Vain repetition?

by K.W. Leslie, 16 October 2018

When I wrote on God-mindfulness last week, I mentioned one of the techniques people use to remind themselves God’s always here, is by praying the Jesus Prayer. It’s a really short rote prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—which we can use to help focus when we meditate on God, or remind ourselves he’s right here with us.

But of course someone (and we’ll call her Fenella) read the article on God-mindfulness, read the article on the Jesus Prayer, and despite my warnings, immediately leapt in her mind to a dark place. “That,” Fenella insisted, “is not biblical prayer.”

Um… in the Jesus Prayer article I pointed out the three bible passages the Jesus Prayer is based on. One of which was prayed to Jesus, personally and directly, by Bar Timaeus. And Jesus answered it—despite the naysayers who tried to shush Bar Timaeus. You know, like Fenella’s kinda doing. (I really don’t think this ever occurred to her.)

But Fenella’s beef isn’t with asking Jesus for mercy; it’s with what she calls “vain repetition.” Because when Christians say the Jesus Prayer, we tend not to say it just the one time. We say it dozens of times. Over ’n over ’n over ’n over ’n over. And to Fenella’s mind, that’s what pagans do, like the Hindus and Hare Krishnas and Christian cultists. They fervently repeat things over and over again because it’s how people psyche themselves into a euphoric mental state. Various dark Christians claim that once we enter this mental state, it’s like we’ve opened up the door to our spirit. And now devils can step right in.

No, seriously. They believe repetition, because it’s what pagans do, invokes pagan gods. Fenella’s not the first person who’s told me this, either. I’ve heard it too often. And sorry in advance if this sounds unkind, but it’s still how I feel: The Christians who teach this have gotta be the stupidest creatures in God’s universe. Because Satan successfully tricked ’em into believing and teaching, “Oh no, better not talk to God too much or I’m gonna get possessed!

These folks claim devils can go into the place the Holy Spirit occupies as his temple without getting devastated by the light. 1Jn 1.5 But dark Christians regularly make the mistake of vastly overestimating dark powers. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as evil, temptation, and spirits which wanna trip us up; of course there are. I’m saying the idea our prayers to the Almighty—in which we’re asking for grace, in which we’re trying to be mindful of God’s presence, in which we’re trying to meditate on his scriptures—because we say them too often for these people’s comfort, the imagine these prayers let in devils? Even if we’re talking to God earnestly but wrong, does it sound anything at all like our gracious heavenly Father to even let such a thing happen? It isn’t just contradictory; it’s downright dumb. Christians, please don’t follow stupid people.

Rant over. Let’s get into what a “vain repetition” is, and what Jesus meant by it.

What Jesus means by it.

We get the term “vain repetition” from the way Jesus’s teaching is phrased in the King James Version:

Matthew 6.7 KJV
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

And we get various Christians denouncing “vain repetition” for any reason they can think of, and not for the reason Christ Jesus objected to it: “For they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”

As I said in my article on short, potent prayer, plenty of Christians think a proper prayer should be a long one. They might have 30 seconds of information to convey to God, but they feel a 30-second prayer is way too brief, and might not give God a proper idea of how bad they want an answer. So they make it longer. They pad their prayers.

Usually by repeating themselves. Whether it’s Pentecostal style—

“Oh Father God, we just ask, Father God, we just pray, Father God, that you, Father God, would be with us, Father God, and watch over us, Father God, and comfort us, Father God, with your Spirit, Father God…”

—or more of an old-school mainline style—

“We beseech thee, oh LORD, and call upon thee, and make our requests known unto thee, and lift up our heads to the heavens to seek thy face…”

the vain repetitions refer to repeating phrases and ideas over ’n over for the purpose of making our prayers last longer. We imagine if we pray longer, we sorta kinda earned the prayer request. ’Cause we put in our time with God. Quantity counts for something, right?

Nope. Not how grace works.

So in order to belay this pagan practice of praying really long, eloquent, but empty prayers, Jesus taught us to cut it out. For all the good it did; I still hear over-long prayers from various Christians, ’cause they never get to the point! (But to be fair, if you ever get into a conversation with them, you’re gonna find out they never get to the point in any other situation. So hey, at least they’re consistent.)

Context matters. When Jesus told us to stop it with the “vain repetition,” we need to look at why he said so. Not just assume any sort of repetition we don’t like, counts as the same stuff he doesn’t like. If we do that, we’re projecting our views upon Jesus, and really following ourselves instead of him. It’s a dangerous habit to get into: Because we’re so much less like God than Jesus is, our imaginary Jesus isn’t gonna act like the real Jesus at all. We’re gonna wind up teaching demented ideas… like repetitive prayer leads to devil-possession.

…Yeah, I went back there again. Because it’s just so stupid.

Repetitive rote prayer.

If this psalm didn’t come from the bible, I guarantee you some dark Christian would claim it’s a wholly unbiblical bit of poetry. ’Cause of the “vain repetition.”

Psalm 136.1-9 KWL
1 Lift your hands to the LORD: He’s good! For his love lasts forever.
2 Lift your hands to the God of gods! For his love lasts forever.
3 Lift your hands to the master of masters! For his love lasts forever.
4 To him who alone does great, wonderful things! For his love lasts forever.
5 To him who wisely made the skies! For his love lasts forever.
6 To him who stretched land over the waters! For his love lasts forever.
7 To the maker of great lights! For his love lasts forever.
8 The sun rules day. For his love lasts forever.
9 The moon and stars rule night. For his love lasts forever.

What’re the chances the other 15 verses of this psalm end in “For his love lasts forever”?

Would this qualify as vain repetition? Don’t just answer “no” because it’s God-inspired bible. Because like I said, we get various Christians who claim worship songs which repeat lines and phrases this often—less often than Psalm 136, mind you—are doing it wrong. “Aren’t biblical,” as Fenella put it: She imagines those who sing them are secretly trying to slip eastern-style consciousness into our churches and undermine and corrupt ’em.

I would say this isn’t vain repetition in the slightest. It’s meaningful repetition. It’s purposeful repetition. It was trying to drum into the heads of the Hebrews how God’s love lasts forever. Whether we translate khecéd as “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness” or “mercies,” or as I simply translate it, “love”—the very same definition of love Paul taught—it was to teach the Hebrews that each of the acts of God we see in the psalm were done out of love. Whether we’re talking the creation of the cosmos, the defeat of Israel’s enemies, or provision, it’s done out of love. Hence “For his love lasts forever” has to be repeated. We’ll forget otherwise. ’Cause the Hebrews, if you know your history, did forget.

Repetition is a useful way to memorize things. To not just get ’em into our brains, but into our souls; to gradually turn them into the unconscious reasons why we do things. You know what’s useful about praying the Jesus Prayer all the time? We get a far better sense of God’s mercy. Because his answer to that prayer is yes… because his love lasts forever.

That’s the mindset every Christian should have. Not this foolish one where God’ll permit the devil to have at us when we repeat prayers too often. That doesn’t sound like God’s love and mercy. Sounds more like the vindictive attitude of people who get irritated because people aren’t praying the way they prefer. It’s far more vengeful than patient, and the bad fruit should tell you it’s a false teaching. Ignore it. Feel free to repeat your prayers as often as you need to. Kýrie eléison.