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.