Jesus instructed His disciples, "when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" (Matthew 6:5-7)
All religions teach the need for people to pray, and prayer is commonly understood as talking to or communing with whichever God that religion believes in. Among Christians some believe we pray to our Savior, Jesus Christ, some say we pray to our Father in heaven, and others who believe in the Trinity, simple pray to "God" with the understanding that they are praying to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost all at the same time.
Some faiths have set prayers which they offer by reading from a prayer book. In many faiths prayers are offered by a priest or minister who writes out ahead of time what they wish to say to insure that the prayer they give is eloquent and beautiful since it is being addressed to a magnificent and powerful King. Other faiths simply speak from the heart by saying whatever comes to mind at the time they pray.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that "prayer is the soul's sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed" (hymn 145) and is the form of communication that takes place between a heavenly Father and His earthly children. Although there are no set words to say nor do the words have to be extraordinary, there is a general format that should be used. To those in the LDS Church, these are known as the five steps of prayer.
The first step is to address the Person we are speaking to. As such an LDS prayer begins by addressing our Father in heaven. The second step is to thank Him for the many blessings He has given us, specifically mentioning what those gifts are. The third step is to ask for blessings in behalf of others, especially those in need. This could include such people as those who are sick, in the hospital, or who are experiencing problems in their life. It also includes asking for blessings upon members of our own family and friends for health, protection, guidance, and other needs they may have. The fourth step is to offer our requests, petitions, and pleas for the things we need or want which may include such things as health, protection, and guidance. The fifth step is to close the prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Thus, we pray to our Father in heaven through His Son, Jesus Christ.
There are two kinds of prayers - public and private. A public prayer is one that is said in front of a group of people where one person is the spokesman uttering the prayer for and in behalf of the entire group. At the end of the prayer those in the group say "Amen" to signify that they agree with what has been said. In this way whatever the speaker has said becomes the very words that those in the group would have said themselves.
Jesus instructed His disciples not to pray as some do "standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the street, that they may be seen of men." There are some who interpret this to mean that we should not have any kind of public prayers such as those offered when eating out in a restaurant or even those given in church, since that is a public setting. However, what Jesus condemned was people who pray to show off their righteousness in front of others so they can be "seen of men." This was what many of the Pharisees did in the days of Jesus.
This then raises two questions in some people's mind. When sitting in a restaurant, is it showing off to bow one's head to say grace before eating a meal or should a person bless the food they are about to eat so that others can see their good works and glorify God (Matthew 5:16)? The second question some people have is, when someone offers up a written eloquent prayer before a group of people, is he trying to glorify himself by showing what a wonderful prayer he is capable of delivering or is he glorifying God by offering up a beautifully worded prayer?
The answer to both of these questions is the same. Prayer is simply talking with God for the purpose of expressing our thoughts and feelings to Him. If we are in a restaurant and it is our desire to give thanks for the food we have because of God's bountiful goodness to us and we're not ashamed who sees us, then that is a true prayer. But those who say a prayer in a public setting with the intent of drawing attention to themselves then such a prayer is not for the purpose of communing with God.
If we have the talent to offer a prayer with an eloquence that truly expresses to God how we feel about Him then such a prayer is indeed beautiful but if we deliver a prayer to impress those who hear it, then such a prayer is meant to glorify the giver of the prayer rather than the recipient of it.
A private prayer is one where an individual is speaking to God but only for themselves. These are often the most intimate and heartfelt expressions of the person giving the prayer because there is no one around to impress. But that is not always the case.
Members of the LDS Church are counseled to have personal prayers both in the morning before they begin their day and then again at the end of the day before they retire to bed. They are also counseled to have both morning and evening prayers with their families and those who have small children use this time to teach them how to pray.
Jesus instructed His disciples "when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking." Even though this is what Jesus taught, yet many Christians say prayers that use vain repetitions and think that God is please with them for their much speaking.
It is common in many faiths to have children pray before going to bed by saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen." At mealtime many children have been taught to pray, "God is great and God is good. Thank you Lord for this food. Amen." Even among adults it is quite common to hear people recite the Lord's prayer as though saying that alone is all that's needed to please God.
Often times, these kinds of prayers are said by memory without giving much thought to what is actually being said and, especially with children, who don't fully understand what the words really mean. After years of saying these kinds of prayers by rote, very often when children grow up they still have no real understanding of what they are saying.
Most members of the LDS Church understand this principle and they teach their children how to pray by helping them to think about what they want to say. Even so, children still have a tendency to say the same thing in every prayer simply because they don't know what else to say. To overcome this problem most LDS parents work with their children to help them to widen the list of things they pray about.
