Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:7a “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do:”
Our Lord did not here condemn all repetition, just “vain” repetitions, the multiplying of words without mental concentration. Sincere repetition is actually desirable. Jesus commended to us the example of the persistent widow (LK 18:7).
Augustine once prayed all night one sentence, “Oh, Lord, may I know Thee, may I know myself.” Such praying is good if it can remain intense and fervent.
Vain repetition, repeating words again and again without true mental focus, is ever tempting because it demands little concentration. To repeat words without consciously focusing on their meaning is to view prayer as merely magic, lip-labor, a duty of the tongue, not the heart. Effective prayer comes from within. If heart and mind do not prompt and follow our words, they are “vain” repetitions.
The error of vain repetitions, separating words from concentration, is common. We see it in prayer wheels, in counting beads while endlessly repeating certain prescribed prayers, in lighting candles, in being called to prayer at set times each day to repeat the same phrases over and over again, in using the same words every time we say grace at a meal or pray aloud in a public setting. We open ourselves to these and many other errors if we deem prayer primarily an outward act.
Power in prayer is multiplied by confident concentration. It is our best hope of firing petitions like arrows that are able to pierce heaven. Unless we trustingly focus on the Father, and focus on what we are requesting, our prayers will be powerless. Why should we expect God to focus on us and our requests if we do not concentrate adequately on Him and the issues we are bringing up?
Matt. 6:7b “. . .for they think that they shall be heard for their much
“Much speaking” is not much praying. We must pray prayers, not only say them. If solely our lips labor in prayer, our labor is lost, but if a true spirit of devotion and fervency is maintained, it is impossible to pray too much. Prior to selecting His disciples, Jesus “continued all night in prayer to God” (LK 6:12).
Long prayers are often proper and needed, but they never owe their virtue to their size. As Spurgeon said, strength, not length, is desired. It is very easy to increase our number of words in prayer while decreasing our devotion. A flood of words, apart from spiritual earnestness, never moves God. Verbiage without fervency discourages a favorable response. Talkativeness is not the power of prayer.
As the weight of an object cannot be measured by a yardstick, even so the effectiveness of a prayer cannot be measured by a clock. Hannah prayed much in earnest and was heard (1 SM 1:12); the dying thief prayed little in earnest and was heard (LK 23:42). God is not impressed with the brevity or elongation of our prayers. He is touched by the zeal of our hearts, not the verbosity of our mouths.
Matt. 6:8a “Be not ye therefore like unto them:. . .”
“The heathen” believed their gods were often distracted, not paying attention. The pagans thus felt a need to offer long prayers to better their odds of being in prayer when the gods did happen to look their way. On Mt. Carmel, after the prophets of Baal had prayed for three hours, Elijah taunted them, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened” (1 K 18:27 NAS). The followers of Baal, deeming this a viable possibility, for several more hours cried louder, cutting themselves “with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. . . .but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention” (18:28-29).
“The heathen,” truly believing their gods really did not care much for people, felt their best and only hope was to badger their gods into action. Seneca said their long prayers were efforts at “fatiguing the gods.” Their mindset was, “You gods might as well give us what we want so you do not have to be bothered with us any more.” No wonder Jesus said, “Be not ye therefore like unto them.”
As long as we have faith, we may pray on as long as we like. However, apart from confidence, “much speaking” is not much praying, but rather much doubting, resting “upon a profound disbelief in the loving willingness of God to help” (Maclaren). Faithless, longwinded verbal maneuvering is done by people in doubt, who are not convinced God wants to hear, and are afraid God does not care. Let us beware lest we be guilty of treating God as One who is disinterested in us.
Matt. 6:8b “. . .for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before
ye ask him.”
What a joy it is to serve a God who is vitally interested in us. We do not have to try to arrest our Father’s attention, and should never act as if He is not listening. If we have asked forgiveness for our sins, and are focused on Him in faith, pray fervently, knowing He is listening, and will answer our every prayer.
Pray without pestering God. Do not try to badger or manipulate Him into yielding. Don’t pry; pray. Our Father is not reluctant. He wants to give, often doing it before we pray. “Before they call, I will answer” (Is. 65:24). He gives more than we ask, doing “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask” (EP 3:20). God, knowing our needs and giving before and more than we ask, is always proactive in our behalf. In light of this too good to be true, yet nevertheless true, fact, we have to confront a profound question. If God already knows, cares, and acts, why pray?
First, we pray due to God’s command. “You who remind the Lord, take no rest for yourselves; and give Him no rest” (Is. 62:6-7a). Prayer is verbal obedience to Him. We do not badger Him, but do talk straightforwardly, reminding Him, as He told us to, of His promises.
Second, we pray because God wants to commune with us. He wants to hear our voices. A father likes for his children to keep coming by to talk because He desires personal contact with them. Our Father wants to commune with us more than we want to commune with Him because He loves us more than we love Him. God wants us to draw near and keep near to Him. He does not need us to pray in order to inform Him. He understands our situation better than we do, and knows what we need. He wants us to use prayer as a way to touch Him, not teach Him.
Third, we pray because we need God’s comfort. At times we need to relieve our anxieties by pouring them into His bosom. When I was a little boy, as storms passed through Southeast Missouri, I would be okay if I could get in Mom’s lap. I was old enough to know she couldn’t control the storm, but still found consolation in her presence. Now that I am older, I seek comfort in the bosom of the Father, and find there the added consolation of knowing He does control the storms.
Fourth, we pray to prepare us for God’s answers to our prayers. If He says yes to our request, prayer helps us enjoy aright what we receive. Getting what we want is dangerous. Many want and receive more money, only to fail to give God His ten percent, or to use it for sinful purposes. Many want and receive a promotion at work, and then use it as a vehicle for sin. If a gift comes to us via prayer, our danger is less. We will more likely be given ability to handle the gift properly.
If God says no, prayer helps us be joyful anyway. David begged for his baby boy to live, but God said no. Fortunately, David had prayed to the point he was better prepared to bear the loss. When denied our request, the sting can be bitter, the denial an agony. Prayer can soften the blow.
If God says wait, prayer helps us display pure worship. By remaining faithful in prayer we confess our need for Him, our dependence on Him, our thankfulness to Him, whatever the answer may finally be. However long He wants us to wait, we remain faithful in prayer, confident of His love, knowing we will never have a time when our praises and thanksgivings should not exceed our requests.
The fact God knows and cares about us should arouse something positive in us. It should increase our confidence, and make us more, not less, eager to pray.