January 7–13 is the national week of prayer in the Assemblies of God. Throughout this week, I will be sharing daily devotions on prayer. May you draw closer to God in 2018 as you seek His face.
Matthew 6:7–8 says: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Other translations speak of “empty phrases” (ESV) and “vain repetitions” (KJV).
Does Jesus prohibit using set phrases or repetition in prayer? Should we use patterned prayers? No and yes, respectively.
Let me give you two examples of patterned prayers. At meals: “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.” At a child’s bedtime: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
Does Jesus prohibit the use of patterned prayers such as these? No! Consider His instructions to the disciples in Matthew 6:9: “This, then, is how you should pray….”
The Lord’s Prayer is a patterned prayer. Jesus not only taught His disciples patterned prayers, He used them himself. His prayer from the cross — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) — is a quotation from Psalm 22. When you read that psalm in its entirety, you see why Jesus prayed it as He died. It is the appropriate prayer for that agonizing moment. In fact, the Book of Psalms is simply a collection of patterned prayers. If such prayers are good enough to be included in the Bible and used by the Lord, they are good enough for our use too.
What Jesus really prohibits is pointless prayer, not patterned prayer. As John Stott explains, He prohibits “any and every prayer which is all words and no meaning, all lips and no mind or heart … a torrent of mechanical and mindless words.”
So, should we use patterned prayers? Yes, but only if they help us express our minds and hearts to God.
I find patterned prayers useful for two reasons: First, they help me say exactly what I want to say. In the morning, I pray, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24, ESV). When I sin, I pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). And when I go to sleep, I pray, “Guide me while waking, and guard me while sleeping, that waking I may watch with Christ, and sleeping I may rest in peace.” Why invent new prayers when old ones express my feelings exactly?
Second, patterned prayers help me organize my thoughts. The Lord’s Prayer presents an outline of prayer. It begins with focused attention on God (“hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come, your will be done”) and then turns to our needs (“daily bread,” forgiveness, and deliverance from evil). When I pray, I use this outline, adding my specific requests under the appropriate headings. Under “daily bread,” for example, I ask God for whatever I or my family and friends need.
Patterned prayers are simply tools. Use them if they help you get the job done.