If the Lord hears our prayers, why do we find it necessary to pray for the same things over and over and over again, Pastor John? Is it not enough just to pray once? Why do we pray repetitively for the same things?
Well, there is an obedience aspect to repeated prayer. Let’s start there, because Jesus gave at least two parables in which the point of the parable was “keep on knocking.” He tells the parable in which the widow repeatedly pleading, “Give me vindication, give me vindication,” wore the judge out, and so he yielded and gave her vindication. And then he said if that evil judge is willing to yield, you know your God in heaven is going to yield.
And yet the point, I think, is that the chapter begins, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). So clearly, “Vindicate us,” “Hallowed be your name,” “Bring your kingdom,” or “Save my lost loved one,” should be repeated.
Vain Repetition and Meaningful Repetition
Now that does raise the question: What is the difference between the repeated requests of Luke 11:5-8 and Luke 18:1-8 and the vain repetitions of Matthew 6:7 where it says “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
And I think the difference in Matthew 6 is that “the Gentiles” draw out long prayers in the hopes that multiplied clauses and sentences will somehow make their prayers more appealing to God. God is opposed to this. God loves the simple, “Father, please, have mercy. Heal Joe.” We don't need to say it ten different ways to make it sound good for the prayer meeting.
The question is: How do you keep that from becoming vain and meaningless day in and day out? Here is the way I have done it. I have some things that I pray for repeatedly. I have some people that I care about who are not spiritually where they ought to be, and I name them before God every single day. Here are two things that I do that I think keep it from being empty repetition.
Avoiding Empty Repetition
1) I try to mingle into my prayer the kinds of things I am seeing about God and learning from God in my personal devotions, so that the way I see God because of what I saw in his Word fills out the longings that I have for those loved ones. So the words I use and the ways I express myself are adjusted daily by the kinds of things I am seeing in the Scriptures. That is number one.
"Don’t pray generically for each day. Ask for God’s grace for each day’s unique challenges, tasks, and trials."
2) This is really significant, I think. Suppose your wife has cancer. She has had it for a month and now you are praying every day, “God, please, don’t take my wife. Don’t take my wife. I need her. The children need her. Glorify your name. . . .”
Now that is going to be a simple prayer for healing every single day. Not a lot of different ways to say it, right? But here is what you can say, and it has made a big difference for me. You can say, “Lord, today is Friday. Would you do Friday’s unique work for my wife? Do Friday’s work. Do the work appointed for today. Do the healing work, the sustaining work, the faith-giving work that turns all this for your glory today,” so that you don't speak generically every day, “Heal.” You speak specifically for that day’s unique challenges and that day’s unique work.