Repeating a prayer can take you to a new place of concentration, trust and conviction.
Among my most frequent prayers is the “Kyrie,” or “Kyrie Eléison”: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.” Sometimes, I will pray “Lord, have mercy,” repeatedly for a particular person or situation.
I also pray the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”) at least once a day, sometimes more. My evening prayers often include other “set” prayers.
For example, I have prayed the general confession (“Lord God Almighty, I confess that I have sinned against you,” etc.) and Nunc Dimittis (“Lord, now you let your servant go in peace,” etc.) hundreds of times.
And on at least one occasion, I prayed, “My help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth,” repeatedly, lying face down on the floor, for about a half hour (it was a tough time).
Some people might frown upon such prayers, particularly in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:7 (NKJV): “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
When Jesus said those words in his “Sermon on the Mount,” He described two ways not to pray before giving His followers a model prayer (“The Lord’s Prayer”).
He said not to show off in prayer, like the Pharisees of His day, and not to use “vain repetitions,” like “the heathen.” It was probably a reference to prayers offered in pagan temples, but I happen to think it was also intended to mirror Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal in ancient Israel.
That’s when the pagan prophets “called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, ‘O Baal, hear us!’ But there was no voice; no one answered. Then they leaped about the altar which they had made …. And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:26, 29, NKJV).
They thought an answer would be more likely if they spoke long and loud enough, but their “repetitions” were in vain.
Jesus said, “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8, NKJV). And then He told them to pray simply and straightforwardly, “Our Father,” etc.
The difference between “vain repetitions” and–let’s call them–“good refrains” in prayer has little, if anything, to do with how often a word or phrase is spoken but rather the faith and purpose that drives the prayer.
Jesus said your Father knows your needs before you pray, so it is vain to repeat yourself in order to get His attention or twist His arm.
But if repeating a word or phrase helps you to focus your thoughts or even awaken your faith, it may be a helpful practice.
If repeating a prayer helps you to say things from the heart you couldn’t otherwise express with your mind (or tongue), it can be immensely beneficial.
And, as happened on that occasion when I repeated the biblical phrase face down on the floor for 30 minutes, if repeating a prayer takes you to a new place of concentration, trust or conviction, it can actually be a turning point in your relationship with God.
I’m sure there are times when I have engaged in “vain repetitions,” when I thought my words were impressing God or when my mind and heart disengaged from my tongue, but more often I have found help, comfort, structure, expression and focus in repeating prayers—not vainly, but purposefully.