Note: This article was originally posted December 7, 2005.
For those of you who think that I just do not get the idea of blogging, you are probably spot on. Articles on prayer will most likely never make the blogging Hall of Fame. In all sincerity, I understand that subject matter such as this is not the best “blog material.” I mean, none of us really disagrees with the fact that prayer is a necessary and an incredibly important part of our lives. Yet I continue to write on the subject for that very reason. We need prayer. While we spend our time debating some much-less-important topics, many times the most important ones (prayer and a true passion for Christ) are ignored in our schedules. Nevertheless, as a word of encouragement and comfort to all: this is the last of the four-part series on prayer.
E.M. Bounds wrote,
In any study of the principles, and procedure of prayer, of its activities and enterprises, first place, must, of necessity, be given to faith. It is the initial quality in the heart of any man who essays to talk to the Unseen. He must, out of sheer helplessness, stretch forth hands of faith. He must believe, where he cannot prove. In the ultimate issue, prayer is simply faith, claiming its natural yet marvelous prerogatives–faith taking possession of its illimitable inheritance. True godliness is just as true, steady, and persevering in the realm of faith as it is in the province of prayer. Moreover: when faith ceases to pray, it ceases to live.
In all parts of prayer, faith plays an enormously large role. This next discipline is no exception. We have spoken at length (although certainly not exhaustively) about the disciplines of commitment, candor, and concentration in relation to our prayer lives. Now we will turn our attention to the …
Discipline of Communication
It can be found in the last two verses of our text:
Matthew 6:7-8–“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (KJV).
This prayer deals with the method of prayer. I do not believe that there is any coincidence that this admonition is being mentioned directly before the Lord’s Prayer given in the following verses. How many have recited the Lord’s Prayer in a group and not concentrated on one word of it?
William Barclay, in a most helpful discussion of this passage in The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958, 1:191-98), points out that over the years, a number of faults had crept into Jewish prayer life. For one thing, prayer had become ritualized. The wording and forms of prayers were set and were then simply read or repeated from memory. Such prayers could be given with almost no attention being paid to what was said. They were a routine, semiconscious religious exercise.
The Practice of Their Prayer (Use not vain repetitions)
Jesus encouraged His followers to cease praying as the heathen do in their pagan worship when they use vain repetitions. The Greek word for “vain repetitions” is battologeo–which means to stammer or to repeat the same things over and over. It comes from two words: battus and logeo (word). There are two prevailing ideas about what “battus” is: 1) the king of Cyrene had a severe stuttering problem, or 2) the author wrote tedious and wordy poems that apparently contained much repetition. Some think that this is a combination of the Aramaic word battal (idle) and the Greek word logos (word). Coupled together, it means “idle or vain speaking.” Whichever of these two origins is correct, it means exactly the same thing.
John MacArthur wrote in his commentary on Matthew:
Those who used repetitious prayers were not necessarily hypocrites, at least not of the ostentatious type. The scribes and Pharisees used a great deal of repetition in their public displays of piety; but many other Jews used it even in private prayers. Some may have used repetition because their leaders had taught them to use it. Others, however, resorted to repetition because it was easy and demanded little concentration. To such people, prayer was simply a matter of required religious ceremony, and they could be entirely indifferent to its content. As long as it was officially approved, one pattern was as good as another.
Although this problem did not always involve hypocrisy, it always involved a wrong attitude, a wrong heart. The proud hypocrites (spoken of earlier in the text) tried to use God to glorify themselves, whereas those who used meaningless repetition were simply indifferent to real communion with God.
How many of us have gone through prayer–saying things but not thinking through what we were saying? Those words are vain and empty. I shudder to think of the times that I have carried on whole conversations with my wonderful wife, Melinda, while my mind was on autopilot. Most of the time she picks up on that, but occasionally I get away with it … until later, when the application of what we were talking about comes to fruition, and I have absolutely no idea what is going on. That is when I hear these words from my lovely and very patient wife. “We talked about this the other day. You told me that this would be fine.” I was on autopilot. May our minds never be on autopilot as we speak to an all-knowing God because every word really does matter.
