When you pray, don’t babble like the idolators, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him. (Matthew 6:8)
I grew up on the KJV, so I knew “babble” as “vain repetition”: empty parroting, just saying words to say them.
We’ve all known people who do this, maybe even do it ourselves—before a meal, say, or when repeating liturgical prayers.
(I have nothing against liturgical prayers; it’s “vain” or “empty” repetition of them that is the problem—not the repetition itself, nor the prayer itself.)
Being a conscientious child I worried about this somewhat. Repeating the Lord’s Prayer seemed especially suspect, which is funny when you think about it. (Jesus said, “Pray like this …”)
But the point is here actually less about the action and more about the misunderstanding behind it.
Babbling Your Prayers
The Bible’s most stark example of babbling prayers is probably that of the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18. In this story the prophet Elijah challenged the priests of a foreign god, Baal, to a showdown on Mount Carmel. He set up an altar with a sacrifice on it.
The challenge was this: “You call on Baal to send down fire from heaven and burn up the sacrifice, and then I will call on Yawheh to do the same thing.”
The priests of Baal prayed, danced, wailed, and cut themselves around that altar all day, from morning until evening. Baal remained unresponsive, and Elijah passed the time catcalling—Maybe your god is asleep; maybe he’s stepped out for a bit; maybe he’s using the bathroom. Pray harder!
Finally the priests of Baal gave up. Elijah stepped forward, drenched the altar with water, and simply prayed, “Answer me, LORD! Answer me so that this people will know that You, Yahweh, are God and that You have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37).
Immediately fire fell from heaven and consumed not only the sacrifice but even the stones of the altar.
Prayer Is Not a Burden
The priests of Baal repeated their prayers in vain, because no one was listening. Their prayers burdened them, exhausted them, and even wounded them. In the end they were disgraced.
Can you relate?
Honestly, as a Christian there have been times when I felt like prayer was too much of a burden to carry. It was heavy, exhausting, frustrating, wounding. In the end I felt like no one was listening and I was embarrassed at the effort I’d put forth.
Why was prayer this way for me?
I had picked up ideas, attitudes, and methods of prayer from old revivalists and from my own works-oriented soul. I tried to do them in my own strength and it was a recipe for spiritual burnout.
I’m not saying everything I did was wrong, but sometimes we pick up burdens that aren’t meant for us. A revivalist two hundred years ago may have had a grace to spend six hours on his knees that you don’t have, because he had a calling to do it that you don’t share.
Please don’t get me wrong: if God calls you to spend six hours on your knees, do it. The grace and power will be there. And seeking God is always good. Jesus calls us to do this and to keep on doing it (Matthew 7:7). Seasons of “push” are normal before a breakthrough.
BUT … and this is a big “but” … picking up other people’s burdens and trying to carry them in our own strength is not the way this works.
If prayer continually feels to you like an all-day-long self-flogging session, something is wrong.
And Jesus highlights what in this passage.
You’re Praying to Your Father
Jesus said the idolators of his day thought they would be heard “for their many words”—that their efforts were the key.
Instead, Jesus says the key is who you’re praying to: “your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him.”
THIS is the key: you are praying to your Father. Your Father already knows your needs, because he pays attention and he loves you. Your Father already has plans underway to meet them. Your Father wants to meet with you in secret.
Prayer is not about our efforts at all. If you’ll notice, Jesus’s model prayer is seven lines long. It can be prayed in under a minute. And it’s powerful. Prayer is about communing with our Father.
Years ago my frustration with prayer came to a head. I had trained myself to pray long, exhausting, convoluted prayers, and I couldn’t do it anymore. At this time the Spirit pointed the Lord’s Prayer out to me: He pointed out that it was short, simple, and extremely non-burdensome.
So I just started praying it.
As I did, I meditated on its words. And then I started praying off of it—thoughts and prayers that spin out from the centrepiece of Jesus’s prayer.
Today, I honestly can spend hours in prayer. But it’s not exhausting at all. Actually, it’s life-giving, freeing, and even enjoyable.
Because I’ve figured out that I’m praying to my Father.
Your Father Knows
It’s important as well that we know our Father’s character when we pray. Jesus points out one aspect of it here: your Father already knows your needs. That means you don’t need to give him long explanations or help him come up with a plan to meet them. Prayer becomes about expressing trust, seeking wisdom, and receiving from God.
I have found that prayer becomes easier and more wonderful the clearer I get on who my Father is. The more I understand his nature and character, the more I love to come and meet with him in secret.
Every wrong concept I have of God is a weight holding my prayers down. As those concepts change and untruths fall away, my prayers become more full of life.
The idolators of Jesus’s day worshipped statues and carvings, things they had created and imbued with personality. By contrast, we worship the living God who is our Father, and who reveals himself to us through the Scriptures and through the Spirit.
The more clearly we see our Father, the better we can pray.
At my church this past week we spent four evenings in prayer together. Our lead pastor, Marc Brule, coined a phrase that became a theme for us: “The power of prayer rests not in the one praying, but in the One hearing.”
To that I say, amen.
(This is Part 57 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)