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)

How Not to PrayJesus taught quite a bit about prayer, and through it he was revealing what our attitude should be toward our Father in Heaven. One thing he forbade was praying in “vain repetitions” or “babbling on and on,” meaning we shouldn’t try to coerce God into doing our will by repeating words over and over. The problem is not the words themselves, but rather our attempt to manipulate God. Worship of idols involved this kind of divine manipulation—the belief that a person could control the actions of the “gods” by incantations and spells. Employing these idolatrous techniques insulted the true God, whose will was supreme and immune to human coercion.

Interestingly, other rabbis expounded on the nature of a “vain prayer.” Two quotations 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.

They note that a person shouldn’t ask God to change the sex of an unborn baby, because God had already made that decision back at the time of conception. The prayer bids God to magically change reality, or go back in time and change history. There is no point in praying for something to happen that has already occurred, so a prayer of this type is empty and useless.

The second idea is that if a person hears cries coming from a city, he shouldn’t pray they’re not the cries of his own family. Once again, this prayer asks God to change history and reality, because a tragic event has already occurred. Even worse than that, it wishes evil on others—asking God to send affliction on someone else for the sake of the people you love!

These two ideas about inappropriate prayer aren’t just legalisms about what counts as a “vain prayer” any more than Jesus’ words about babbling on and on. All these instructions comment on our relationship to God and the manner in which we should approach him. The rabbis understood that to “pray in vain” specifically violated the command not to use God’s name “in vain.” Most assume this refers to 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 indicates that we don’t believe God is listening, or that we don’t revere him enough to offer him 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. We should be awed by the amazing privilege of being able to speak to him, and always remember to approach him with reverence and love.

SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 6, “Rabbi, Teach Us to Pray” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 78-90.


Imitating Our Father

by Lois Tverberg

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:44-45, 48)

When Jesus instructs us to have unlimited love for one another, he presents God himself as our model for living. We should seek to have the same love that God has for us for one another. He says that we should strive to be “sons of our Father in heaven,” implying that somehow our “genetics” as God’s children should enable us to act like him.

Imitating our father

Later rabbis shared a similar sentiment in a commentary on Genesis. They imagined what the conversation might have been like in heaven right before man was created: (1)

When creation was all but ended, the world with all its grandeur and splendor stood out in its glorious beauty. There was but one thing wanting to consummate the marvelous work called into existence by the mere ‘let there be.’ That was a creature with thought and understanding that was able to behold, reflect and marvel on this great handiwork of God, who now sat on His Divine Throne surrounded by hosts of angels and seraphim singing hymns before Him. God said, ‘Let us make man in our likeness, and let there be a creature not only the product of earth, but also gifted with heavenly, spiritual elements, which will bestow on him reason, intellect and understanding.’

Truth then appeared, falling before God’s throne, and in all humility exclaimed: “Deign, O God, to refrain from calling into being a creature who is beset with the vice of lying, who will tread truth under his feet!”

Peace came forth to support this petition. “Wherefore, O Lord, shall this creature appear on earth, a creature so full of strife and contention, to disturb the peace and harmony of Thy creation? He will carry the flame of quarrel and ill-will in his trail; he will bring about war and destruction in his eagerness for gain and conquest.”

Whilst they were pleading against the creation of man, there was heard, arising from another part of the heavens, the soft voice of Mercy: “Sovereign of the Universe,” the voice exclaimed, in all its mildness, “vouchsafe Thou to create a being in Thy likeness, for it will be a noble creature striving to imitate Thy attributes by its actions. I see man now in spirit, that being with God’s breath in his nostrils, seeking to perform his great mission, to do his noble work. I see him now in spirit, approaching the humble hut, seeking out those who are distressed and wretched to comfort them, drying the tears of the afflicted and despondent, raising up them that are bowed down in spirit, reaching his helping hand to those who are in need of help, speaking peace to the heart of the widow, and giving shelter to the fatherless. Such a creature cannot fail to be a glory to His Maker.’

The Creator approved of the pleadings of Mercy, and called man into being.

In this vivid illustration, the rabbis expanded upon the implications of being created in the likeness of God, just as Jesus did in Matthew. Because God breathed his own breath into us to give us life, and because we bear his image, we are capable of love and mercy to one another. As long as we resolve to imitate our Father, we cannot fail to love as he loves.

To explore this topic more, see chapter 14, “God’s Image Stamped in Dust” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 180-91.

(1) Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 8, which dates from the 5-6th centuries AD/CE.