Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category

A recent dustup on another blog inspired me to post something about this notion of repetitive or recited prayers. Typically, a certain canard gets thrown out when discussing liturgical worship with certain evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants. Catchphrases like “man’s traditions”, “dead ritual” and “repetition” are bandied about. You could set a sundial by this entirely predictable phenomenon. It centers around Christ’s commands regarding prayer.

But let’s examine the verse in question where Jesus talks about prayer, specifically repetitive prayer:

Matthew 6:7
“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.”

The ESV does a slightly better job in my opinion of conveying the meaning of the Greek in this verse:

Matthew 6:7
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”

The Greek word translated as “vain repetitions” or “empty phrases” literally means “to stammer.” It calls to mind more of what you’d imagine a Buddhist monk doing during Eastern forms of meditation such as humming or repeating this one syllable over and over again in an attempt to empty their mind completely. This is obviously not the idea behind Christian prayer and meditation. In Christian prayer and meditation, we’re actually doing the opposite…we’re filling our minds with something such as passages of Scripture, thoughts about some aspect of God and His character, recalling His wondrous works or His promises, focusing on events in the life of Christ (the Incarnation, the Passion, His death and resurrection). These are all good things.

But sticking just to this notion that repetition itself is forbidden in Scripture…it’s completely off base. For instance, take Psalm 136:

Psalm 136

136:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
4 to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
5 to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
6 to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
7 to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
8 the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
9 the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
13 to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
15 but overthrew [1] Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
16 to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
17 to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
18 and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
22 a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
24 and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
25 he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
26 Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Twenty-six times the phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever” is repeated. There are other Psalms with similar repetitive patterns. Then there is this passage from Revelation:

Revelation 4:6b-8
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
(emphasis mine)

Are these living creatures that “day and night…never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” engaging in vain or meaningless repetition? Because we’ve already established that they are engaging in repetition. If God had something against repetition in prayer or worship, then He should banish these creatures from His presence right away so as not to contradict Himself!

The takeaway is this: Jesus did not condemn repetitive prayers. He even gave us one that we frequently repeat in church every Sunday known as “The Lord’s Prayer” (or for you Catholics, the “Our Father”). Repetition is not the problem, meaningless or vain repetition is the problem. Simply babbling a bunch of nonsense or repeating words over and over as if they are some sort of Christian equivalent of “abracadabra” that gets you what you want is the problem.

Don’t be put off or concerned about the misuse of the passage in Matthew if you like to use prayer beads, employ prayer books such as the Book of Common Prayer, follow the Daily Office or participate in a Liturgy of the Hours. Obviously, the content of the prayer is important (none of that mindless humming, people) and just as important if not moreso is the intent of the heart in praying. One can turn anything into meaningless repetition (even The Lord’s Prayer or a psalm) if they absentmindedly mumble their way through it thinking that merely uttering certain words scores brownie points with God. Spontaneity is not the hallmark of true prayer and worship. Meaning what you’re saying when you pray is where true prayer begins.

Read Full Post »