Thursday, June 4, 2015

Contradictions in the Bible: "vain repetitions"

When people talk about "contradictions in the Bible" (as they constantly and predictably do), they always focus on such minutiae as how many horses were in Solomon's stable, or how old a certain king was when he began to reign.  These classic "discrepancies," which can be easily explained by means of a little study, are merely smokescreens for ignorance of, and rejection of, the Bible itself.  But there are a few areas that do seem to present contradictions, that the skeptics never point out.  

We've dealt with one such "contradiction" in a previous post. This time, we'll discuss a "contradiction" that is of great importance to any Christian, because it deals with prayer, and how a Christian is supposed to pray.  If you've received Jesus Christ according to John 1:12, and been born again (John 3:3-7), you may have wondered about this one yourself.  If you're not a believer, then this post might not mean much to you: but give it a try!

Let's boil it down to a very simple question: if you have a request or a concern, and you need God's guidance and assistance, how often should you pray about it?  Should you pray a single time, and "just leave it with the Lord," as some people claim; or should you ask and beseech God repeatedly, even continually?

The Bible instructs believers, in both the Old and New Testaments, to take their concerns to God.  Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee, David says in Psalm 55:22;  he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved. Similarly, Peter writes, Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you (1 Peter 5:7). So, obviously, God wants us to bring Him our problems and petitions and cares.  But how often?

Some Christians say that God is eager to hear our prayers (which is true), and eager to answer them (which is also true, although He doesn't always answer according to our wishes), so it isn't necessary to "pester" Him with repeated prayers and entreaties about the same thing.  "Just leave it with the Lord," they say; which, in many circumstances, is good advice, but is not necessarily a good pattern for prayer.  These Christians (mostly Pentecostals or Charismatics) even say that repeatedly praying about the same thing indicates a lack of faith: "if you really trusted God, you'd only need to ask Him once."

Well, that's nonsense, on several levels.  But the more Biblically-minded in this group of Christians have a passage of scripture that they use to bolster their position: and here's where the "contradiction" comes in, and here's what confuses some believers. Speaking in Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus says: And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

And this is indeed a very important passage concerning prayer.  But it seems to be contradicted by Jesus Himself, on two separate occasions.  

And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth (Luke 11:5-8).

In this case, the needy neighbor didn't stop asking his friend's assistance after the first refusal; he persisted until the friend gave him what he wanted because of his persistence (his importunity).  The needy neighbor didn't simply say "Okay, never mind, go back to bed;" he continued to ask.

An even clearer example: And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith (Luke 18:1-6).

Did you get that last part? "Hear what the unjust judge saith."  Maybe the widow didn't have much of a case, or maybe the judge was just too lazy to consider the matter. But, because she didn't give up, because she kept "nagging" him, the judge acceded to her request.

So, there's the "contradiction."  Jesus says, "Don't pray using vain repetitions;" then He gives us two examples of people whose "prayers" were answered because they were repeated.  Which of these "principles of prayer" are we to obey?  Isn't there a discrepancy here?

No, there's not; it's not a contradiction at all.  The great principle of prayer (one of them, anyway), is that we're to be persistent, and pray for as long as it takes - - - not to get the answer we want, necessarily, but to get God's answer, and know that we've gotten it.  Sometimes it might be a single prayer; sometimes we may pray about a certain thing for decades.  Every Christian who has any experience of prayer understands this. That's why Paul wrote, Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God didn't say that because He wants us to be praying 24/7; He said it because we're not supposed to pray about a matter, and then forget it.  He wants us to keep on praying about it, if the answer doesn't come quickly. God doesn't want us to avoid repetition; He wants us to avoid vain repetition.

So, what are "vain repetitions?"  When a family says precisely the same words in asking God's blessing on a meal, every time they eat, is that a "vain repetition?"  It can be; there are even a lot of unbelieving people who do that, just as a cultural or traditional thing.  But if the "blessing" is sincere, and spoken from the heart, God honors it as He honors any sincere prayer.  What about a child's "Now I lay me down to sleep?"  Well, until a child is old enough to formulate his or her own prayers, there's nothing wrong with that.  God appreciates it.

"Vain repetitions" aren't really prayers at all.  They're more like ritual incantations, spoken by rote, in an attempt to impress God - - - but without a trace of personal, individual crying out to Him.  It's like taking a long, meaningful conversation, and replacing it with a Tweet - - - the same Tweet, over and over.  And a lot of professing Christians "pray" exactly that way, because that's how they've been taught: "Hail Mary, full of grace .... hail Mary, full of grace..."

  Even non-Christian religions do it, like the Buddhist repeating his "mantra" with his prayer beads.

Those things are "vain repetitions."  They're vain because they have no content; they're just words, babbled over and over. (Even Shakespeare understood the principle.  Hamlet's father, the wicked king, lamented, "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go." Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 3.) Many times these people are sincere, but they're not knowledgeable about what the Bible says about prayer.  I'm not mocking them.  I'm simply saying that these are "vain repetitions."

So we see once again that there are no contradictions in the Bible.  But we see something even more thrilling: that God wants to hear our concerns, and our cries, and our requests: because, once we've received Jesus Christ, we're His children, and He cares!

What a Christ!  What a Bible!


  1. Hmm. You liken "vain repetition" to taking a long, meaningful conversation, and replacing it with the same Tweet over and over. First thought that came to my mind was of the same repetitive content posted numerous times in a row on an Internet forum, for example - and this is commonly known as "spam."

    If "spam" is frowned upon in the online world, I guess it's easy to see why God wouldn't want us to waste time spamming Him with meaningless repetitive "prayers."

  2. In 2 Corinthians 12:8, Paul recalls how he "pleaded with the Lord three times" for relief from his "thorn in the flesh." Could that be the model we should follow?

    1. Excellent observation! There's nothing wrong with repeating a prayer; it's the "vain," thoughtless, empty words that God doesn't accept. Thank you for a great example!