There were certain things I knew not to do growing up. There aren’t too many lists doing drugs and praying the Lord’s prayer both appear on but this was one of them. The Lord’s prayer wasn’t really to be prayed verbatim because that was “vain repetition” and Jesus said not to do that. One step removed from scripture were other classic Christian prayers (which I had no idea existed in my youth) that Christians have prayed through the ages were also neglected or even condemned because that too was vain repetition. What does the Bible say about vain repetition and does what the Bible instructs exclude praying these kinds of prayers?
The teaching on “vain repetition” comes from something Jesus taught in Matthew 6:7. Here it is in context in Jesus’ section on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount,
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.“
The KJV on 6:7 says, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” What does that word or phrase even mean? Well first it is a word, not a phrase and it literally means to say something mindlessly, babbling. Saying something mindlessly is not the same thing as repeating something as one can repeat something mindfully, with their mind fully engaged in what they are saying.
We have no problem saying repetition, even mindless prayers over meals or at bed times. Even in our worship services there are prayers that use the same stock phrases over and over. Is that an issue? Only if it is done mindlessly. That is the criteria, not repetition itself. If you are directing your prayer in a meaningful way to God, even through the use of repetition, it is not what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 6:7.
What is also interesting is Jesus goes on from saying we should not pray mindlessly to saying this is how we should pray and tells us how and yet the one prayer Jesus tells us to pray is the main prayer many of us were told when we were younger that shouldn’t be prayed. What this really boiled down to was maintaining distinction from other groups of Christians rather than anything the Bible actually had to say about this issue and this verse was prooftexted in by helicopter as if from a list of rules sans context. What Jesus meant was rarely considered in light of the usefulness of this verse in helping us maintain our distinctiveness. I often think my more sectarian years killed my spiritual formation as well as my prayer life.
It is okay to pray repetitiously if your heart, mind and soul are engaged in what you are saying. This has been something I have been engaging in more regularly and the effect it has had on my soul has left me wishing I had been taught this much earlier as my prayer life is becoming more and more vibrant through praying with full on heart and mind engagement prayers where much is repeated! When you pray, focus on what you are saying and who you are saying it to. Some things need to be said over and over again, just as the persistent widow kept coming to the judge with the same problem over and over again. That was repetition but it certainly wasn’t babbling thoughtless words.