Praying Through the Bible #121
TEXT: Matthew 6:1-8
So far in this series, we have looked at five principles that Jesus taught regarding prayer:
1. Prayer should be a regular, everyday activity.
2. Prayer ought not to be done for the purpose of being seen by others.
3. Those who pray in a hypocritical manner — that is to be seen by men — will get their reward: they will be heard by men, and receive their praise from men, but they will not have their prayers answered by God.
4. Prayer ought to be carried out faithfully in private before God alone.
5. Those who pray in secret before God will be heard by God and rewarded openly.
Today, we are going to look at the next principle Jesus Christ gives which is, “use not vain repetitions as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”
What is “vain repetition”? “Vain repetition” is the continual reciting or repeating of meaningless words under the guise of real prayer. It is the idea that the repetition of our requests somehow makes an answer from God more likely. This type of praying is very prevalent among those who worship false gods or idols. Tibetan Buddhists have what is called a “prayer wheel” — a revolving cylinder inscribed with written prayers that they repeat. Catholics pray the rosary — a set of three prayers one of which is repeated ten times. Hare Krishna devotees have a mantra that they chant; they call it a prayer, but if you have ever actually heard it, it sounds like mindless babbling.
So, Jesus Christ is telling us that we should not engage in mindless verbal repetition when we call ourselves praying. Charles Spurgeon said, “The heathen repeat over and over again the same words…This is sheer mockery. God is not deaf or forgetful, neither does he delight in mere sounds. Prayer is the intelligent approach of the mind of man to the mind of God, and in that coming we must not think of adding to the divine knowledge, which is infinite, or dictating to the divine will, which is sovereign.”
Jesus never implied that more value is to be put on prayers that are long, wordy, or fancy. One commentary noted that Jewish religious leaders were very fond of lengthening their prayers by the “abundant use of synonyms and synonymous expressions.” In other words, they said the same thing over and over again using different words. These are the same people Jesus called hypocrites a few verses earlier. Their whole purpose was not to be heard by God, but to be seen by men. And they thought the longer they prayed, the more spiritual they would appear.
So, Jesus is dealing with this issue from two perspectives. First, there is the person who thinks that God hears Him by virtue of his long, rambling, repetitive prayer. That person may be sincere in his beliefs, but He is misguided. Second, there is the person who is not really interested in praying to God, but is mostly concerned with impressing other people by the length and wordiness of his prayer. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who engage in that kind of prayer in the church. They get up and pray for what seems like an eternity, and yet, God did not hear one word that they said.
Now, we also must be on guard against carrying this command to an extreme. There is nothing wrong with a long prayer. There are some beautiful long prayers in the Bible. Solomon prayed a long prayer in public at the dedication of the Temple. Nehemiah prayed a long prayer. Daniel prayed a long prayer. And all of their prayers were heard by God. So, if you have a lot to pray about, by all means, pray about those things. Just make sure that you are praying sincerely and in faith believing unto God alone.
Another thing Jesus does not intend to discourage with this command is perseverance in prayer. That is, praying repeatedly about the same thing until a prayer is answered. If you are praying for something that is in the will of God, there is nothing wrong with praying about it every day until you receive an answer from God. Jesus Himself gave us two examples of this kind of persistence in prayer — one, with the widow who kept going to the unjust judge until she received justice in her case; and another, with the man who went to his neighbor’s house even though it was midnight to ask for what he needed. Jesus’ aim in telling us not to use “vain repetitions” in our prayers is not prayer length or prayer frequency, but prayer motive. Prayer is not a matter of repetition but relationship. Constant repetition in prayer does not change God’s will one way or the other. We cannot manipulate God like that.
When we pray, God looks at our hearts just as much as He listens to our words. Perhaps, even more so. So, when you pray be concerned more about what your heart is saying than you are about the words being said. God understands “groanings which cannot be uttered.”
When Jesus Christ was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, He emphasized something in his prayer that he felt the need to say over — “Lord, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” However, there was more to Jesus’ prayer than just His words. There was the heaviness of His heart and spirit, the mental anguish over what He was about to do, the distress of soul so much so that He sweat great drops of blood.
What a powerful example of someone pouring out their heart over an issue that caused them great concern. Jesus’ prayer was short — only two sentences — but it was prayed out of the heart of One who was utterly dependent on the Heavenly Father — not to be seen, not to be praised of men, not to force God’s hand or change God’s will — but to be heard in Heaven.
What do you intend for your prayers to accomplish? Do you want to be heard in Heaven? Do you want answers from God? Then pray sincerely without vain repetition so God can hear and answer your prayers.