walk in the word
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray . . . ” (Luke 11:1–2, ESV).
From the time humans were created, prayer has been part of our experience. God designed us with the ability to communicate. Not only do we talk to each other, but we also have a natural compulsion to talk to the One who made us. And just as every aspect of humanity is tainted by sin, communication with our Creator is broken too.
Jesus addressed several ways prayer can become twisted, one of which is empty repetition—something our ancestors had a reputation for doing. Pagan Gentiles practiced polytheism, so they had a lot of deities to juggle. For them, praying involved coping with the demands of all these gods. Prayers became rote incantations designed to keep the gods happy and distracted. But as their gods weren’t real and their idols were powerless, it follows that the phrases said to them were meaningless, no matter how high the petitioners stacked them up.
Jesus was clearly unimpressed by repetition in prayer. His descriptions of how people “heap up empty phrases” and use “many words” vividly depicts people mindlessly, frantically trying to reach a god by using multiple echoes. They think, This god will be pleased if I say it one more time. If I persist, this god will hear me.
A clear illustration of the contrast between impotent, repetitive prayer vs. a simple prayer of faith is found in 1 Kings 18:17–40, when the prophet Elijah went head-to-head with pagan priests in a prayer contest. Each side was to call down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice. Outnumbered 400 to 1, Elijah basically said, “The God who answers with fire is the real God. The other one is an impostor. This pits your god Baal vs. my God Yahweh; may the true God win.” Then Elijah prompted, “You go first.”
So the priests “called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying ‘O Baal, answer us!’ ”(18:26). Such frantic repetition—today we’d call it a mantra: “O Baal, answer us!” repeated over and over.
During the lunch break, Elijah “mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’ ”(18:27). So they cried louder—literally “raved on” to Baal hour after hour—but there was no answer, only silence (18:29).
After a full day of this circus, it was time to get real. Elijah prepared his sacrifice, even drenching it with water. Then he simply and calmly prayed one time, inviting God Almighty to do His thing. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench”(18:38). God won the contest decisively.
As Elijah’s story illustrates, answers to prayer don’t come from some sort of obnoxious yammering, like a child wearing down a parent. Lose that idea. The issue isn’t limiting us to mention something to God only once—we can talk to Him as often as something is on our hearts and minds. The issue is the misconception that incessant repetition will force God’s hand. It won’t.
God is pleased with simple, trusting prayer. Can He hear us? Yes. Is He listening? Yes. We may have the same issues to talk to Him about many times, even over the span of years. But we repeat them out of trust and to release our anxiety to Him, not because we think repetition gains His attention or favor. Our requests are but a small part of the broader and deeper conversation we have with our heavenly Father.
What’s the difference between empty repetition and speaking often with God about an important issue?
How could you apply the model of Elijah’s simple prayer to your conversations with God?
Lord, don’t let me fall into the bad habit of vain repetition. At the root of my prayers needs to be trust—trust that You hear me, that You love me and want what’s best for me, and trust that You will answer me at the right time. You are never wrong and never late. I want my prayers to be filled with the confidence Elijah expressed. Please teach me to pray simple prayers, full of trust. Thank You that my prayers don’t have to be perfect in order for You to answer. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.
brought to you by change partners