Modern-day vain repetitions

Posted by Matthew Watkins on November 12, 2017

NOTE: This post is a bit different than most my posts. It’s kind of a two-in-one. The first section talks about a study tip I have found useful in gleaning meaning from the scriptures. The second part is how I applied that tip recently and how it helped me change the way I pray. Enjoy!

Those “pesky” parenthetical expressions in the Book of Mormon

You know that one person in your life that you avoid talking to? The one who never actually reaches the end of his/her sentence because he/she goes off on a million tangents? They’re the kind of people who might summarize the most iconic scene in Star Wars this way:

So Luke is battling it out and then Darth Vader cuts off his hand (which is ironic because it turns out that Darth Vader had the exact same thing happen in episode 2, so it’s kidn of like foreshadow but ity’s also kind of interesting that apparently you can use the force through a prosthetic, which doesn’t make sense since it’s supposeldy powered by midichlorines in your blood, but then again maybe it’s like how Dumbledore was such a powerful wizard that he could cast spells without speaking or waving his wand, and we see Darth Vader choke a guy over a video call earlier without raising his hand or anything) and Luke backs away onto this thing (which looks a lot like the antenna I visited for my radio merit badge but inverted) and he’s getting ready to jump down and says “I’ll never join you… you killed my father,” and then Darth Vader (remember back in episode 4 the emperor tells Darth Vader “We have a new enemey… the son of Anakin Skywalker?” That’s actually weird because Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker), and then he says (well actually he didn’t say this because the Norwegian bodybuilder that played Darth Vader actually had a really squeaky, high voice [you should totally listen to how he sounded on YouTube because it’s hilarious and they needed to dub over it with James Earl Jones] that Obi Wan was responsible for the death of Luke’s father, but Mark Hamill had been informed of the actual lines that would be dubbed in later so that’s why his reaction was so dramatic and everyone thought he was overacting) that “I (meaning Darth Vader) am your father.”

Yeah, we all know that guy. That guy who decorates his statement with so many tangents and backstories and commentary that when the sentence is finished, you forgot how it started. On certain subjects we are passionate about, maybe we even are “that guy.”

Unfortunately for us readers, the authors of the Book of Mormon were “that guy,” too. For example, in Alma 10:31, Mormon introduces us to the expert lawyer, Zeezrom, and is just about to tell us how Zeezrom tried to bribe Amulek to deny the existence of God. But you can tell that Mormon realizes at this point that we, the modern readers, will have no concept of the Nephite monetary system. And instead of adding a little note saying that Zeezrom offered Amulek the equivalent of what was probably worth months of celebrity pay, Mormon spends 20-odd verses describing Nephite coinage in great detail, outlining the way people got paid, the nature of lawyers, and how their economy differed from the ancient Jews, finally to return to the account of Zeezrom and his bribery.

The Scriptures, in general, are littered with these parenthetical expressions: stories within stories, explanations, and context in the middle of sentences, etc. But the Book of Mormon especially (probably because it’s hard to go back and add stuff you missed when you’re etching on metal). Reading the Book of Mormon is kind of like watching the movie Inception– if you don’t keep careful track of how many layers in you are, you’re likely to get lost.

Study tip: filter out the parenthetical expressions and chain verses together

One of the tricks I use to anchor myself to the overall message of a passage is to mentally cut out the parenthetical expressions or ask myself, “What does this verse have to do with the verse before? Or even two or three verses back? Or the beginning of the chapter? or the chapter before?” Here’s an example I ran across the other night that helped me see a verse we all know pretty well in a new light:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen, for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

3 Nephi 13:7

Pretty familiar, right? Part of the sermon on the mount repeated to the Nephites. Vain repetitions. Rote prayers. Don’t do it. Get it? Got it? Good. At this point, my mind usually checks that verse off the list, lesson learned. It’s out of my mind and I’m on to the next verse now:

Be not ye therefore like unto them, for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him.

Cool. A completely different thought: God knows everything and prayer is more for our benefit that God’s. Another mental check mark.

