Short, potent, authentic prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 September

Matthew 6.7-8.

In his Sermon on the Mount, right after Jesus taught his followers to keep their prayers private, he added,

Matthew 6.7-8 KWL
7 “Petitioners shouldn’t be repetitive like the pagans:
They think they’ll be worth hearing because of their wordiness.
8 You shouldn’t compare yourselves with them:
Your Father has known what you have need of, before you asked him.”

The Pharisee view, one we Christians share, is our God is the living God. Whereas other religions’ gods aren’t. They’re blocks of wood, stone, and metal; they’re abstract ideas without any intelligence behind them; they’re devils tricking people into worshiping them. When we speak to our God, he speaks back. When they speak to their gods, they don’t. They can’t.

Yet instead of realizing, “Y’know, since our god never, ever responds to us, I wonder whether she’s real to begin with?” pagans just shove that idea right out of their minds as if it’s doubt or blasphemy, double down on their beliefs, and come up with a bunch of justifications for why their gods can’t talk. Humans are too insignificant or sinful; the gods are too mighty or busy or distant; the universe doesn’t express its will like that; crap like that.

Regardless of the reasons, pagans get no feedback from their gods, so when they pray, they feel the need to repeat themselves. A lot. Their gods might not’ve heard them, so they just need to make sure.

Does our God require such behavior? Absolutely not. As Jesus said, he knew our requests before we ever made ’em.

Lots of Christians interpret this as a statement of God’s omniscience, his all-knowingness. Which is indeed one of God’s powers; he knows all. But it isn’t what Jesus means by this lesson. He’s making a statement of God’s attentiveness. God’s not a distant, dispassionate, disinterested deity. He’s our Father. He cares enough about us to keep tabs on our needs. He cares about his kids.

When they tried to wake up Baal.

Remember the story of Elijah’s contest with Baal? No? All right, I’ll recap.

In the ninth century BC, Ahab ben Omri had become king of Samaria, and was a huge, huge fan of the Assyrian sex god Asir, one of the various middle eastern gods who’s referred to in our bibles by the generic title Baal, meaning “master.” In order to wake up Ahab as to who was the real god of Israel, the LORD had his prophet Elijah shut off the rain for 3½ years—then go into hiding, lest he be compelled (i.e. tortured) to bring the rain back.

Fast-forward 3½ years later: Elijah reappeared, and challenged 400 of Asir’s prophets to a duel: Whichever god answered their prayer was the real god. It’s kind of a fun story… though a bit gory at the end.

1 Kings 18.21-29 KWL
21 Elijah came down to all the people and said, “For how long will you dance on two crutches?
If the LORD is God, walk with him. If Baal, walk with him.”
The people didn’t respond to his word.
22 Elijah told the people, “I’m the LORD’s only prophet left. Baal’s prophets are 450 men.
23 Give us two calves. They pick one calf.
They butcher it, place it on the sticks—and don’t set it afire.
I do likewise to one calf: I place it on the sticks—and I don’t set it afire.
24 You call in your god’s name. I call in the LORD’s name.
It’ll be the god who responds with fire: He is God.”
The people responded, “Good word.”
25 Elijah told Baal’s prophets, “Choose one calf for yourselves.
Go first, because you’re many. Call in your god’s name. Set no fire.”
26 They received the calf given them, and did it:
They called in Baal’s name from morning to midday, saying, “Baal, answer us!”
No sound. No answer. They “limped” round the altar they made.
27 When it became midday, Elijah threw insults at them, saying,
You have to call with a louder voice! For he’s a god!
For he meditates! For he’s in the toilet! For he went out!
What if he’s asleep, and he needs to be awakened?”
28 They called with a louder voice.
They ritually cut themselves with knives and spears, till blood poured out over them.
29 Afternoon came, and they prophesied till grain-offering time.
No sound. No answer. No one listening.

Yeah, Elijah was kind of a jerk to them. I’m not gonna justify that behavior, as many Christians will. It wasn’t appropriate. Christians are supposed to take the high road. But I digress.

In contrast, Elijah doused the LORD’s altar with 12 gallons of water, prayed briefly, and God’s answering fire vaporized even the stones of the altar. 1Ki 18.30-38 The spectators instantly repented, and Elijah capitalized on their newfound fervor to get the Baalist prophets executed. 1Ki 18.39-40

’Cause he’s a living God. He hears and answers prayer. Other gods don’t. The only reason pagans resort to outrageous prayer practice is because, as the author of 1 Kings put it, there’s “no one listening.”

