Does the Bible Condemn Repetitive Prayer?

One of the common arguments raised against Catholic devotions like the Rosary is that Catholics are praying the same few form prayers over and over again, and Scripture condemns repetitive prayer. After all, in Matthew 6:7, Christ says, “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words,” or to use the 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.

The answer to this is simple: Christ condemns vain repetitions, or heaping up empty phrases.  Repetitive prayer, including the use of form prayer, is embraced by Scripture, and practiced by the early Church.  Let’s look at repetitive prayer first, and then form prayer.

The Bible Calls Us to Repetitive Prayer

One of the most vivid examples of this comes from Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39-44):

Carl Bloch, Gethsemane (1805)

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  

And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  

Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.”  And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 

 So Jesus prayed the same prayer three times in a row.  That’s certainly repetitive prayer.  But it’s hardly vain repetition, or empty phrases.  Jesus was begging the Father intensely.  Likewise, we’re invited to beg God for things, and even to nag Him.  This invitation comes from Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8):

And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, `Vindicate me against my adversary.’ 
For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, `Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'” 
And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

So the model for continual prayer that Jesus holds up is a woman who asks the exact same thing (`Vindicate me against my adversary’) over and over again, so much that it’s obnoxious.

The Bible Calls Us to Form Prayer
Psalm 1, from Florian’s Psalter (c. 1400)

The idea that the Bible condemns form (or pre-written) prayers is silly.  After all, the Book of Psalms is nothing but a set of 150 form prayers that can be prayed on a variety of occasions, and which Christ quotes extensively during His earthly life.

Plus, Jesus leaves us a form prayer of His own.  Immediately after Matthew 6:7, in which He denounces vain repetitions, Christ gives us the Our Father (a.k.a. the  Lord’s Prayer, Mt. 6:9-13), introducing it, “This, then, is how you should pray…”  That’s a form prayer, and one which we’re to pray often.

Plus, the Lord’s Prayer was recognized as a form prayer to be prayed repeatedly by the early Church.  The Didache is perhaps the oldest Christian document outside of the Bible, from sometime around the middle to late first century.  The oldest portions of the Didache are probably older than the latest portions of the New Testament.  It’s something of a Church handbook, explaining the beliefs and practices of Christianity to the newly initiated converts.  In Chapter 8, Christians are instructed to pray the Our Father three times a day.  In the next chapter, form prayers for the Eucharistic preface are given. Plus, the Didache is describing what’s already going on in church, meaning that we can safely date repetitive praying of the Lord’s Prayer back to the time of the Apostles.

Conclusion

Christ condemns thoughtlessness in prayer, of mindlessly repeating empty words.  We shouldn’t do that.  But the cure isn’t to throw out all form prayer, or to throw out all repetitive prayer.  It’s to pray these prayers with sincerity.  Sometimes this is hard, particularly when we’re tired or have a lot on our mind.  But we should try our best to do it anyway.  Go back to the example of the Garden of Gethsemane. The Apostles were clearly tired, and it’s an understatement to say that Jesus had a lot on His mind.  But while the Apostles shunned prayer in favor of sleep, He went ahead and prayed anyway, repeating the same impassioned prayer three times.  That makes all the difference.

Update: I’ll be talking about this post tomorrow morning at 8:50 on Son Rise Morning Show.  You can listen to it live at that time online, or wait to hear if it gets re-aired on EWTN later in the week.

125 Comments

  1. @Daniel: Thanks for the Ezekiel 14:19-20 reference. I didn’t realize he was mentioned elsewhere. – There you go Joe, Taylor, and everyone else who denies the book of Job. There’s your proof. (Although the Ezekiel passage shouldn’t be the one to prove Job as trustworthy. The fact that it is in the canon should do so.) So now what do you say about Job 1&2?

  2. @BlackBeard:
    1) I only brought up the Waldenesians as an example of ‘protestantism’.
    2) What about the rest of 1Timothy? The next two verses? (1Timothy 4:1-4) Do you not condemn marriage for western-rite/Latin-rite priests? Do you not condemn marriage even in the case of adultery? Do you not condemn those who do not abstain from meats on Fridays pre-VaticanII, and those who do not abstain from meats on Fridays during Lent post-VaticanII?

