What Are “Vain Repetitions,” and Why Should We Avoid Them?

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior gave the following counsel about prayer:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him (Matthew 6:7-8, 3 Nephi 13:7-8).

The word that is translated “vain repetitions” in the Greek New Testament is battalogēsēte (βατταλογήσητε), which means to utter empty words or to be long-winded. The term has been translated into English in a number of different ways:

  • “Don’t babble on and on” – New Living Translation
  • “Do not heap up empty phrases” – English Standard Version
  • “Do not use meaningless repetition” – New American Standard Bible
  • “Don’t ramble” – God’s Word Translation

My favorite rendering is the Contemporary English Version, which reads: “When you pray, don’t talk on and on as people do who don’t know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers.”
(See biblehub.com, Matthew 6:7.)

In support of this guidance, the Savior reminds us that our Heavenly Father knows everything. When we pray, we aren’t revealing anything to Him. There’s no need to explain our requests in detail. We need not fear that He will misunderstand our requests. Why then do we pray? As an act of faith.

The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them (“Prayer,” Bible Dictionary).

Immediately after telling us to avoid vain repetitions, Jesus gave us an example of an effective prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is concise and to the point. Nothing is repeated. Every request is made, and then the prayer is over.

If my experiences talking with other people are any indication, my prayers will be more effective if I take a moment to think about what I’m going to say before I begin. I suppose that my personal prayers sometimes “ramble,” not because I’m trying to impress God with my “much speaking” but simply because I haven’t made the effort to organize my thoughts. I appreciate President Eyring’s reminder that we shouldn’t take lightly the privilege of approaching “the throne of God:”

God is close, and He loves you, and He’d love to have a conversation, but remember: He is God….
I always worry when someone’s speaking to Him in too familiar a way….
God is real,… and when I approach Him in prayer, I’m approaching a throne. And the way you do that is different than if you just say, “I’d like a chat; I want a conversation.” It’s approaching a throne, for me at least, when I’m doing it right (“Face to Face with President Eyring and Elder Holland,” March 4, 2017, 38:07-38:25, 46:18-46:44).

Today, I will avoid “vain repetitions” by preparing before I pray. As I approach the throne of God in my personal prayers and in my family prayers, I will take a moment to organize my thoughts, to plan what I will say, so that my requests are clear, precise, and wise.

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2 Responses to What Are “Vain Repetitions,” and Why Should We Avoid Them?

  1. Aaron Roome Gmail says:

    Couldn’t agree more Paul! I find that when I pray for specific individuals and families, I have to not only organize my thoughts but also seek the Lord’s guidance on who I should pray about…otherwise the prayer is either too long for my available time or too superficial. The more I approach prayer with a specific purpose and seek the things He would have me request, the easier it is to avoid vain repetitions. Thanks for the post!

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    • Paul Anderson says:

      Thank you for the comment. I like your characterization: we want to use the time we spend in prayer wisely, and we want to be sincere, not superficial. I am finding that a little mental preparation helps me to approach prayer with more intentionality and to take the experience more seriously.

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