Vain Repetition

“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

In ancient culture, prayers were something of a public spectacle. People wanted others to hear what they had to say to the “gods.” Archaeologists recently found one such prayer inscribed in a public place: “I conjure you up, holy beings and holy names; join in aiding this spell, and bind, enchant, thwart, strike, overturn, conspire against, destroy, kill, break Eucherius the charioteer, and all his horses tomorrow in the circus at Rome…” The ancients apparently believed that such prayers, publicly uttered and inscribed, brought them nearer to happiness and fulfillment.

Even in Judaism there was a strong emphasis on public prayer. Remember the story of the Pharisee who prayed in public (Luke 18:10-14)? The Pharisee essentially read a list of his religious credentials before God and men as he sought to justify himself. Jesus made it clear that such prayers do not justify a single soul.

And today, prayers can become something of a public spectacle if we are not careful. In our day, “interfaith prayers” for political reasons are all the rage. Even in many churches, it sometimes seems as if those who are praying never get around to addressing God, but are instead preach mini-sermons to their brethren! Some seem to desire to pray, but in reality just want to be heard for their much speaking (Matt 6:7).

Spiritual disaster can result when we fail to grasp the real purpose and power of prayer!

Jesus thought differently than most about prayer. A Man of deep prayer Himself, the Lord taught His disciples the power of a heartfelt petition before God. And more than that, Jesus taught that the vain repetitions of His day were not effective in reaching God’s ears!

Now, God will listen to repetition. Repetition is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Hannah repeated her petition (1 Samuel 1:12), and Jesus repeated Himself on more than one occasion (Matt 26:36-42). The emphasis of Matthew 6:7 is on the wordvain. Jesus said it is possible for Christians to pray lengthy prayers that never get higher than the ceiling. What we need more than flowery words is a pure and sincere heart.

Avoiding vain repetition in our prayers takes time, effort, and dedication. Think of it this way: by praying as we ought, we are fostering a deeper, more meaningful relationship with our Creator. He alone is our audience, and He alone determines whether what we have said is from the heart and according to His will. Too many people think that their spirituality can be gauged by public opinion. Too few really concern themselves with what God thinks about their prayer life.

Vain repetitions are an easy trap to fall into. When prayer becomes routine, our words may well become routine. The warning of Jesus, “do not be like them” should cause us to pause and consider what we are in fact doing when we pray.

Some think that prayer is like ordering room service. Others think prayers can gain them political advantages. Still more people vainly utter lengthy prayers without thinking of what they’re saying. What about you? Are you praying fervently in all righteousness (James 5:16)? Are you praying like Jesus? — John Baker