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. (Matt.6:7)
The irony in this verse is not apparent to many people, yet it’s there.
I went to a men’s prayer meeting at a church once and thought it would be a good idea to bring my siddur. (A siddur is a Jewish prayer book which contains formal prayers for daily liturgy as well as Shabbat and Festivals and all manner of special occasions). I only did this because they had announced that they were going to pray through a few Psalms, and the siddur has many, many Psalms in it for that very purpose. To me it made sense, but they saw the Hebrew script on the cover and looked at me suspiciously, so out of deference to their group I tucked it away and suffered while they went around the table and struggled mightily to come up with words to say to God.
This is a common problem in prayer: We desperately want to pray, but have no idea what to say. We start to feel stupid, and then it’s over. The time of prayer ends, and we feel badly. This type of experience is far more common than most of us want to admit. It results from not having a plan or structure to guide our time before the LORD. This problem is unnecessary, but results from the traditional taboo against using liturgy in prayer.
Oh yeah…the irony. What is the irony of our verse, you ask? It’s the fact that formal Jewish prayer, or the liturgy of Catholics and other more formal expressions of faith, is often looked down upon in the evangelical world as being “less spiritual” and “lacking spontaneity”. Books and blogs abound about how prayer is “just a conversation with God”. Just “tell Him what’s on your heart”. This is all very good and commendable and I agree that we should be transparent before God, but it’s not true that liturgy is less spiritual.
In our verse in Matthew, the Lord tells us not to be like the “Gentiles…who think they will be heard for their many words.” Notice, Jesus does not say: “Don’t be like the Jews who pray their memorized prayers, because that doesn’t work. Rather, just pray spontaneously. It’s a conversation, after all.”
The irony, then, is that Jesus wasn’t criticizing the Jews for using liturgy, and telling his audience to “be like the Gentiles who just wing it”. No, Jesus said the opposite, and he also said this:
But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matt.6:6)
This refers to a place of prayer that is set apart for you. This is important, I have found. It’s taught in the Bible that Daniel had both times of prayer, and a place of prayer.
Point #1: Have a consecrated place of prayer
We should find a place where we can commune with God that is private, and as distraction free as possible. This is probably not in front of the television. The act of having a “prayer closet” speaks of ritual. Having a ritual creates comfort and helps us relax and enjoy our time with the LORD. We should not be afraid of this type of practice. While it may seem strange to consider it, the apostles (and Jesus) followed the ancient tradition of praying at certain times of the day, and praying certain prayers. They used liturgy. But Jesus also gave them the example of personal, private devotion in prayer. We discussed this in a previous blog here.Why Did Jesus Pray?
Now, I’m a Gentile. I’m not Jewish. I don’t pretend to be Jewish when I pray. I don’t don tefillin (phylacteries and prayer straps and a prayer shawl), nor do I focus on praying the prayers which are specifically Jewish. But I use the siddur with great effect. Sometimes I use it alone, and sometimes I use it with my wife. It provides a road map of prayer, helping me to focus my thoughts on the attributes of God: His mercy, His lovingkindness, His justice, His longsuffering…I pray both ancient prayers, like the Shema, the Avinu Malkenu, the Psalms. It puts my mind in a place of “kavana”, which is focused intent. It helps me to get there, I should say.
Today, when I pray, either alone or with my wife, it is not unusual for us to pray for over an hour. This never happened before I began utilizing liturgy. We would sit there, all tense, trying to focus on God and having no idea what to say. “You start”, she’d say. “I don’t know what to say”, I’d answer. We’d sit there. Eventually one of us would mutter something benign and nonspecific. The other would follow suit. Then one of us would complain to God about something. Then we would confess trust in Him. Then say amen. It was rather pathetic, and therefore we didn’t do it very often. It made us feel bad, like we were being bad Christians. Like we lacked any spirituality at all. But it wasn’t the case. We just needed help getting going.
Using a prayer book has opened a whole new world to us. It has freed our creative process and given us structure to cling to while we learn the habit of daily, focused intercession.