But, despite teaching their children this principle, many parents find themselves falling into the same pattern themselves. In each of their personal prayers they often find themselves using the same phrases, being thankful for the same blessings, asking for the same help for the same people, and requesting the same divine assistance. Within a short period of time the prayer they give each morning and the prayer they give each night soon becomes as routine as saying "Now I lay me down to sleep." The prayer becomes so automatic that they can say it while being half asleep without given any thought to it.
People have described this situation as their prayers ascending no farther than the ceiling. In other words, they feel as though their prayers are not a real conversation with God but are more of a ritual or a duty they are performing and it is common for them to wonder if they are engaging in "vain repetition."
First of all, it should be kept in mind that saying one's prayers every day, even if they are filled with meaningless and vain repetition, is certainly better than not praying at all. However, there is a reason why we pray so if we want our prayers to truly be effective and serve a purpose then we have to learn why we pray and how to make them be better.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instructs its people to pray from the heart. That means, it doesn't matter if a person's words are eloquent or not, or whether the prayer is short or long, what matters is if the person saying the prayer is truly sincere in what they are saying. A child can say a prayer using the simplest of words with incorrect grammar and not follow the five step formula but if they truly mean what they say then they are giving a true prayer.
And the same applies to adults. The reason why adults tend to repeat themselves with each prayer is because our lives are routine and the things we do one day is no different from all the other days of our life. We get up each morning, go to work, do the same job, come home, take time with the children, do family chores, attend to church callings, and go to sleep at the end of the day. Since our prayers tend to reflect what is going on in our life and if our life is the same from day to day then it is only natural that our prayers will likewise be the same because our needs and concerns remain the same.
The prayers of nearly all parents always include blessings upon their children and on other family members. We ask for blessings upon those who are sick and those who are facing problems in their life. We ask for blessing upon our church leaders, upon the missionaries and upon those who are searching for the truth. We give thanks for our health, our material blessings, the freedoms we enjoy and many other things that are common to all people.
If we follow the advice of the Church, we find ourselves officially praying four times a day - our personal morning and evening prayers and our family morning and evening prayers. Although there are many things to pray about, we can go through our list of needs and wants fairly quickly. And if we are trying to think of something new to say in each prayer so they don't sound repetitive, then what happens when we can't think of anything new to pray about?
But suppose we rotate through the things we want to say? For example, what if, in our first prayer of the week we ask for a blessing upon our country in general, in the next prayer we don't pray for our country at all because we did that in our last prayer, then the next prayer we pray for the leader's of our country (which is different from praying for the country at large), the next prayer we don't mention our country and then the next prayer we're back to praying for our country in general again.
In this way it could be said that our prayers are not always the same but some might argue that this method is similar to reading a different prayer each day from a prayer book and if that is the case, then it might be asked: Is this an example of "vain repetition" except on a more advanced and intricate level?
To complicate matter, there is also the question of the intensity of our prayers. There is a saying that goes, "Don't expect to get a thousand dollar answer from a ten cent prayer." The difference between a ten cent and a thousand dollar prayer is the passion of our sincerity. The idea behind this concept is that God will answer our prayers according to the intensity of what we ask for. The less fervent our prayers are the less marvelous are the blessings we receive from Him. On the other hand, the greater the intensity of the feelings behind the words we express to God the more powerful our prayers become and the greater blessings we receive from Him.
Without getting into the validity of this statement, when we pray four times a day, every day, asking for the same things we always ask for it is not easy to express our words with great passion each and every time. For this reason, in most cases, our prayers are said rather mechanically and without much feeling. For example, we generally eat three meals every day and we take our prosperity for granted. Therefore, when we give thanks for the good food we have that is a result of us making enough money to afford it, it's hard to pray with the same feeling of profound appreciation that a starving person would have when they sit down to eat. Then does God honor such a prayer or does He somehow bless us less because of our lack of zeal?
The answer is yes and no. Like all parents, God answers our prayers according to how important our requests are to us. The more important they are the more fervently we express our desires. This is not something we consciously do. It just happens automatically. For example, when we wake up in the morning and ask God to bless us with health when we are already healthy, our words can sound rather bland and, in fact, God doesn't have to do much in order to bless us with health.
But suppose when we go to say our evening prayers one of our children is in bed with a high temperature and is feeling extremely sick. In such a situation, our request for God to bless that child with health automatically is said with greater intensity and sincerity. And because there is a greater need for a blessing, it is the sincerity of our prayers that God responds to.
We can better understand this principle by looking how we ourselves respond to a request. A parent provides food at the dinner table for their family even without them asking to be fed because the parent already knows the needs of their family for nourishment. If a child wants another helping of food they don't have to beg and plead with great passion before the parent decides to honor their request.
