How Not to Pray
by Lois Tverberg

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Matt 6:7 (KJV)

Jesus taught quite a bit about prayer, and through it he was teaching us about what our attitude should be toward our Father in Heaven. One thing he said was to not pray in "vain repetitions" or "babbling on and on," meaning that we shouldn't try to coerce God into doing our will by saying words over and over. The problem is not the words themselves, but rather our attitude of trying to manipulate God into doing something. That was an aspect of the worship of idols - the belief that a person could control the actions of the "gods" by incantations and spells. It was an insult to the true God, whose will was supreme and not able to be forced into action by humans.

Interestingly, other comments on the nature of a "vain prayer" came from the rabbis too. Two are below:

Ber. 9:3 If one's wife was pregnant and he said, "May it be thy will that she give birth to a male"-lo, this is a vain prayer. If he was coming along the road and heard a noise of crying in the city and said, "May it be thy will that those who are crying are not members of my household"-lo, this is a vain prayer.

First, a person shouldn't ask God to change the sex of an unborn baby, because at the time of conception, God already made that decision. The prayer is asking God to do magic - to change reality that is already set in place, or to go back in time and change history. As a policy, God doesn't do such things, and he already had expressed his own will in this case.

The second idea is that if a person hears cries coming from a city, he shouldn't pray that it not be his own family. Once again, it is asking God to change history and reality, because already a tragic event has occured in someone's life. Even worse than that, it is wishing evil on others - asking God to send affliction to someone else for the sake of the people you love!

These two ideas about how not to pray aren't just legalisms about what counts as a "vain prayer," any more than Jesus words about repetions. All of these sayings are talking about the nature of God and our relationship to him, and how we should approach him. The rabbis understood that to "pray in vain" was a violation of the command not to "use his name in vain." We think of that as simply using God's name irreverently in conversation, but it really means to invoke God's action in an empty or disrespectful way. To pray or swear in vain shows that we don't believe that God is listening, or that we don't revere him enough to treat him with the respect he deserves.

By considering how and how not to pray, we are reminded that whenever we pray we are approaching the King of the Universe, and God takes our requests quite seriously, and is willing and able to answer. We should be awed by our amazing privilege of being able to speak to him, and always remember to approach him with reverence and love.

6 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., All rights
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