How should we pray?

In a recent survey of Baptist ministers now in their retirement worshipping in Anglican churches, I asked the question: ‘How well do you cope with the repetition of liturgical words and prayers each week?’ Interestingly for three quarters of respondents, it wasn’t an issue. To quote from some of the responses:

  • “As with anything else we do, Baptist or Anglican, it depends on the way in which head and heart are engaged in the words we pray or sing or read or hear in the sermon”.
  • “If it was just repetition that would be difficult. On the other hand, the set forms can create space for extemporaneous/creative input. Baptists can be even more tied to set formulae, without knowing it.”
  • “if worship is led with conviction, sensitivity and meaning, these are preferable to an individual’s ramblings”.

This in turn reminds me of Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask them” (Matt 6.7,8 NRSV). Or in the words of the GNB: “When you pray, do not use a lot of meaningless words, as the pagans do, who think that their gods will hear them because their prayers are long”.

The two words here found for pagan praying are fascinating. The first is from the Greek word battalogia – onomatopoeic in form, it is akin to the equally onomatopoeic English words ‘babbling’ or ‘blethering’, and has been defined by Dick France as “a noisy flow of sound without meaning” and suggests the idea of trying to ‘batter down’ God through prayer. The second word, polylogia, is similar in meaning, but with the emphasis on ‘many words’.

The commentators draw parallels with the pagan idea of ‘wearing down’ or ‘wearying’ the gods (the Latin expression was fatigare deos) through a torrent of prayers. In the Old Testament, for instance, we read of how the prophets of Baal called on the name of their god “from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us’” (1 Kings 18.26). In the New Testament Luke tells us that the Ephesian mob “for almost two hours… shouted in unison, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians’” (Acts 19.34). To the pagan way of thinking, the gods are reluctant to hear prayers unless the prayers are long, and that only when petitioners have proved themselves sincere by spending a good deal of time in confession, praise or prayer, will the gods begin to listen. However, as Frederick Dale Bruner perceptively noted:

This belief de-deifies God by making him a grudging Giver, and it dehumanizes persons by turning them into beasts of burden. Jesus attacks the ‘much’ conception of prayer as unworthy of both God and human beings. By ‘muchism’ God becomes a taskmaster and people monkeys.

But what does this have to do with prayer and in particular prayers in church, today? In this respect I find John Stott’s comments of interest:

Does it [our Lord’s condemnation] apply to liturgical forms of worship? Are Anglicans guilty of ‘battalogia’? Yes, no doubt some are, for the use of set forms does permit an approach to God with the lips while the heart is far from him. But then it is equally possible to use ‘empty phrases’ in extempore prayer and to lapse into religious jargon while the mind wanders. … What Jesus forbids his people is any kind of prayer with the mouth when the mind is not engaged.

The good news is that God is not a reluctant listener. He is to be likened to a father who loves to hear his children pray. But when they pray, their prayers need to be “brief, frequent, and intense” (Martin Luther). Whether it be a ‘set’ prayer or ‘extempore’ prayer is not the issue.  Or to quote from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase:

The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programmes and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.

2 comments

  1. I have for a long time felt there is too much ” wordiness”in church and generally in relating to God, and my leanings are increasingly towards more silence as in meditation and Quakerism. After all , there is nothing that God does not already know. But while I do spend time meditating as I am able in private and also with others in a WCCM group
    (World Community for Christian Meditation) twice monthly, I am stlll feel an allegiance to the church where I have worshipped for so long… and I am touched by some of the music and hymns .

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