And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this…
Don’t babble in prayer
I do not wish to judge the sincerity of prayers. Yet I cannot deny that I hear a lot of empty phrases in prayers. It’s a bad habit Christians have picked up from other Christians. It can go something like this: “Father God, we come before you, Lord, to praise your name Lord God and Jesus we want to thank you Lord for being faithful to us God. Lord Jesus, we ask that God you continue to watch over us Lord and help us in our time of need, Father.” There is also the example of ‘power phrases’ in prayer used by certain Charismatics.
Jesus reminds us that we should not heap up empty phrases in prayer – or as the NIV translates it more vividly, “babble like the pagans”. We should not carelessly insert the Lord’s name into our prayers like a comma. That would be akin to taking the Lord’s name in vain, which the Third Commandment prohibits. We do not talk like that to our friends, using their name at every turn, as it would annoy them to no end; why should we treat God with less respect? A sincere heart does count for something, but I think we undercut this sincerity when we do not give God the proper reverence by mouthing his name carelessly.
The root of babbling
Jesus doesn’t just stop there. He goes deeper. He knows that babbling in prayer is often an indicator of a heart that ‘thinks it will be heard for its many words’. He understands that he must get to the sinful root of babbling and cut it out of our hearts with gospel promises if we are to learn to pray and relate to God properly.
Thus he reminds us that God the Father knows what we need before we ask him. We should not falsely conclude from this that we do not need to pray. Jesus teaches in Matthew 7 that we need to ask if we wish to receive. God has designed prayer to be the means by which he blesses us with what we need. Nor should we falsely conclude that we should not repeatedly ask for things in prayer. Jesus goes on to offer the example of the Lord’s prayer, which was to be prayed daily. The warning is not against persistent asking and repeated requests but against meaningless babble and empty phrases.
What we should conclude is that empty phrases and babbling are pointless in prayer, since God is not any more compelled by them to answer us. The only compulsion that rests on him is the compulsion of a Father’s love towards his children. The magnitude of his love as displayed through the death of Jesus should be sufficient assurance that our prayers are heard. To compel him by other means is to cast doubt on his generous love towards us.