June 8, 2012

Prayer: Laying Hold of God’s Willingness

by Mike Riccardi

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
– Matthew 6:7-8 –

In these verses the Lord teaches His disciples not to pray with mindless repetition, but with a restful confidence in the sovereignty and omniscience of God.

The Heart Matters More Than the Mouth

The pagans would pray to their deities by reciting particular phrases over and over again, thinking that their gods would reward them for their ritualistic devotion. This kind of thinking about prayer reduces it to a mechanical, heartless ritual. Here, however, Jesus teaches that simply repeating words without engaging your heart is not acceptable before God. In fact, our God has always been more concerned with the internal than with external.

  • Psalm 69:30–31 – I will praise the name of God with song and magnify Him with thanksgiving. And it will please Yahweh better than an ox or a young bull with horns and hoofs.
  • Hosea 6:6 – For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
  • Isaiah 29:13 – This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote…

(See also Psalm 51:16–17; Isa 1:11–15; Amos 5:21–24; Micah 6:6–8; Malachi 1:6–14.)

This means that simply repeating prayers—even “the Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6:9–13—is not acceptable to God if it does not genuinely reflect the attitude and desires of your heart. Notice that in verse 9, Jesus doesn’t say, “Pray this,” but “Pray in this way.” He’s not dictating a liturgy, or prescribing a mantra to be thoughtlessly recited. He’s offering a model prayer, a way to pray, a guide to praying. As Jesus’ disciples, then, we don’t “say prayers,” as if only our mouths were involved. Rather, we pray with our heart, mind, and soul engaged.

A Caution against Fillers

Part of having our heart, mind, and soul engaged in prayer means being cautious about using words like, “Lord,” and “Father,” and “God,” as fillers in our prayers. Some Christians I’ve had the occasion to pray with seem to insert the word, “Lord” after every third word. Far be it from me to judge another brother’s heart, but I struggle to see how they could be meaningfully addressing God each time. Instead, it seems like they’re just using His name to avoid silence.

Think of how absurd this would be when speaking face to face with another person: “So Jim, I’ve come to your front door, Jim, to request of you, Jim, if I could borrow your ladder, Jim, my neighbor, if you would allow me.” It moves from the comical to the solemn when we realize that God has specifically commanded that His name not be used in vain—i.e., in an empty manner.

Pray with Perseverance

But the prohibition of meaningless repetition is not at odds with the command to pray with perseverance. Jesus instructs us to pray persistently, comparing the godly pray-er to an importunate widow (Lk 18:1–8). In fact, Jesus Himself uses repetition in His prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:39–44).

The difference is in the word meaningless. Again, worship is all about the heart. Is your heart engaged in your prayers? When you repeat your prayers, do you do so out of a deep sense of urgency and hope in the God who knows what you need even before you ask Him? Or are you mindlessly bringing bulls to the altar, entirely unaffected by Whom it is that you are coming before and addressing?

The point is: praying itself doesn’t earn you a hearing. Prayer, first and foremost, is worship, and so chiefly concerns the heart.

We’re Not Trying To Twist God’s Arm

Another reason we are not to use meaningless repetition is that our Father knows what we need before we ask it. A proper view of God’s sovereignty must inform our prayers.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that we’re not praying so we can twist God’s arm. We don’t pray to change God’s mind so that He’ll do something He really doesn’t want to do. We don’t go to our Father to haggle and bargain and then purchase blessings with our many words. No, we pray in order to receive as gifts the blessings Christ has purchased for us. John Piper clarifies:

In other words, every answer to prayer that would be good for us, Christ purchased by his blood. We did not and cannot purchase them. So when we go to our closet, we are not going to make a purchase. We are not going to negotiate. We are going because God has ordained that what Christ obtained for us, we receive by asking.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones helpfully adds:

I must get rid of this thought that God is standing between me and my desires and that which is best for me. I must see God as my Father who has purchased my ultimate good in Christ, and is waiting to bless me with His own fullness in Christ Jesus.” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 309)

We must see God as our Father, he says. Jesus says that we do not need to use meaningless repetition in our prayers because our Father knows what we need before we ask it. He is not merely a tyrannical despot who cruelly and whimsically gives and withholds to suit His caprices. He is our loving, caring, and infinitely wise Father who knows our needs better than we do. He will give us what is best for us.

And so our prayers must reflect the rest we have in the confidence of God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness.

  • Our many words do not twist God’s arm, for He is absolutely sovereign.
  • Our persistence does not change His mind, for He is infinitely wise.
  • And we wouldn’t want to do either of those things, because He is already relentlessly good.

When we pray, we don’t need to use meaningless repetition. We must recognize, as Martin Luther said, that “prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance, but laying hold of His willingness.”

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
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  • Guest

    Many good thoughts here, thank you!  I must admit a bit of an ‘ouch’ moment when I read “It moves from the comical to the solemn when we realize that God has specifically commanded that His name not be used in vain—i.e., in an empty manner.” I can see and agree with what you are saying, but wouldn’t want to accuse all those who repeatedly use ‘Lord’ or ‘Father’ etc in a prayer, of taking the Lord’s name in vain.  I would just caution against legalism from either side. Thanks again!

    • Right. I don’t mean to imply that there’s a necessary connection. Repetition isn’t necessarily blasphemy. But meaningless repetition is.

      And so that’s just a caution to examine ourselves — that when we do say, “Lord,” or “Father,” repeatedly, that we’re addressing God in sincerity. If we’re not, I’m happy to provide a corrective “ouch moment” now, if it means brothers and sisters will avoid a more unpleasant “ouch moment” later.

  • Sonja Schroeder

    I really appreciate the posts you guys do on prayer.  I’ve learned a lot, and one lesson is not to beat myself up over what “I” think prayer should be (wrongly) and what He wants to hear from me.  A humble, thankful and contrite attitude.  And joyful in what He gave me and my sisters and brothers this day.  So, thanks!