  3. but it isnt an example of protestanism not by a long shot. there were heretical sects since the begining of the church.

    we do not condemn marriage for latin rite priests and you know it. those called to priesthood for latin rite know upfront that the discipline is to have a vow of celibacy. you know very well that our other rites do not hold to celibacy. It is not dogma. It is discipline, the Church could change it tomorrow. Dogma could not be changed.

    You also know and if you don’t I will tell you that the Friday meatless rule is fasting. Fasting to be used to be more spiritual. Noone is condemned. This is shameful on your part to twist it like this.

  4. Michael,

    Are you claiming to be a spiritual successor of the Waldensians? Otherwise, what’s your point? Nobody’s denying that there were heretics from the earliest days of the Church. We’re denying that they were Protestants. If you think that they were, make a coherent argument, don’t just make insinuations.  But if you concede that the Waldensians were wildly different from Protestants, then my original point stands.

    Regarding iconoclasm, yes, in 754, the Emperor called the Synod of Hieria (also called the Mock Council of Constantinople or the Headless Council) to  impose iconoclasm upon the Church.  The emperor’s son was the presiding bishop.  “Catholics just happen to not recognize” this Council because it had no authority (being rejected by the pope) and was heretical.  It was condemned as such at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Nicea, in 787.  To my knowledge, nobody accepts it as a valid Council, including Protestants.

    The rest of your arguments are the same old smokescreen.  I’ve previously addressed this misuse of 1 Timothy 4:3 here (continuing into the comments), Jerome and the (non) existence of a 66-Book Protestant canon in the early Church here and here and here, and Peter Waldo and the Waldensians here,

    But you’re running away from the issue.  Yes, you can find an early Christian (St. Jerome) who argued against the Deuterocanon (although he was humble enough to defer to the Church).  And yes, you can find 8th century heretics hellbent on iconoclasm.  So why can’t you find any gorup, within or without the Catholic Church, that taught the secret rapture?  If, as you claim, these New Testament passages are teaching the Rapture, surely you could find some evidence of this from the early Church.  So why this utter failure?

    It won’t do to say that John Darby, a 19th century lapsed Anglican priest, dreamed up a secret rapture after reading these passages.  Show me that’s what these passages originally meant to the audiences they were addressed to, or to some other group of early Christians. The rest of this “searing the consciences” and “abstaining from meat” business is just you getting defensive and trying to dodge the question.

    I.X.,

    Joe

  5. Daniel,

    I’m pretty persuaded by Ezekiel 14:19-20. Thanks for pointing that out!

    Michael,

    To answer your follow-up question:
    a) No, just because something’s canonical, it’s not automatically history. The parable of the Prodigal Son is God-breathed (literally), yet I’ve never heard anyone claim that it’s a historical account. Likewise, Song of Solomon is best understood as an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church, not someone sharing their private business.

    b) However we understand Job 1-2, we can’t understand it in a way that contradicts Luke 10:18. Jesus is too clear to simply ignore Him.

    I.X.,

    Joe

  6. @Michael~ It’s simple really the mystery of the Trinity is that Jesus, God the Father, and Holy Spirit have always been one. They are co-eternal with no beginning and no end. As you seem to believe in the pre-existance of Jesus, then you believe in the Trinity.

    If you believe in the Trinity, then you must also believe that Mary is the Mother of God, Theotokos. The reason is simple. If Jesus pre-existed as the Logos the word which as Calvin stated is part of his humanity and is also God and therefore is both equally divine and human, then Mary gave birth to both the divine and human. She gave birth to God and Christ. She gave birth to both natures. That makes her the Mother of God.

    To say that she only was the earthly mother of Jesus is deny Jesus’s divine nature and therefore to deny the Trinitarian belief that Jesus is both divine and human and has always existed. Make sense?