Matthew 12:36–“But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”
The Purpose of Their Prayer (For they think that they shall be heard)
The reason given for this practice was they supposed that through the means of vain repetition their many words would be complied with or given heed to (passive form of eisakouo–to give heed or comply with). They felt that the more times they prayed for it, the better chance there was that they would get that for which they petitioned their god. I saw the same thing on a mission trip in Guadalajara, Mexico. We went to a large Catholic church. It had unbelievably rich furnishings for an area that was so poverty-stricken. We watched scores of people crawling on their knees on the cobblestone floor repeating phrases time and again (I could not even understand them in their native tongue, but the repetition of the words was unmistakable). I looked at their bloodstained knees and passionate pleas, and my heart broke for them.
And we throw up our hands and say, “Preposterous.” How could they look at God as if He were some magic genie? If we say the right words or say them often enough, we will get what we asked for. But let’s back up for just a moment. We go to the Lord and make requests. And this is a biblical thing. But it behooves us to question our motivation in making the request. Is the motivation of my prayer truly to unite my will to the will of the Father? Or is it to coerce Him to do that which I desire?
What are some of the certain things for which you are praying right now? In the depths of your heart, do you really want to know God’s will? Or do you really only care about His answering that petition in a way that pleases you? Our motivation in prayer often determines our reaction to God’s answer. For instance, I have heard many people say, “I just do not understand it. I have prayed and prayed that God would _____________________. Why did He not do it?”
This is not an indictment on …
Long prayers–The Lord Himself would pray for hours at a time.
Persistence in prayer–That is made clear in the parable of the importunate widow and the wicked judge. Paul prayed multiple times for alleviation from his “thorn in the flesh.” In fact, persistence in prayer can be a very good thing. E.M. Bounds said,
Importunate prayer is a mighty movement of the soul toward God. It is a stirring of the deepest forces of the soul, toward the throne of heavenly grace. It is the ability to hold on, press on, and wait. Restless desire, restful patience, and strength of grasp are all embraced in it. It is not an incident, or a performance, but a passion of soul. It is not a want, half-needed, but a sheer necessity.
Christ Himself prayed for some things on more than one occasion.
Matthew 26:39-44–And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done. And he came and found them asleep again: for their eyes were heavy. And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.
But I can assure you that it was not “vain repetition.” Augustine rightly said that there is a difference between “much speaking in prayer and much prayer.”
The Pointlessness of Their Prayer (Your Father knows what ye need)
God does not have to be coaxed or persuaded. He knows what our needs are before we ever even think to ask Him for them. Yet He wants for us to bring our needs, cares, and the hunger of our hearts before Him. He wants to commune with us. The remarkable thing is that He wants to commune with us infinitely more than we want to commune with Him because His love for us is infinitely more than our love for Him. Our praying to the Lord glorifies Him because it gives Him the opportunity to manifest His love, majesty, power, and sovereignty to us as His beloved children.
John Stott wrote, “The purpose of prayer is not to inform or persuade God, but to come before Him sincerely, purposely, consciously, and devotedly” (Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1978), p. 145).
The application is very simple. We must come to the Lord in constant faith, thinking through every word spoken in prayer. Our commitment must be, “May an idle word never pass through this mind and these lips when communing with the Lord.” Our prayer must be that of David:
Psalm 141:1-3–LORD, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee. Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.
Have we set a guard before our mouths in prayer? Are our minds engaged as we worship the Lord in this most intimate way?
It has been said that at one time D.L. Moody felt so overwhelmed by the spiritual blessings of God that he prayed, “God, stop.” It is my firm belief that God wants to do that in the lives of every believer. And I believe that is what He will do for every believer who spends great time in sincere prayer before the Lord.
Andrew Henderson is a church planter in the Tampa, Florida, area. He graduated with a B.A. in Bible and M.S. in Biblical Counseling from Bob Jones University and is currently working (very slowly) on a D.S.Min. from Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI). He is the husband of Melinda and the father of Drew, Austin, and the most beautiful baby girl ever, Alyssa.