Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Should we pray with few words, or should we pray with many words? Solomon the wise tells us to pray with few words (Ecclesiastes 5:2–3). And Jesus himself teaches us to pray with few words (Matthew 6:7–8). But Paul tells us to pray without ever stopping (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And now Luke Barnes is confused. Luke writes in to ask: “Hello Pastor John. Jesus and Solomon warn us about using many words in prayer before God, however Paul commands us to pray without ceasing. How do these two truths work together?”

We talked about what it means to pray without ceasing back in Episode 933. Luke has a twist that he puts on the question that we didn’t talk about there. He’s asking, “How can praying without ceasing fit together with keeping our words few in the presence of God?”

“God is not hard of hearing, and he’s not reluctant to bless his children.”

Let me just say in passing that I think this kind of question if asked humbly and eagerly with the expectation that there is a good, God-honoring answer in Scripture is one of the most valuable, practical kinds of questions you can ask because when you try to answer a question like this, it reveals the measure or lack of measure of your understanding of the two verses you’re trying to fit together. It forces you to go deeper.

If you take each verse by itself and don’t think of the other, you may get some measure of insight, but when you take the two together, it forces you to ask questions and to dig deeper so that you realize what you had been seeing when you just looked at one of the verses was maybe only part of the picture. When it comes to understanding Scripture and going deep with God, I would encourage people in all humility and with high expectation in God’s wisdom and trustworthiness to ask these kinds of questions. How can this verse and that verse fit together? That’s been one of the consistent ways that I’ve tried to go deep with God over the years.

Luke mentions Ecclesiastes. I think he’s referring to Ecclesiastes 5:2–3 where it says, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.”

Some of us, when he said this, thought immediately not of Ecclesiastes but of Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:7–8 where he says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Then over against those texts, Luke wonders how they fit together with 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing,” which sounds like wow, that’s a lot of talking! Now, one of the ways to get insight into whether or not a perceived tension is in fact a contradiction is to try to think of an analogy, a related or similar kind of situation in which the tension, while similar, would not be a contradiction.

“Praying without ceasing doesn’t contradict being thoughtful. You can be both heartfelt and succinct.”

The one that I thought of goes like this. I might encourage you with something like this. Greet everyone you meet graciously. Never stop greeting strangers, but make sure your greetings are brief and genuine. The point there would be that ceaseless greetings mean keep on doing it. Don’t leave anybody out. Don’t get weary in it. Don’t cease to be a gracious, outgoing person. In that sense, you might think, “My, my, that’s a lot of words all day long. Greeting all those people.” Yet, I said let your greetings be brief and authentic.

Now, the biblical exhortation to come to God without ceasing in prayer and yet not to be wordy in your prayers, might that be a similar kind of situation and, therefore, not be a contradiction? I suppose it really does hang on how you understand, “Pray without ceasing.” If it means that every second of everyday, you are consciously speaking words to God, then the words would indeed have to be very, very, very, very many, and I argued in Episode 933 that “pray without ceasing” means at least these three things.

  1. Have a continual spirit of dependency on God.
  2. Pray repeatedly and often in every situation of need and thankfulness.
  3. Don’t ever come to the point where you give up and cease praying and say, “It’s not working. I’m quitting.” Don’t ever go there. I don’t think that meaning of “pray without ceasing” contradicts the other teachings that our words should be thoughtful and not empty, and to-the-point and succinct, and not unnecessarily drawn out.

Basically, I think what the warning against many words is doing is protecting us from thinking we can twist God’s arm by repetitions as though saying something five times would be more compelling than one heartfelt, authentic request that leaves the matter with him and moves forward in faith. God is not hard of hearing, and he’s not reluctant to bless his children.

Of course, that conclusion doesn’t say anything about how much time we spend in prayer because there are so many different things to bring to the Lord in prayer for ourselves, our families, our churches, our communities, our nation, our world missions. There are so many things to bring to the Lord that if we express our self with appropriate faith-filled brevity with each one, we’d still be praying a very long time and lingering in the presence of the Lord for, goodness, an hour or more.

Asking how the Bible fits together in all humility and trust helps us know and fellowship with God.

My conclusion: yes, continually go to the Lord. Let’s have a constant spirit of dependence on him. Let’s never grow weary in asking and seeking and knocking. But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that multiplying many words, multiplying phrases will get more out of God than to-the-point, faith-filled requests.

Amen. Or as Spurgeon so famously told a friend: “I always feel it well to put a few words of prayer between everything I do.”

I remember reading in his autobiography too that he said he treats prayer pretty business-like and seldom spends more than twenty minutes or so at a time in prayer, if I remember reading correctly.


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