“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 KJV).
It has come to my attention that this is an all too common attack on the Liturgical churches of the Orthodox, Catholic, and high church Protestants. The liturgy, it is often argued, is a set of vain and empty phrases which do nothing to penetrate the heart. The idea being that this is not true worship, but rather, it falls into our Lords statement to the Pharisees:
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips,but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,’” (Mark 7:6–7 ESV).
An example of this might be the refrains of “Lord have mercy” or the Confession and Absolution in Lutheran Churches or the Jesus prayer in the Orthodox churches. Because, many have come to the conviction that prayer must be active, spontaneous, and emotion driven or else it is not sincere. There is, sadly, a cult of emotionalism in many, not all, evangelical circles. It is true that many can get swept up in the monotony of acting out traditions. It is also true that the emotional highs of many pop evangelical churches can elicit the same empty recitation of lines and phrases week in and week out. Daily or weekly Bible studies, going to church and worship all have the danger of becoming empty habits. However, this can not and must not stop us from doing those things. Rather, it should cause us to fall before the feet of Christ in humble repentance saying “Help my hardness of heart Oh dearest Lord.”.
One of the first things I think is prudent to address is that realistically praise songs are prayers set to music. Which is what has left me baffled by the Pharisee like claims of vain repetition in liturgies because so many of today’s contemporary worship songs lack depth and are replete with repetition resulting in repeated prayers that lack full worship for some. I am left perplexed as to why “Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes yes Lord Amen.” or a set of “Our God will never leave us” ad infinitum is outside the scope of vain recitation.
At the moment I do not wish to insist that the liturgy is deeper and far more significant than contemporary worship. Rather, I desire that this article be a catalyst for thought and dialogue among people from various traditions. Especially since the context of the Matthew 6 verse is about saying the same thing over and over again thinking that one is more likely to be heard. So, it is the reasoning that says “IF I pray three times a day every day in long and elaborate words than God will care about my problem.” Jesus is saying NO! God hears you every time you pray trust him do not think you need to heap up words for your prayer to be heard like it is a magic incantation.
In fact, it is right after the statement from Matthew 6:7 that Our Lord teaches his disciples how to pray and provides them with the Lord’s prayer. My point being that the liturgy is not inherently vain repetition I experience a liturgical service nearly everyday and each time I am amazed by the scripture, and depth of the hymns and praise Our Lord all the more. So, if there is one major take away, I desire you get from this it is be careful to avoid being the Pharisee who claims to read hearts and be better than others. Because in that parable, it is the repentant tax collector who walks away justified before God.
(see Luke 18:9–14)
And may the peace of Christ be with you always.