Boy, was I missing out. When I have read these two verses in the past, I have always looked at those two verses as being mostly independent of each other and expressing two distinct ideas. Almost like Christ was putting out some clickbait spiritual listicle: “14 Surefire Tips for More Effective Prayers.” But then I made myself look at verse 8 as a continuation of verse 7 and saw it very differently. Remove the “parenthetical” part of it about heathens, and you get this:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions… for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him.

Taking another look at prayer and vain repetitions

Puts a whole new light on vain repetitions, doesn’t it? It doesn’t just mean “no rote, memorized prayers.” Vain = ineffective, pointless. Petition = asking for something. Re-petition = asking for something again (and again and again). Vain repetition is pointlessly asking for something over and over again when Heavenly Father already know we need it.

Next, I wondered what examples we could see in our lives of “vain repetitions?” A few came to my mind right away:

That last one hit home to me. See, I’m always somewhat nervous when I’m in a car. After all, a car accident is by far the most likely way we could suddenly find ourselves on the other side of the veil from the rest of our families without any chance to say goodbye. So, I know it may sound weird, but from the day I got my permit, I developed the habit of praying for protection and alertness whenever I get behind the wheel– even for a 10 minute trip to the grocery store. Is that a vain repetition?

You bet it is.

Vain repetitions communicate a lack of faith

When I read these two verses this time, I realized that my little prayer in the car was often a “vain repetition.” How so? Well, first off, as Christ points out, my Father knows my need for safety in travel before I ask Him. It’s not like I’m telling Him anything He doesn’t already know. So why do I ask Him?

As I pondered on this, I realized it was because I had this nagging fear that if I did not explicitly ask Him to watch over me and my family as we drove, that He would withhold the blessing of safety and allow tragedy to strike. A few verses from the next chapter came into my mind:

If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

I had thought my prayer before driving was an expression of faith and caution– a sign that I wanted to stay close to God even in the mundane. But what I realized now was that my prayer was motivated by fear– that is to say, a lack of faith– that Heavenly Father was a good parent and always watching over me and my family, as every good parent would.

Now that we have the context clarified by taking out the parenthetical expression, let’s take a look at it again:

Use not vain repetitions, as the heathen, for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them

What does that mean? Well, I’m no expert on paganism, but I do remember a book I read about the Greek and Roman gods. They were believed to be fallible and driven by passions like greed, lust, and jealousy as much as (and sometimes even more than) mortals. So, prayer was often a repetitive form of begging and bribery, like how one would try to incentivize a distracted child.

Bringing it back to my situation, by asking for the same thing every single day, I was not really trusting my Heavenly Father to be cognizant of my needs as much as I should have. Like a heathen.

Try not asking for things

Please note that this isn’t to say that we should never ask for things. Quite the contrary: as Nephi points out, many blessings are withheld from us “because [we] ask not, neither do [we] knock.” But when we ask, we must “in faith, believing that [we] shall receive” (this exact wording is in so many scriptures). We should not ask out of fear, or just to “cover our bases.”

This lesson hit me hard. I pondered on what I should do to change my prayers. Into my mind came a story I had heard Elder Bednar share in Conference 9 years ago. I had been confused when I first heard it, so it had stuck in my mind until now when I could understand it a little better:

During our service at Brigham Young University-Idaho, Sister Bednar and I frequently hosted General Authorities in our home. Our family learned an important lesson about meaningful prayer as we knelt to pray one evening with a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Earlier in the day Sister Bednar and I had been informed about the unexpected death of a dear friend, and our immediate desire was to pray for the surviving spouse and children. As I invited my wife to offer the prayer, the member of the Twelve, unaware of the tragedy, graciously suggested that in the prayer Sister Bednar express only appreciation for blessings received and ask for nothing… Given the unexpected tragedy, requesting blessings for our friends initially seemed to us more urgent than expressing thanks.

