Jesus teaches us how to pray by example and by explicit teaching. Embedded within the Sermon on the Mount written in the Gospel according to Matthew, there is an instruction from Jesus that seems to speak directly against repeating our prayers to God.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “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. (Matt. 6:5–8, ESV)
Is Jesus teaching us to not repeat our prayers to him? For Anglicans, is praying written prayers a violation of this teaching? This is a question I’ve personally been asked as a writer here and in my ministry as a pastor. I have a few thoughts in answer to that question, and then a few constructive thoughts as to why it would be good to repeat our prayers, and specifically why the Anglican BCP is a good resource for doing so.
Reasons Why Repetition in Prayer Is OK
Jesus’ command in Matthew 6 is not against praying things that we have prayed before. This couldn’t be the right interpretation because in another place he says to be persistent in prayer, to keep asking, knocking, and seeking (Matt. 7:7–8; Luke 18:1–8). Furthermore, the Jews, and thus Jesus himself, almost certainly recited the Psalms as prayers in their worship. There is a limited number of Psalms, and so they would have repeated these throughout their lifetimes. Likewise, the words of Scripture (such as the Lord’s Prayer) intentionally shape our liturgy so that we know we pray according to His wisdom and will.
Jesus’ command here in Matthew 6 is not to think that you have to try and make God hear you by babbling on in one sitting, as if he is not infinitely aware of all you are thinking and feeling and saying. Jesus is essentially warning against a false view of God.
An interpretive key for this passage is Christ’s reference to the pagans (Gentiles). They would dance around, shout and repeat mantras, sacrifice animals, cut themselves, and get drunk all for the sake of trying to be heard by their god. This is not necessary for us. We can repeat prayers, but we shouldn’t repeat a bunch of “magic” phrases thinking that if we pray just the right words, God will answer us. Our God knows, he sees, he cares, and he is able to act.
We should also keep in mind that so-called “non-liturgical” prayer is itself repetitive. Pay attention to how pastors or people pray in extemporaneous settings. We all very frequently have a formula for opening our prayers: “Dear God,” and others. We also very frequently have a formula for closing our prayers, “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” At meal times, often we will pray something like what we pray at every meal time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these kinds of prayers. My point is that abandoning written prayers doesn’t mean that we’re obeying Jesus. The question isn’t whether we should repeat our words to God, but which ones we should repeat, and how much we should repeat.
Think from experience as well. Have you not thanked God for something more than once before? Would God spurn this thanksgiving? I think not.
A Positive Vision for Repeated Prayers
Writing our prayers, and repeating them on a regular basis, is sometimes perceived as a cheapening of prayer. That is to say, many think you can’t really mean it if you didn’t come up with it on the spot. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When you want to express your love to a significant other, you don’t just say whatever you can think of on the spot. You write them a letter, thinking carefully about what you want to say, making sure that you express the depth of your affection. When someone comes to make their marriage vows, they will think carefully about what they want to say. How much more with God!
Another example: if you were to approach the president of a foreign country on behalf of the United States, you would want to script your words in order to communicate your message accurately and with respect. How much more when we come before the King of Glory on behalf of others in need?
The point here is that the one to whom we pray deserves our best words, and taking time to craft our prayers does not shortcut heartfelt prayer. Rather, it communicates care for our God. Extemporaneous prayer is not inherently more authentic or valuable than planned prayer. They both have their place.
In addition to the value of carefully choosing our words for ourselves in worship, there is instructional value. In our passage in question, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. He responded with a scripted prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is a starting point, a model. This is not meant to be all we ever pray, but it is explicitly given by Jesus to be the least we would ever pray. That is, if you don’t know what to say in prayer, you have one prayer that you know you can offer up to your Heavenly Father.
Likewise, when a new Christian or a child is learning to pray, they must be given aid. My infant child is currently learning new words and sounds. We don’t tell her to talk and then just figure it out. Her responses are scripted. Our culture has an entire ecosystem of scripted phrases and responses that we use with one another and especially with babies. This is a good thing and it happens for a reason. It is teaching speech and basic human interaction. Likewise, our scripted prayers are forming our spiritual life, shaping our thoughts and feelings about God. The daily office and liturgy for Holy Communion ought to be the foundation upon which a robust prayer life may be built.
Why the Book of Common Prayer?
The Book of Common Prayer can seem daunting to the newcomer. I get that. I felt the same way. But truly, the individual elements within the overall liturgy are simple and concise prayers that retain theological and devotional depth. The individual collects, the prayer of confession, and the prayer of humble access, to name a few, are all sayable in less than a minute and have the depth to provide a sturdy foundation.
Repeating prayers, especially prayers which have stood the test of time and reflect a devotional and theological tradition so completely, is a good practice and is in every way consonant with the teaching of Christ.