Use Not Vain Repetitions

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In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior said, “But when ye pray, use not vain  repetitions, as the  heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matt. 6: 7).

This is a verse that was much discussed back in my seminary days. Maybe I am just remembering wrong but I remember the general consensus was that this meant saying the same things over and over in prayers and maybe without sincere intent. While I think this is a valid view of what the Savior meant, I believe it is not entirely correct.

So what are vain repetitions? If it is not saying and asking for the same things all the time in prayers, what are vain repetitions?

Elder Oaks provided one explanation:

“Literary excellence is not our desire. We do not advocate flowery and wordy prayers. We wish to follow the Savior’s teaching, ‘When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking’ (Matt. 6:7; see also 3 Ne. 13:7). Our prayers should be simple, direct, and sincere.

“We are especially anxious that our position on special language in prayers not cause some to be reluctant to pray in our Church meetings or in other settings where their prayers are heard. We have particular concern for converts and others who have not yet had experience in using these words.

“I am sure that our Heavenly Father, who loves all of His children, hears and answers all prayers, however phrased. If He is offended in connection with prayers, it is likely to be by their absence, not their wording.” (New Era, Jan. 2006).

Elder Oaks equated vain repetitions in prayer as the opposite of “simple, direct, and sincere.” In other words, saying prayers that feed our vanity. These are prayers that we give in order to impress other people with the ‘power’ and ‘beauty’ of our prayers. They are prayers where our reward is the accolades of other people rather than the Spirit of God. The other part of Elder Oaks’ explanation of vain repetitions was insincerity. I will return to this topic later.

When people do things to be seen and recognized by other people, especially in prayer, they are exhibiting their pride.

We read in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (Ecc. 1:2). Such is the vanity of those who pray pridefully.

There is another type of vanity. This is what we are commanded not to do – e.g., we “should not take the name of the Lord [our] God in vain” (2 Ne. 26:32). This vanity is two-fold. On one hand it means with disrespect but on the other hand it means without reward or power or result. If the Lord’s name is used in vain, it could be ‘swearing’ or it could be an attempt at an unauthorized use of His name (e.g., trying to perform priesthood ordinances without priesthood authority). This type of vanity goes well beyond pride or lack of sincerity but is a part of my final point on this topic. Now I want to return to sincerity in order to transition to my final point.

King Claudius, the villain of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, at one point retires to a chapel to pray. He offers what sounds like a repentant prayer, or at least the struggling towards one.

O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect….
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well.

It sounds like he is trying to repent but the king soon reveals his lack of sincerity.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go (Hamlet, Act III, Scene III).

Again, the king was honest enough to recognize his lack of sincerity but his prayer was in vain. He was not sincere. His repentance was in vain.

Now my final point is this: what the Lord means is to not keep asking for things that are vain. Vain meaning prideful but vain meaning it won’t happen. This could be because what we are asking for is impossible, even for God (at least not possible without destroying His plan for us). Our prayers might be vain when we ask without sincerity like Hamlet’s uncle / step-father. Our prayers might be vain when we keep asking God for something about which He already told us “no.” These types of prayers could go like this, “Please give me one million dollars so I can buy a ski boat.” Then this prayer is repeated over and over. That might seem laughable but it only differs in degrees from the vain repetitions found in prayers we sometimes offer.

I’m not talking about repetitious prayers. There are things that we need to offer our thanks for regularly and things for which we should ask regularly. In the church we have a set, ritualistic sacrament prayer. The Lord didn’t preach against repetitious prayers, He spoke against vain repetitions. There are times when we are asked to ‘weary’ (i.e., always to pray and not faint) the Lord in prayer (see the parable of the unjust judge [or, persistent widow] in Luke 18:1-8).

Prayer is about communicating with our Heavenly Father. As we read accounts of Jesus’ prayers, we see the great intensity and sincerity and faith that He had in His supplications. Jesus gave simple but powerful prayers. Our prayers should emulate His prayers.

Vain repetitions in prayers could mean a number of things. I think the key though is that vain prayers are ones done without the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. They are ones devoid of intent. They might be edifices to our pride, to be gazed upon in wonder by humankind, but these types of prayers are not real prayers; we have our reward and what an effervescent reward it is! It is only in the sincere, honest, inspired prayers that we can better know God and in turn, know His will for us.

Why Cannot All Enter LDS Temples?

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While reading an article online about Mormons in the political sphere, one comment by some random person caught my eye (okay, a number did but there’s only one I will address). The commenter was bitter towards the LDS Church because people who are not members of the church and church members who do not have current temple recommends cannot attend marriages performed in the temple. I’ll quote the statement (Source – see comments): “No other religious group excludes family and friends from a wedding because they are not ‘worthy’ or members of the group as do the Mormons if the couple is wed in the temple. I always thought church buildings were God’s house and all were welcome there.”

I’ll not address the logical fallacy of appeal to the majority (“no other religious group”). Overall, this person’s statement represents a rather stark misunderstanding of temples (including in Biblical times). The statement also expresses misunderstanding about who is welcome where and for what reasons.

I’ll start with a scripture not directly about a physical temple but one that demonstrates something important about temples: “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” (1 Corinthians 3:17). Clearly, a temple can be defiled (again, I know Paul is talking about our bodies being temples but this also applies to temples that are built). Temples are meant to be holy so unholy (not sanctified or set apart or dedicated) things can defile them. In other words, unholy people can defile temples. God does not want just anyone to enter His house. He calls to all, but not all listen to and heed His words.

When Christ was on the earth, He cast out moneychangers and other people doing sinful things in the temple: “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matt. 21:12-13). Again, clearly there were people who were not welcome in the temple. Jesus “cast out all [of] them.” Could they have come back if they had ceased their wickedness? Sure, but that’s exactly what modern LDS temples are like – we welcome everyone who is willing to meet the requirements to attend.

Further, we know from the scriptures that God dwells in (or at least has one to sit in) a temple in heaven: “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” (Isaiah 6:1). Not everyone will be invited into this heavenly temple: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21). Again, there seem to be conditions on going to Heaven, namely, doing the will of God. So do all indiscriminately go to Heaven? To say so is a misunderstanding of the scriptures. If God imposes limits on who goes to Heaven, why would He not impose limits on who can enter a temple on earth?

If we go back further in time to the Tabernacle of Moses and the Israelites, only certain people were allowed to touch the Tabernacle and go into parts of it. This was the case with the temple of Solomon (in all its forms over the years). Women were not allowed into some areas of the temple and only a high priest could go into the Holy of Holies. Clearly, there have been longstanding restrictions on who could enter temples.

I want to wrap up my brief post by responding to one thing this particular poster said: “I always thought church buildings were God’s house and all were welcome there.” First, in all LDS church buildings (chapels) all visitors are welcome. Temples are not church buildings in the general sense; they are owned by the LDS church but are not where we attend church services. Second, I’m glad this commenter recognizes that LDS church buildings are in fact “God’s house {sic}.” I agree (although, saying the temples are God’s houses is more accurate). But in the end, temples are open to all; people just have to be willing to meet the worthiness standards set by God in order to enter them.