The Bible’s Viewpoint
Prayers—Repetitious or Spontaneous?
A JUMBO jet was cruising at 41,000 feet [12,500 m]. Below lay the cold waters of the Pacific. Suddenly, one engine cut out. Then, the other three lost power. The plane plummeted six miles [10 km] in two minutes! But at 9,000 feet [2,700 m] the jet regained power and made it safely to San Francisco. Sighed one passenger: “I prayed harder than at any time of my life.”
In times of disaster, danger, or deep sorrow, many people, even the nonreligious, turn to the Almighty for help. In contrast, the religious regularly repeat formal prayers in churches and temples or at home. With the aid of rosaries, many say Paternosters and Ave Marias. Others use prayer books. Millions of Orientals twirl wheels with prayers inside them as a means of repeating prayers rapidly.
Have you ever wondered, ‘How should we pray? Should prayers be repetitious or spontaneous?’
What Prayer Is Like
Suppose that your much loved father, living in another country, encouraged you to telephone whenever you wished—free of charge. Would you not call often? Would you not delight in maintaining, even strengthening, your precious bond? Would you not discuss your anxieties and express deep gratitude for any help and encouragement he had given you throughout your life? That personal relationship would be a great treasure to you, would it not?
In your phone calls, you might mention some matters again and again, but you would not express yourself by reading from a book or formally repeating yourself, would you? Neither, then, would Christian prayer be like that. In fact, Christ Jesus said that prayers should be nothing like that.
What Did Christ Jesus Say?
“When praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words.”a (Matthew 6:7) Other versions express it this way: “In your prayers, do not go babbling on like the heathen.” (The New English Bible) “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.”—Revised Standard Version.
Some people confuse verbosity with piety, fluency with devotion, repetition and length with a guaranteed response. However, God does not measure the value of a prayer by the yard or meter. Obviously, Jesus did not want his followers to use rigid formulas or to recite prayers. Hence, of what lasting value are rosaries, prayer books, or prayer wheels?
After saying the above, Jesus went on to give his disciples a model prayer—the well-known Lord’s Prayer. (Matthew 6:9-13) But did he intend for them to keep parroting those very words? No. In fact, when restating it more than a year later, not even Jesus used the exact words. (Luke 11:2-4) Is there any record of early Christians’ doing so or of their repeating other formal prayers? Again, no.
Does this mean that we cannot mention the same point or request many times? Not at all, for Jesus also said: “Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find.” (Matthew 7:7) It is often necessary for us to make the same request many times. Jehovah thereby sees how earnest we are in our requests and how deeply we feel about the matter.
For example, in the fifth century B.C.E., living as a member of the Judean exile community in Babylon was a devout man named Nehemiah. He was the royal cupbearer to the Persian king. When he was told that his kinsmen, the settlers in Judea, were faring badly, he prayed “day and night” for their relief. (Nehemiah 1:6) His prayers were favorably heard. Jehovah moved the sympathetic Persian ruler to grant Nehemiah the authority to make a trip to Jerusalem to set matters straight. This he did, to the happiness of his people and the preservation of their faith.—Nehemiah 1:3–2:8.
How Heartfelt Prayer Helps
Although he is the Supreme Power of the universe, Jehovah invites his “children” to approach him wholeheartedly. “Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you,” says Jesus’ disciple James. (James 4:8) But how? Well, we must pray in the name of Jesus. (John 14:6, 14) Furthermore, as Paul stated: “Without faith it is impossible to please him well, for he that approaches God must believe that he is and that he becomes the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him.”—Hebrews 11:6.
Those with problems, even those who have committed serious wrongs, can ask for and receive help and forgiveness. Jesus illustrated this with his story of a religious leader who, when praying, thanked God that he was more holy than others; but a tax collector (resented and viewed as a serious wrongdoer in those days) simply said: “O God, be gracious to me a sinner.” Certainly, that simple, heartfelt prayer did not come out of a book. And Jesus condemned the religious hypocrite but said of the other: “He that humbles himself will be exalted.”—Luke 18:10-14.
Ugly world trends cause many to worry and suffer from depression. Christians may even fret about their standing before God. But a regular, frequent, spontaneous turning to Jehovah for help can work wonders. Wrote Paul: “Do not be anxious over anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication along with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known to God; and the peace of God that excels all thought will guard your hearts and your mental powers by means of Christ Jesus.”—Philippians 4:6, 7.
Supplication means an earnest entreaty, begging God for help, pouring out our hearts to him as would a child to a very loving and understanding parent. Such prayers do not come out of books, nor are they repeated parrot-fashion. They come from hearts that need help and have real faith in Jehovah, the “Hearer of prayer.”—Psalm 65:2.
a The word rendered “say the same things over and over again” (bat·ta·lo·geʹo) is used only once in the Bible and means “‘to babble’ in the sense of trying to achieve success in prayer by heaping up repetitions.”—Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
[Picture Credit Line on page 20]
Drawings of Albrecht Dürer/Dover Publications, Inc.