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 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.
To 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.