“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” Matthew 6:7
The word vain means “empty” or “useless”; Jesus is warning that repeating worthless phrases in our prayers will not help them be heard by God. God is not concerned with word count, flowery expressions, or mantras.
“Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.” Psalm 51:6
“Use not vain repetitions” is the King James translation of Matthew 6:7. Other translations say, “Do not use meaningless repetition” (NASB), “Do not heap up empty phrases” (ESV), or “Do not keep on babbling” (NIV). As Jesus points out, the use of repetitious words or formulaic phrases is a “heathen” or “pagan” practice and should not be part of Christian prayer. Our prayers should be more like the short, simple prayer of Elijah on Mt. Carmel and less like the prolonged, repetitious prayers of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:25–39).
When we are praying, we are talking with God and worshiping Him. It is like a conversation, from the heart. Many religions—including some branches of Christianity—have rote prayers that they advise repeating over and over again. Some churches go so far as to require their members to recite a certain prayer a specific number of times in order to be absolved of sin. This is a throwback to paganism and superstition; such formulaic prayers are “vain repetitions” that have no place in the church. Jesus has already atoned for our sins once and for all (Hebrews 10:10), and we can approach the throne of grace boldly on the merit of Christ’s sacrifice (Hebrews 4:15–16), not because of our “many words” (Matthew 6:7).
It’s easy to be caught up in vain repetitions, repeating the same words in our prayers instead of thinking about our words or letting them come from the heart. We should be focused on God in prayer and honor Him in our hearts.
“Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:” Isaiah 29:13
Jesus’ warning against vain repetitions means we should avoid vain or meaningless words and repetition in our prayers. Repeating things fills up time, but it does not prove our devotion or better our chances of God’s hearing us. We should teach our children at an early age to pray in a natural, conversational manner, with reverence for the One they are addressing.
Being persistent in prayer is not the same as using vain repetitions. To be persistent is not to ask for the same thing over and over, to do so, is to NOT pray in faith (Luke 18:1). Prayer should be from the heart, spontaneous, and honoring to God, not the repeating of words written by someone else.
The Bible teaches us to pray in faith (James 1:6), in direct address to God (Matthew 6:9), and in Jesus’ name (John 14:13). We should offer our prayers with reverence and humility (Luke 18:13), with perseverance (Luke 18:1), and in submission to God’s will (Matthew 6:10). The Bible teaches us to avoid prayers that are hypocritical, designed to be heard only by men (Matthew 6:5), or rely on vain repetitions (Matthew 6:7).