“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” (Matthew 6:7–8, esv).
Imagine if your daughter came to you and said, “Dad? I just want to tell you I’m so glad I have a father like you. Thank you for being my dad. And I appreciate so much knowing you’re here with me right now, Dad, as I’m about to work my way around eventually to ask you something. . . . ”
At this point in the conversation, those of us who have hair would be pulling it out. “What do you want, honey?! Just tell me!”
But isn’t that the way we sometimes talk to God? God loves us, yet do we approach Him like we believe it? We should come to Him as our Abba Father (Romans 8:14–15) and make our requests known to Him—simply and directly.
Are your prayers simple? Or do you “heap up empty phrases” and nice-sounding fillers, stall, and try to butter Him up before You get to the point?
Jesus taught, “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.” Our ancestors had a reputation. The pagan Gentiles practiced polytheism, which meant they had a lot of deities to juggle and appease. For them, praying involved coping with the demands of all these cantankerous gods. Each god had a weakness or fault that had to be taken into account. Prayers became rote incantations designed to keep the gods happy and distracted. The people thought, This god is going to like it if I say it one more time. If I persist, then the god is going to hear me. But because those gods weren’t real and the idols were powerless, the phrases said to them were empty—no matter how high the penitent stacked them up!
We see this illustrated in the story of Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:17–40). The pagan priests went head-to-head with Elijah in a prayer contest. He was outnumbered 400 to 1, and each team was calling down fire from heaven. Elijah said, in effect, “The prayers that bring fire down are getting through to the real God. The other one is an impostor. May the true God win.” Then Elijah added, “You go first.”
The priests started praying and “called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us’” (1 Kings 18:26)! They chanted their mantra, “O Baal, answer us,” over and over.
“But there was no voice, and no one answered” (18:26). How sad.
During the lunch break, “Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (18:27). So they prayed harder! Louder! More fervently! Hour after hour, they chanted, “O Baal, answer us.” Silence.
After a full day of this circus, it was time to get real. Elijah prepared his sacrifice and soaked it with water. Then simply and calmly, one time, he invited God Almighty to do His thing. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (18:38).
Just as God answered Elijah’s simple prayer, so He will also answer ours. Our prayers shouldn’t be an obnoxious echo, like a child who thinks he can wear down a parent through incessant repetition. Lose that. I wonder what our prayers sound like in heaven when they go on and on. The issue isn’t that we can only mention something to God one time. We can talk to God as often as something is on our hearts and minds. But the issue is our thinking that incessant repetition will force God’s hand or earn His favor.
No, when we need something, we should come straight to our heavenly Father and tell Him what we need, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Our prayers don’t inform God. Never does God hear a prayer and then blurt out, “Oh, now I get it.” We don’t unburden our hearts before God for His sake, so He can understand. It’s for our sake—because we need to tell Him, because prayer exercises our faith in Him, and because prayer aligns our agenda with His.
So when you feel a burden, simply pray—and pray simply.
Abba Father, my eloquent words don’t impress You. Forgive me for heaping up empty words, phrases, and fillers. Teach me to pray simply, and when I have a burden, to simply pray. You already know what I need, but prayer changes me. Thank You that of all my relationships in life, my relationship with You is the one where I am completely known and loved, and I can come straight to you, as a beloved child to his/her Father, and simply tell You what I need. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.