On the other hand, suppose the child wants some ice cream after dinner and the parent is not particularly inclined to honor that request. If it is something the child really wants, they will begin to beg and plead and implore their parent to please let them have some ice cream. Unless the parent has a good reason for denying this treat, the constant pleading of the child will soften the heart of most parents and they will give into their child's request.
Our Father in heaven is no different a parent. He provides for many of our needs even when we don't ask for them and when we do ask, He is often inclined to grant our supplication without our becoming passionate about our request. Of course, that doesn't mean we should take God's blessings for granted therefore, while it may not be necessary for us to offer our requests with great fervor, it should nonetheless be said with true sincerity. This is what could be considered a ten cent prayer. On the other hand, a prayer that is said with no sincerity at all but is merely mouthing words without any thought could be considered a prayer that is worth nothing.
Yet, when there is a strong need for a blessing from God, those feelings will be reflected in how we express our desire to Him and, like any good parent, God will be sympathetic to such heartfelt pleas and will be moved with compassion to answer them.
But there is another reason why we pray so often, even when our words are not filled with passion.
As stated before, prayer is the act of communicating or talking with our Father who lives in heaven. When we lived in heaven we talked with Him as normally and as naturally as children speak to their parents at home. But now we are away from Him and, like any parent whose children are away from home, He longs to hear from us. In that sense, prayer is like a long distant call home from a student away at college and, in most cases, those calls mean a lot more to the parent than they do to the child.
For this reason, true prayer consists of accomplishing three things. The first is that when we talk with our Father in heaven, even when it's about simple and mundane things, we are building a relationship with Him. Most parents know how a teenage child can seem so distant when they don't want to share what is going on in their life. Because of their concern for the well being of their children a parent will ask their child, "How was your day at school?" And often the parent receives a one word answer, "Okay," which is said with no enthusiasm, as though the child feels put out to have to answer the question. The parent may then ask, "What did you learn in school today?" to which the child will respond in the same bored voice, "Nothing."
To a parent, such answers can be frustrating because they want to be part of their child's life and to let their child know of their concern and love for them. When a parent has to nearly drag an answer out of their child they will still love them but they don't feel close to them and, worst of all, they feel like their child doesn't want to be close to them. This is how our Father in heaven must feel when we either don't pray to Him or our prayers are said without sincerity. When that happens, we distance ourselves from Him and He becomes a stranger to us. So the first and foremost reason for praying is to draw close to God and build a relationship with Him.
The second thing that prayer is meant to accomplish is to show our gratitude to God for what He has done for us. The scriptures tell us, "And in nothing doeth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled save those who confess not his hand in all things and obey not his commandments" (D&C 59:21). Imagine a child away at college who never calls home except when they want money and then never thanks his parents when they do provide the requested funds.
While we may thank God in every prayer for the same blessing - health, safety, family, country, church, etc. - we are not just showing our gratitude but are letting God know that we are aware of what He has done for us and that we are not taking His blessings for granted. For this reason it is wise to be specific when mentioning the things He has done for us rather than saying, "I thank thee for all the many blessings thou hast given me." That not only sounds insincere but it also comes across as a meaningless phrase.
The third reason we pray is for our concern and love of others. As all Christians know, the greatest of all commandments is to love God but the second and nearly as important commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about showing love to others, including God, through compassion and service. This is what Jesus Himself did when He offered Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus taught, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6:14,15). This same principle applies to blessings. If we want to receive blessings from the Lord then we must first seek to bless others. When we spend most of our prayer sincerely asking God to bless others and then showing the sincerity of that prayer by striving to help others then we are entitled to have God bless us when we pray for our own needs.
The Lord has said that we should not use vain repetition. One of the definitions of the word "vain" is "lacking substance or worth; being hollow." When we repeat the same words without sincerity, they are hollow and have no substance to them but it is not vain repetition if , when we repeat the same words and phrases in every prayer, we really mean what we are saying. When we ask God to bless others without having a genuine feeling of concern and love for those we are praying for then our words are hollow. But when our requests for help in behalf of others are honest and heartfelt and it is demonstrated by our willingness to actually help others then we become more like Christ in our attitude and in our behavior.
If these are the reasons why we prayer then, when we find ourselves in a situation where we are the ones needing a ten thousand dollar blessing, God will be more inclined to hear and answer our prayers if we have already established a close relationship with Him, have shown Him how grateful we are for the things He has already blessed us with, and have demonstrated that we care about others as much as or even more than we care about ourselves.
If these are not the reasons why we pray then we are praying in vain.
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