Here is an example of the type of prayer found in my siddur:
This is the prayer called Pesukei Dezimra (meaning, “Verses of Praise”):
Blessed is He Who spoke and the world came into being, blessed is He. Blessed is He who creates the universe. Blessed is He who speaks and acts. Blessed is He who decrees and fulfills. Blessed is He who shows compassion to the earth. Blessed is He who shows compassion to all creatures. Blessed is He who gives a good reward to those who fear Him. Blessed is He who lives for ever and exists to eternity. Blessed is He who redeems and saves. Blessed is His name. Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, God, compassionate Father, extolled by the mouth of His people, praised and glorified by the tongue of His devoted ones and those who serve Him. With the songs of Your servant David we will praise You, O LORD our God. With praises and psalms we will magnify and praise You, glorify You, speak Your name and proclaim Your kingship, our King, our God,
(it is customary to bow low at this point)
…the only One, Giver of life to the worlds, the King whose great name is praised and glorified to all eternity. Blessed are You, LORD, the King extolled with songs of praise…(Koren Sacks Siddur, Koren Publishing, pg.62)
This is merely one example of hundreds in the siddur which may be prayed. Observant Jews pray this often, if not every day. Imagine the power of having such exalted praise of God on your lips and in your mind, soaking into to your consciousness daily. How might it impact your mood? Your devotion? Your decisions?
Perhaps you are uncomfortable with a Jewish prayer book. There are other prayers, from Christian sources, which can be used. Many believers have a practice of journaling their prayers, and making notes while they pray, and in preparation for prayer, which they refer back to. These folks experience the blessing of remembering what’s been prayed and being able to catalogue God’s answers, and this builds their faith and encourages them to continue praying. I have done this occasionally but have not yet made a habit of it, but I think it’s a wonderful practice which is worth emulating.
The point is to not be afraid of a formal plan for prayer, which is our second point:
Point #2: Have a strategy for your prayer life. Don’t just pray when the “mood hits”.
There is a discipline associated with formal, liturgical prayer which can appear to the uninitiated to seem somewhat at odds with genuine spirituality, but it is not. The issue which can arise is when you simply barrel through a prayer, thinking you are blessing God (or helping yourself) by the mere act of praying. The Talmud teaches that if you find yourself in a place where you can not properly concentrate on God while praying, that you should stop immediately, and only resume when you have regained focus. This is what is meant in the Bible when it speaks of “vain repetition.” What is being challenged is not liturgy, but the “performance” of liturgy without the involvement of the heart and mind. Consider this passage:
We learned in the Mishna that Rabbi Eliezer says: One whose prayer is fixed, his prayer is not supplication. The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of fixed in this context? Rabbi Ya’akov bar Idi said that Rabbi Oshaya said: It means anyone for whom his prayer is like a burden upon him, from which he seeks to be quickly unburdened. The Rabbis say: This refers to anyone who does not recite prayer in the language of supplication, but as a standardized recitation without emotion. Rabba and Rav Yosef both said: It refers to anyone unable to introduce a novel element, i.e., something personal reflecting his personal needs, to his prayer, and only recites the standard formula. (Berakhot 29b, Koren Publishing, Steinsaltz edition)
So, the tension is resolved with this instruction. We use formal prayers to discipline our minds to focus on God, through the formulated prayers of tradition which go back many hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years, and written by holy men and women of God. But we don’t rely upon these prayers to substitute for our own relationship with the living God in prayer. They are a gate.
In Jewish thought, the “Gates of Heaven” refers to entrance into prayer.
The point is to have a consecrated place of prayer, a consecrated time, and a strategy.
Perhaps opening to the Psalms and praying a few Psalms out loud will do it for you. Perhaps some formal written prayers. The siddur I use has both of these in one convenient hand-held volume, and therefore is a trusted and cherished prayer companion. I don’t want to pray without it with me.
Using liturgy accomplishes one last important feature which I should mention:
Point #3: Liturgy keeps us on track with sound doctrine when we pray. We don’t pray amiss.
Can we pray amiss? The Bible says we can:
You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (Ja.4:3)
This aspect of sound doctrine is evident in the Lord’s Prayer as well:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matt.6:9-13)
I encourage you, even as I encourage myself, to persevere in prayer and intercession. It is through prayer that we can hope to make the greatest difference in the world.
I hope and pray that this post has left you feeling motivated to rethink your prayer life and that some of the thoughts herein will infuse new life into it. None of us pray as we should or as often as we should. But we can try to do better, and with God’s abundance grace we will.