And the only reason Christians sometimes resort to similar outrageous prayer practice, is because we doubt God’s listening. We aren’t paying attention to his answers. (We don’t like his answer, so we’re holding out for an answer we do like.) We think self-denial or self-abuse will earn his sympathy: Pray for 48-hour stretches, pray in uncomfortable positions, pray with the heat cranked up or while wearing a hairshirt or while whipping ourselves with a belt. Seriously, how’s such behavior any different from Baal’s prophets cutting themselves?

But God never asked for such things. Doesn’t need such things. Doesn’t want such things. We’re his kids, whom he loves. Stop hurting his kids!


I’m Pentecostal. I became one as an adult. Because I didn’t grow up Pentecostal, the first time I ever heard a Pentecostal pray, I thought, “You have got to be kidding me.” ’Cause a lot of us have an embarrassingly bad habit: We babble.

Father God, Lord God, we thank you Lord Jesus, we thank you. Oh Abba Father, we just wanna thank you Lord God, and praise your name Lord God, because Lord God, Lord Jesus, your name is great Lord God Abba Father praise Jesus. Oh Lord God…

And so on. Instead of “uh” or “um,” we throw in a “Lord God.” So let’s see:


and we haven’t even reached a request yet.

Other Christians make fun of us for this behavior. Heck, we make fun of ourselves for it. But that does nothing to put a dent in it. I saw Pentecostal kids in seminary make fun of this behavior while they were in school, and tell themselves they were gonna drop it; 20 years later if you listen to ’em pray, they’ve picked all those habits right back up. We invoke God’s name more often than Hare Krishnas in a string of mantras.

Like I said, first time I heard it, I thought it was ridiculous. First thing which came to mind was the way the NIV translates Jesus’s lesson:

Matthew 6.7 NIV
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”

Jesus ordered us not to babble. Therefore praying like that is sin, right?

But Jesus actually didn’t order us not to babble. That’s just the NIV’s spin on his words. Other translations interpret him properly: The KJV has “use not vain repetitions,” and the ESV and NRSV have “do not heap up empty phrases.”

The word βαττολογήσητε/vattoloyísite, “might be repetitive” (remember, Jesus added a μὴ/mi, “don’t,” before it) has a few myths attached to it. There’s one of a bad poet, and another of a Cyrenian king; both are named Vattys, and both were stutterers—so they repeated themselves too much. But Jesus isn’t talking about meaningless words. He’s talking about too many words. Going on and on and on, so much so you’ve actually become less effective, if the goal was to persuade. Saying way more than is necessary. Lots of redundancies. Lots of lofty phrases. Overpadding. Unnecessary rhetoric. You know, like I’m doing right now. Get it?

Babbling, in comparison, is what we do when we’re nervous. When you don’t know what to tell God, and think your prayers oughta be longer than one or two lines, you stammer and fill in all the blank spots of our prayers with junk. Some of them are just like our natural fill-ins (“uh,” “um,” “er,” “eh”) but holier. Some are clichés.

Jesus doesn’t even touch upon how they might be hypocrisy. He did in the previous verses, about public prayer, but now he’s speaking about prayer-closet private prayer, and reminding us we needn’t get tongue-tied when we’re addressing our Father. He’s on our side, remember?

I have my suspicions that so many translations like to use the term “babbling” because they wanna knock us Pentecostals for our bad habits. I definitely agree padded prayer is a bad habit, but putting words in Jesus’s mouth in order to turn it into sin… well, that’s dirty pool. Babbling isn’t sin. It’s immaturity. We need to grow out of it. Not turn it, and those who practice it, into pariahs.

Enough of that. Let’s deal with the real issue of repetitive prayer.

Padding our prayers. (Stop it.)

Pentecostal or not, plenty of Christians are in the bad habit of making our prayers longer than they need to be. We have this false idea in our heads that if we’re any good at prayer, we should be able to pray long prayers. Not short little “popcorn” prayers where we quickly ask God for just one thing—“God, can you help me find my keys?” or even “God, bless our meal, amen.” We feel we should have a lot to say to God. Even when we don’t.

And we’re made to feel guilty about this by our fellow Christians: “Y’know, if you can talk to your friends for hours about all kinds of stupid stuff, why can’t you speak to God, your loving Father, for at least as long?” Okay maybe not hours, but at least, say, 15 minutes. Even though we only have two minutes’ worth of stuff to tell him. Or even less.

