Vain Repetition in Prayer

Probably one of the more obvious differences between Protestants and Orthodox (and Catholics on this issue) would be the different forms of prayer.  The ancient traditions (Orthodox, Catholics, and I would also include Anglicans), tend to use formal or common rules of prayer in addition to spontaneous individual prayer, whereas many Protestants – especially evangelicals – reject common rules of prayer.  As I grew up in Southern Baptist churches, we were always taught that Catholics, in using and repeating formal prayers, are guilty of violating Christ’s warning against “vain repetition” in prayer (Matt. 6:7).  I’m not even sure if I knew about the existence of the Orthodox Church at that time, but I am sure most evangelicals in America would level the same critique against the Orthodox – formal prayer (praying written prayers in a formal prayer rule) is vain repetition and against the teachings of Jesus.  They would say it’s “not Biblical”.

But is that really the case?  Is it really true that Christ wouldn’t want us to follow a formal prayer rule, repeatedly using prayers written down by Christians who have come before us?

I’ll start with an account as to why a formal prayer rule is not only Biblical and well within the teachings of Jesus Christ – it is also a vital means of enriching one’s prayer life and guarding against egotism and false teaching.  For my next post, I’ll examine how the Orthodox prayer rule has affected me.

The major critique leveled against formal prayers, from an evangelical perspective, deals with the question of whether or not formal prayers are Biblical.  Citing Matt. 6:7, most evangelicals see Christ’s warning against “vain repetition” in prayer and then assume Christ was talking about repeating formal prayers.

There are a few problems with this critique.  On its face, the point seems perfectly valid, but one should first remember that there are different ways of interpreting the original Greek text (one of the many problems with sola scriptura, but that’s another issue for another time).  For example, some Protestant translations of the text in Matthew take the Greek wording and then translate it to “vain repetitions” in English.  In other translations, including the Catholic Public Domain Version, the Greek is translated to “… do not choose many words, as the pagans do.”  So the translation of the text itself is actually far from decided.  I’m no Greek scholar, but from what I’ve gathered, the original Greek word battalogeste (not sure about the spelling) means “babbling”, which makes sense when one looks at the rest of the verse: “… for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”  I tend to think the CPDV and others that translate the text to “using many words” is a bit more accurate, but I’m not worried about this specific point all that much.

Issues regarding translation from the original Greek to English aside, one should also be careful to avoid “proof texting” (taking one verse out of context to make a point).  That is to say, one should also take a look at the text immediately surrounding the verse in question and also look at other verses in scripture that can help shed some light on the matter.  So when we look at the context of Matt. 6:7, we see Jesus Christ expressly giving His followers a formal prayer only two verses later (the Lord’s Prayer), starting at verse 9: “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father…'”  To this day, most Protestants have no problem repeating this prayer.  As a side note, the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), written in the 1st century, exhorts Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.

Looking at the prayer life of Jesus is also helpful here.  Throughout the New Testament, we can see Jesus Christ praying in repetition (Matt. 26:44 and Mark 14:39, for example).  Moreover, in the book of Revelation (4:8), the writer sees a vision of angels forever repeating: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”

So repetition in prayer is not wrong in and of itself and it is certainly Biblical and within the teachings of Christ.  In fact, why many evangelical Protestants make the move to say that repetition in prayer is automatically bad or in vain is a mystery to me (aside from the desire to take the scriptures as literally as possible and reject any “tradition”, even though they received their ideas on sola scriptura and a literal reading of the text from their own particular tradition).  What I mean is, not all repetition is in vain.  When a football team runs a play over and over in practice, is that in vain?  Only if they choose to “go through the motions”.  Another example could run along the lines of a Christian who wants to memorize a certain passage of scripture, so he or she decides to repeat it aloud over and over again.  Of course, if the person isn’t paying attention and just mindlessly moving their lips to the text, it won’t do much good.  But if he or she pays attention and stays actively engaged in the process, the text will eventually be memorized and can be recalled at will.

So even if one concedes that repeating formal prayers is something that a Christian can do, is it a practice that should be encouraged?  In other words, what good does it do?

To explain, I’ll give an example that most evangelical Christians should be able to relate to.  In the pantheon of great modern Christian writers, one of the most revered figures for just about any Christian from any tradition is C.S. Lewis.  Lewis had a way of appealing to a broad range of Christians and he was very deliberate about this in his writing.  He wanted his works, fictional or theological, to be a source of unity for Christians.  But what did Lewis believe about prayer?  What did the prayer life of this legendary Christian writer look like?

From the time of his conversion onward, Lewis was a member of the Church of England – he was an Anglican.  It is interesting to note that as time went on and as Lewis grew in the Faith, he became more and more convinced of the value of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the ancient Creeds.  One can see in his posthumously published “From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” that Lewis understood how a common rule of prayer and the Creeds were actually helpful in keeping him from sliding away from the “faith once given” into “my Religion”, which he described as a phantom of the Real Thing.

A formal rule of prayer or a common rule of prayer given by the Church is actually a very important way for Christians to stay on the right path in regards to doctrine.  It keeps us grounded in the Faith and helps us avoid slipping into an egocentric form of religion.

I think the point of avoiding egotism is especially important and it brings to mind something my parish priest once said regarding prayer.  Fr. Vasile explained that sometimes we just don’t know what to pray.  We have so many things going on in our lives and sometimes we simply don’t know what to say in certain situations.  So the common rule of prayer is actually helpful in teaching us how to pray and what to pray for, while also making sure that we keep a proper perspective on doctrine.  I also think there’s an element of humility that comes along with a formal rule of prayer.  The way I tend to look at it is that I might know that I need certain things at certain times, but I’m not godly enough to know what to pray for and how to pray all the time.  As soon as I think that I’m advanced enough or holy enough to pray whatever I want all the time, then the risk of turning Christianity into “my religion” increases exponentially.

The Church has kept certain prayers around for centuries and there is something beautiful about knowing that I’m praying the morning and evening prayers not just by myself, but with the entire Church.  All Orthodox Christians, with one voice, lift up our prayers to the Lord together each day.  This emphasis on community within Orthodoxy is wonderful because it serves as a powerful reminder that each of us will be “saved” (or not) as individual persons, but the Christian life is not individualistic – there is a sense that “we’re all in this together”.  As a side note, the Orthodox have a unique perspective on what it even means to be “saved”.  I’ll get into that another time.

I also can’t help but feel a sense of wonder in praying the same prayers that many great Saints have composed and prayed before me.  These are people who have been so united to God, so filled with God’s grace, and taken on the divine nature of Christ to the point where some of them have literally become physically transfigured as Christ was.  Some have performed miracles, some get to the point where they know people are coming to see them – they know the person by name and why they’ve come (they can “read hearts”, as Jesus did during His ministry).  All of these men and women were forever changed by the grace of God because they were humble enough to think of themselves as far from God, they were constantly in repentance, and thought of everyone and everything else as being above them.  They had, as much as it is possible in this life, taken on the perfect co-suffering love of God.  When Jesus told His followers to “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect”, He meant it and the wonderful thing is (through God’s grace) this is not an impossible command to carry out in this life.

I look at the witness of the Saints of the Church, and I see that I know nothing of repentance and I need as much guidance as I can get when approaching the Lord in prayer.  I also know that I don’t always know what’s best for me and I don’t always know what to ask for or how to talk to God, so I look to the prayers passed down through the ages to help keep me on the Way.  The last thing I want is to slip into egotism and “my Religion”, as C.S. Lewis said.

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