What is Vain Repetition?


In his teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord cautions us:

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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:7-8 (ESV)

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.

Matthew 6:7-8 (KJV)

What is Jesus cautioning us against? It is easy to use these verses as a club against things that may annoy us, but that is not the intent of Christ’s words. Here are a few things he must not be cautioning us against, because they are either done by our Lord or demonstrated elsewhere in Scripture as positive things.

Liturgical Prayer

In the very next verse, Matthew 6:9, Jesus instructs his disciples to “pray then like this” and gives them the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has been prayed verbatim by generations of Christians.

Repeated Requests

In Luke 18 Jesus tells a parable of a widow and her persistence to receive justice from a magistrate. We are told to learn from the widow as we persist in prayer. Jesus himself in Gethsemane prays to the Father three times that “this cup may pass.”

Repeated Prayer

John’s Revelation gives us glimpses into heaven reminiscent of some of the Old Testament prophets. In chapter 4, John describes being taken up in the Spirit before the throne of God where he sees:

…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!”

Revelation 4:8 (ESV)

They never cease we are told. They are near the throne, so it would seem reasonable to assume that if God did not enjoy having this said repeatedly, he would tell them to desist. But he doesn’t.

Perhaps we put emphasis on the wrong word in “vain repetitions.” Maybe it isn’t the repetition that God dislikes so much as the vanity (or empty phrases). John Chrysostom echoes this in his sermon on the passage:

He dissuades them; calling frivolousness, here, by the name of vain repetition: as when we ask of God things unsuitable, kingdoms, and glory, and to get the better of enemies, and abundance of wealth, and in general what does not at all concern us.

Indeed, persistence in asking for what we truly need is upheld and rewarded. Consider Bartimaeus as an example:

And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Mark 10:47-48 (ESV)

Let us be persistent in prayer for what is truly needful — the mercy of God upon us — and set aside selfish desires.


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