    To downplay Mary as simply a good example of faith and only the earthly mother is to deny God’s choice to have her give birth to himself.

    1. “To say that she only was the earthly mother of Jesus is deny Jesus’s divine nature and therefore to deny the Trinitarian belief that Jesus is both divine and human and has always existed. Make sense?”

      Then in that case, Jesus himself was the first one to deny this and I choose to follow his example and recognize Mary as the blessed humble woman whom God chose to fulfill his promise to man and the role ends there. Mary herself did not expect any more than that , going by the magnificat:
      And Mary said:
      “My soul glorifies the Lord
      47 and my spirit rejoices in God my SAVIOR,
      48 for he has been mindful
      of the humble state of his SERVANT.

  7. SECONDED, Georg Laing. And let all of us prepare to appropriately to celebrate the Feast of the Divine Mercy Sunday on 15TH APRIL, 2012, with the Novena and recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, commencing on Good Friday – the 6TH OF APRIL. What grater Mercy and Divine Love has Jesus bestowed upon us by giving us this Feast – The Day of Atonement..when mankind is dead set on self-destruction!!!! The very contemplation of Christ’s own Words and Promises for this Feast are awesome:: “I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day, the very depths of My tender mercies are open……The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment…..It is my desire that it be solemnly celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter. Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My mercy” What a Supra Indulgence has Jesus offered us – to restore our souls to the condition they were in on the one was Baptized!!!!! Praise be Jesus Christ

  8. Revelation 4:8:

    And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” so these Angels who are in Heaven are repetitive praying hmmmmm

  9. Jesus and the widow kept on petitioning repeatedly for a need that had not been met, which is fine. Let’s say you are praying for a child, you continue praying for the blessing of a child for may years until you are blessed, then you continue thanking God repeatedly, for the rest of your life, once you are blessed with a child. That’s not vein. Worshiping God in prayer, repeatedly is not vein.
    However, prescribing ‘prayers’ like a ritual is vein. Like telling someone to say hail Mary 3 times, Lord’s Prayer 10 times etc is vein. Who determines the magic number? What are you praying for?

  10. If God wanted to answer Jesus prayer that he prayed three times God would have. Sometimes, I believe that God does not answer all prayers because it is not in His will to answer that particular prayer. I do believe that God says no to some of our prayers for a reason.
    Jesus knew that his assignment to die for all mankind and that repeating the prayer over and over again was not going to change God’s mind. Just like sometimes when we repeat prayers over and over again I believe the following may set the stage for answered prayers:
    1. God says no because there is something that we need to correct in our lives
    2. Sometimes it is not in God’s timing for you
    3. We are not sincere in our belief that God will answer your prayer and
    4. I believe that we lack faith in God’s ability to answer some of our (i.e., as we think) most difficult prayers

    What we don’t realize sometimes as believers is that God created us and He knows who we are from the inside to the outside (Psalms 139:13-16). We lack the trust that God knows what He is doing! Since God created everything, we should realize that He knows what we need. Our lack of faith in God’s renders us lacking the belief that He is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and immutable. Isaiah 46:10 states that He knows the end before the beginning!! So who are we? We are made in His image with the ability to seek Him and ask for guidance, direction and reassurance in our lives that He is there for us and knows what we need.

  11. Since God has decreed everything from beginning to the end, doesn’t it mean our answered and non answered prayer are under his decree since before the foundation for the earth. He knows our every thoughts before we put them into words. He knows what we need before we petition him for our needs. If God wants to answer a repetitive prayer, that’s His business. The prayers of a righteous person avails much. I believe this means a saved person or others would say, a born again person. I believe with all my heart that God heard my prayer as a non-believer. That was the sinner’s prayer. God drew me to himself, I was His elect and He knew me before I was in my mother’s womb. I believe prayer is a sincere way to communicate with the Lord. We worship God with prayer. We pray also that “if it be your will Lord” that our prayer is answered. He may not answer the way you want your prayer answered because He knows what is best for you in our journey towards heaven.

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