B. Get to the Point
or Praying to an All-Knowing God (v. 7-8)
7 “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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Jesus gives us a second comparison between a bad example and a good example. This time our bad example is not the “hypocrite,” but “the Gentiles.” Jesus condemns the Gentiles for their repetition of “empty phrases” in prayer, specifically citing that they think repetition itself will get God to listen. Interestingly, the charge against them is not so much the action, but the heart behind it, for they think repeating themselves will force or coerce God to listen to them. I’m not exactly sure what is meant by “empty phrases,” but my guess would have something to do with thinking that specific repeated (or even varied) phrases will somehow bring one closer to God (or God closer to oneself). I think this can be done in a number of ways, but constantly reciting Ave Marias or the Lord’s Prayer or the same type/pattern of prayers all the time thoughtlessly would be a few examples. Even the way many (including me) will use “spiritual” sounding phrases that we’ve heard others use to sound “holier” would be included in Jesus’ criticism.
The positive example Jesus sets for us is to trust in God’s sovereignty and infinite knowledge. Because God knows all things, He knows what we want before we even start praying, really before the desire even enters us. I think the link between v. 7 and v. 8 is a little hard to decipher, but it appears to say two things. First, we should get to the point. There is no reason to feel that God will hear us more because we repeat ourselves than if we say it once. The only reason God listens to us is because He chose to draw us near to Himself through His Son. There is no other way to be heard by God than to have Christ’s righteousness covering us and Jesus interceding for us (which I intend to deal with in a far distant study lesson). That is to say, prayers must be offered by faith. To give an example, imagine the child in the store that says, “Daddy, may I please have the candy? Please, please? I really want it. Will you get me the candy? Please, Daddy, please? Pretty please?” What is the child doing? Aside from begging, the child thinks her father won’t give her the candy unless she pesters him into doing it. While the analogy only goes so far, what it shows is the lack of faith the child has in her father. If she believed her father loved her and cared for her, she would be content with simply asking and then accepting his answer. For us, we pray, understanding that God knows our hearts, knows our desires, loves us immeasurably, and will ultimately do what is best for us.
Second, everything we say should have a purposeful meaning. Using “stock phrases” (you know, the phrases you never say any other time except when you pray) or tossing the standard “in Jesus’ name, Amen” (which most people don’t know why they do) onto the end of a prayer out of ritualistic obligation or following a form for the sake of following a form could all be examples of “empty phrases.” Again, in the example above, the child said a bunch of really stupid, repetitive (or even empty) stuff to convince her father to listen. Did that make her plea more convincing? I doubt it. A simple, heartfelt request, “Daddy, may I please have the candy? I would really like some” would have easily sufficed. The father would (presumably) know his daughter’s heart and desires already and would respond accordingly for her welfare and joy. And obviously our heavenly Father does know us, far better than we know ourselves. Therefore, everything we say in prayer should be true, from the heart, and intentional.
I don’t have much more to say in conclusion. I think a good principle is to start short (more on this below). Long prayers don’t make us any more holy than short prayers. We’re only holy through Christ’s death. When we pray, we should go for short, precise, to-the-point prayers that reflect our heart. I would certainly endorse trying to be comprehensive in praying (which using a form like ACTS [Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication] helps us avoid), but genuine, “partial” prayers would be better than wooden, “comprehensive” prayers. The point is not length or lyricality, but legitimacy.