Vain Repetition

Whenever you pray, say, Our Father (610x351)This lesson is born from a concern about “vain repetition” in our worship liturgy. In our Divine Services on Sunday, we rotate settings of the Liturgy based on the season. However, during our midweek Advent and Lenten services, we have used the exact same service, Evening Prayer, for the last few years. Thus, are we guilty of “vain repetition”? To find out, we look at what is “repetition” and what is “vain.”



First, we must ask, “Is repetition itself something bad during worship?” In the Old Covenant, the people of Israel used psalms as part of their participatory worship: the priest would chant part of a psalm and the people would respond with the next part of the psalm. This practice carried over into New-Covenant worship with its various “responsories,” including psalms.

Read Psalm 136

  • Is a phrase repeated many times in this psalm?


  • Since this is part of Scripture, what does that reveal about use of repetition during worship?


Matthew 26:39, 42, 44:

[Jesus was praying to His Father at Gethsemane before His crucifixion:] “O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” … He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, let your will be done.” … After leaving them [His disciples] again, he went away and prayed again for the third time, saying the same thing.

Mark 14:39: [Jesus praying at Gethsemane:] Again, he went away and prayed, saying the same words.

  • Was Jesus “guilty” of repetition in His prayers?


Luke 11:2: [Jesus giving the Lord’s Prayer to His disciples in Luke’s Gospel:] “Whenever you pray, say: “Our Father …”

  • Did Jesus command His disciples to use repetition in their prayers?


Worship in heaven

After this, I [the Apostle John] looked and saw a door standing open in heaven [and saw many things, including worship in heaven]…. The four living creatures had six wings and were covered eyes, inside and out. Without stopping day or night they were saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” [Revelation 4:1, 8]

  • Does repetition take place in heaven, where the saints and angels worship God?


So we learn from Jesus and Scripture that repetition is not only NOT bad but can even be something good during worship. So, this truth forces us to understand when it is that repetition becomes “vain.”


When repetition becomes “vain”

The expression, “vain repetition,” comes to us from the King James Version of the Bible. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was teaching His disciples before He gave them the Lord’s Prayer. Before that, He said, tearing down the idea of doing things to gain earthly recognition from others:

“But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is done in private will reward you. When you pray, don’t babble [“use vain repetitions,” KJV] like the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” [Matthew 6:6-8]

  • Contrasting Jewish prayers that had repetition against Gentile prayers that also had repetition, what was taking place in the Gentile prayers that made their repetition “vain”?


  • What thinking or attitude was behind the “many words” in their prayers?


  • Can we commit “vain repetition” when we think God will answer a prayer better because we have more people praying for someone on many “prayer chains”?


  • Can someone become guilty of “vain repetition” when he prays the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus commanded His disciples to pray?


  • If such “vain repetition” were to take place, does the fault lie with the prayer that Jesus gave His disciples to pray and Jesus saying, “Whenever you pray, say,” or with us?


Making a show of prayers

Such a way of praying does not affect us that much in the Lutheran Church. For in our worship, we don’t have individuals stand up and pray “ex-corde” prayers, prayers that are impromptu and so considered by some “from the heart.” Yet, if that practice were part of our tradition, like it is a tradition in many Protestant churches, then Jesus’ word of censure would apply to us more directly.

While all the people were listening [to Jesus teach], he told his disciples: “Beware of the scribes! They like to walk around in long robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces, to have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They cheat widows out of their homes, and say long prayers just for show.” [Luke 20:45-47]

  • Can people become guilty of praying in a way “for show,” showing “how close they are to God” by how they pray?


  • Discuss: What’s the solution?