Question: "What does it mean to use vain repetitions in prayer?"
Answer: Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “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). The word vain means “empty” or “useless”; so Jesus is warning us that repeating worthless phrases in our prayers will not help them be heard by God. Our Heavenly Father is not concerned with word count, flowery expressions, or mantras; He desires “truth in the inward being” (Psalm 51:6, ESV).
“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 (see 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 even 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. In Isaiah 29:13, God says, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
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. There is nothing wrong with praying for the same thing more than once (see 2 Corinthians 12:8). After all, Jesus taught us that we should “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). But it’s understood that our prayers are 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).