized to work on their chart.
Picking a Velcro star from a little bag and sticking it on a chart is magical for a 3-year-old. On the one hand, I would like to say that as a mature adult, I can’t understand why stars matter so much to kids. On the other hand, I have to say I completely understand.
Prayer has been a difficult thing for me lately. I have felt like the master of praying prayers that go unanswered. As just one example, I’ve been praying for several people dealing with life-threatening illnesses. In every case the news continues to come back negative.
Through this time, my prayer life has been more consistent than ever. I faithfully pray every single day – multiple times per day. Isn’t that what God tells us to do? Aren’t I doing what I’m supposed to in order to earn the equivalent of a few answered prayer stars? You know, the periodic positive feedback that I’m praying as God has asked, that He has listened, and that He has answered?
Sure, I understand I can’t have an answered prayer for every prayer request, but doesn’t God have some kind of loose system like I do, where perhaps every 5th prayer has a positive answer? I’m ready for a star.
Part of me wants to make the nature of my prayer requests smaller so those stars will come my way more readily and I won’t be tempted to give up on prayer as a star system that is no longer “incentivizing” me. That same part of me wants to manage the prayer requests my kids hear to help preserve God’s reputation; I wonder how they will grow to see prayer when the bulk of petitionary prayers they hear are for things that aren’t being answered.
The rest of me knows, however, that subconsciously expecting positive incentives for my prayer behavior is not unlike my 3-year-olds’ view of the world. Here is what I need to get my head around, and what I ultimately need to discuss with my kids:
Prayer is a privilege.
God could easily have not opened the door to us for prayer. The world could go on under our free will and His guidance without any human input. But our God is a God who values our requests and the relationship prayer creates, so He granted us the privilege of prayer.
If we view prayer as a treasured privilege that God has incredibly bestowed on us, rather than as a right that comes with expectations of return on our emotional investment, it starts looking very different.
I still believe I need to manage God’s reputation. I just realize I was thinking about managing the wrong one before. What my kids need to know about God is that He is gracious and loving, and seeks relationship with us through prayer. When we are frustrated by unanswered prayers, our response says more about the inappropriate expectation of our hearts than about the nature of God.
Next time you are faced with an ongoing list of unanswered prayers, use the opportunity to discuss prayer as a privilege with your kids . . . and be sure to keep praying!
Do you subconsciously view prayer as a right or a privilege? Why?