Recited prayer is sometimes viewed by well-meaning Christians as being contradictory to Christ’s command in Matthew 6:7, where He says; “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases (“vain repetitions” in KJV) as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Was it really Christ’s intention to condemn all repetitious prayer? After all, in the very next verse, Christ gave us the Our Father; “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:8-14). It is undeniable that Christians have been praying this prayer for the last 2000 years. Were they wrong to do so? The answer is: it depends. We must first look at what it was specifically that Christ was condemning.
Christ gives a hint in his wording. He says not to pray “as the Gentiles do,” yet the Jews of the time had their own rituals and repetitious prayers as well. What was the difference? The difference was in their intentions. The pagans would say their incantations and offer sacrifices, but their intention was to appease the gods in order to avoid their wrath and bad luck or to hopefully gain the favor of a god in the hopes of bringing good fortune. They would often list a litany of gods in fear of forgetting one or in hopes of remembering the right one. In other words, it was rooted in superstition and the belief that their actions and incantations would change the mind of a god.
This is contrary to what we do as Christians. Christ taught us that God is our Father and that, as a father, He wants what is best for us, even if we don’t know what that is, and that we should always trust and have faith in His care for us. Therefore, our prayers are not meant to change God’s mind, who is unchanging, but rather they transform us to conform more with God’s will. By conforming ourselves to God’s will we grow in holiness and wisdom, helping us to better understand exactly what we should be asking for. This, in turn, leads to more answered prayers (James 5:16) precisely because we are asking for what God already wills for us. We also become capable of finding joy in any situation (Rom 5:3-5, Col 1:24). Repetitious prayers help precisely in this area because they help refocus our thoughts from our own will to God’s will. The Our Father is the greatest example of this, but others that comes to mind is the Prayer of St Francis and Psalm 23, which is only one of the most popular of many various psalms that Christians often cite.
Other examples of repetitious prayers found in Scripture include Isaiah 6:1-3, where the seraphim are seen singing “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” and are then seen again in Revelation 4:8 singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Psalm 136 repeats the words “for his steadfast love endures for ever” many times. Christ even commends repetitious prayer in Luke 18:1-14, where He tells a parable of a widow who kept returning before the judge saying, “Vindicate me against my adversary” and of a tax collector who repeated “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus himself repeats his own prayer of “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will,” in Mark 14:32-39.
While spontaneous prayer certainly has its value, even it often becomes repetitious. Is there anything wrong, however, in saying “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” or “I love you” repeatedly? I’m certain that God never tired of hearing it.
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
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