So how do we draw these prayers out? Simple: We get repetitive. And we have a really useful, holy-looking sourcebook which’ll show us how to do it: The Psalms. Remember, Hebrew poetry works by repeating concepts instead of sounds, so all you gotta do is repeat the same idea in different words. And not just once, like we find in the bible: Many, many times. It’s in the bible! So it must be okay.

God, please be with us.
Be present among us.
Have your presence be in this place today.
Go before and behind us.
Make your face shine upon us.
Comfort us with your Spirit.

And yeah, God got the idea the first time.

Notice I just went through six different ways of asking the same thing—for God to come here. (As if he’s not always here.) I could keep going, y’know; in my four decades as a Christian I’ve learned a whole lot of synonyms for “God, come here.”

Talk to anyone else this way, and they’d think you were senile. So why do we inflict it upon God? ’Cause other Christians do it too. We get the idea we’re supposed to pray this way. That’s why we overload our prayers with poetry, metaphor, babbling, and repetition. If ever anyone brings up “vain repetition,” we object it’s not vain: We’re talking to God! We’re not babbling like pagans (or Pentecostals).

But we are wasting our time. And God’s. So stop it.

Don’t compare the length of your prayer time, with the length of any other conversations you have. Don’t compare God with your friends. We don’t have the same kind of relationship. Your friends can’t see your heart: They don’t know what’s in there unless you show it to them. Whereas God sees directly into it, and already knows what’s there.

So we can spend hours talking with friends about everything but what’s in our hearts. We can talk sports, politics, movies, food, fashion… and not one word about our struggles at home or work. If our friends ask us anything about areas we’d rather avoid, we can change the subject—and if they won’t let us, we can lie and get away with it. We can have “friends” who don’t know us at all. Many of us do.

Can’t pull that off with God. We tell him nothing he doesn’t already know. What he wants, is to hear us say it. He wants our prayers to match everything in our hearts. When it doesn’t, that’s the very definition of hypocrisy. God wants us to be real with him—in a way we’re never real enough with anyone else. We’re not hanging out with him; we’re not killing time, nor talking about weather or trivia. We’re revealing ourselves to him. This way he can reveal himself to us.

So our prayers don’t, and shouldn’t, produce hours-long conversations like we have with our friends. By their very nature, God-talks are gonna be shorter. Don’t overcompensate, badly, under some delusion that time equals intimacy. It does not. Our struggles to stretch out our prayers aren’t growing us any closer with God. If anything, they’re just getting in our way.

Stick to the point!

When you pray, or when you’re called upon to pray in public, stop padding it. Say what you need to say. Pray what you have. Then stop.

“What if I need to say more?” Fine; say more. Then stop.

Yeah, this’ll make you uncomfortable at first. Because nobody else prays that way, and it’s more comfortable to conform to what they’re doing. But remember, you’re not mimicking them; you’re trying to be authentic with God. Resist the urge.

This may make your prayer leader uncomfortable. In some prayer groups, when my prayers are short, the prayer leaders might follow up by trying to “encourage” me (and everyone else, but really me): “Remember people, don’t hold back. Say whatever God wants you to.” Well I did—but they’re used to long prayers, and my brevity weirds ’em out. They can’t handle quiet. And I have to resist the pressure to stretch things out for their comfort.

When I first dropped all the repetition—praying short prayers like I do in private—people began to compliment me: “Your prayers sound so real.” Good; they were real. But what these compliments are also saying is the padded stuff, the repetition we’re all used to, doesn’t sound real. Not even to the Christians who pray that way. ’Cause we’re putting on a show, and know it. Even when we don’t admit that to ourselves.

Dropping the repetition also means our public prayers are no longer emotionally manipulative. Ever notice how some people, the longer they pray, the more emotional they get? (And the more emotional everyone else gets?) They’re doing that on purpose. They wanna feel those emotions. Sometimes they think it’s the Holy Spirit doing that to them. It’s not. It’s them, ramping themselves up, trying to feel “God’s presence” because subconsciously they think if he’s here, he’ll answer them they way they want. He is here; but his answers have nothing to do with how we feel. When we psyche ourselves into feeling more holy, sorry, desperate, righteous—whatever mindset we think will work best on God, and get his sympathy—that definitely works on humans, but God sees right through it. We don’t get to work him. He’s not stupid.

And like Jesus’s lesson states: He knows our needs before we state ’em. He sees through our manipulation, our emotion, our feats of flowery language… our rubbish. He grants our requests entirely based on his own will and grace. Nothing else. So we can stow those other things. It wastes everyone’s time.