Sister Bednar responded in faith to the direction she received. She thanked Heavenly Father for meaningful and memorable experiences with this dear friend. She communicated sincere gratitude for the Holy Ghost as the Comforter and for the gifts of the Spirit that enable us to face adversity and to serve others. Most importantly, she expressed appreciation for the plan of salvation, for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, for His Resurrection, and for the ordinances and covenants of the restored gospel which make it possible for families to be together forever.

Our family learned from that experience a great lesson about the power of thankfulness in meaningful prayer… We learned that our gratefulness for the plan of happiness and for the Savior’s mission of salvation provided needed reassurance and strengthened our confidence that all would be well with our dear friends…

The most meaningful and spiritual prayers I have experienced contained many expressions of thanks and few, if any, requests… Let me recommend that periodically you and I offer a prayer in which we only give thanks and express gratitude. Ask for nothing; simply let our souls rejoice and strive to communicate appreciation with all the energy of our hearts.

I made it my goal to do exactly that for one week: ask God for nothing, thank God for everything. Let me tell you, it was hard. So often, I found myself slipping into the same patterns of “covering my bases” during my prayers during the day.

“Bless us that we will sleep well and wake up refreshed and ready for the… oops.”

“Bless this food that it will… oops.”

“Help us to feel thy spirit throughout the… oops.”

“Please forgive me for… oops.”

My prayers that week were filled with lots of “oops” and backtracking. And lots of silence. I never realized how many blessings I had been rather thoughtlessly asking for until I was not supposed to ask for them. In many ways I had found myself fitting the description of prayer given by President Hickley in Preach My Gospel:

The trouble with most of our prayers is that we give them as if we were picking up the telephone and ordering groceries– we place our order and hang up. We need to meditate, contemplate, think of what we are praying about and for and then speak to the Lord as one man speaketh to another.

Replace asking with thanks and faith

It was in those awkward moments of not asking for the food to nourish and strengthen me or to give me missionary opportunities that it finally started clicking for me. Each instance where I normally asked for a blessing became an opportunity to express gratitude and faithful confidence. After expressing gratitude and confidence, my mind and heart would be opened and I would feel moved to commit to more action. For example:

  • In the blessing on dinner, instead of asking for nourishment and strength, I thanked God for the food and faithfully expressed confidence that I knew it would nourish and strengthen us. That expression of faith and gratitude opened my mind and my heart and I felt moved to express a willingness to be more generous in sharing the abundance we have been given with others and a desire to increase our donations.
  • In my morning prayer before work, instead of asking for a missionary opportunity, I thanked God for the missionary opportunities I had had in my life and faithfully expressed confidence that He would place more in my path. That expression of faith and gratitude opened my mind and heart and I felt moved to express a willingness to be bolder in expressing invitations to act instead of just information about my beliefs when a missionary opportunity arises.
  • In my nightly prayer reviewing the day, instead of asking for forgiveness of things I had messed up on, I was more conscious to thank God for the promptings I had recognized and acted on and faithfully expressed confidence that He would continue to guide me. That expression of faith and gratitude opened my mind and heart and I felt cleaner as a result, with a greater desire to work to remain clean.

Ask only for what you know is right

One more thought that came to my mind as I read Christ’s injunctions against vain repetitions was this line from the Lord’s Prayer:

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

The insight I had was that it is “vain” (ineffective, useless, or not right) to ask for more or less forgiveness than we are willing to forgive ourselves. Christ reiterated this at the end of the Lord’s Prayer (suggesting that this was perhaps the focal point of the prayer itself):

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.

It would be wrong for us to ask Heavenly Father to forgive us for all our sins against Him unless we are willing to forgive others all their sins against us. But by the same token, if we really do freely forgive others and hold no grudges, I think Christ is telling is that we can ask forgiveness when we sincerely repent and have comfort by faithfully expecting it to be liberally applied to us as well (for some more great insights on that principle, see Elder Klebingat’s talk from 2014 and Elder Holland’s talk from this October).

I think this applies to all blessings we ask of God. We should only ask for what we know we deserve, and what is right (see too many references in the Scriptures to bother linking here). When we ask for what is not right, we are petitioning in vain. If we develop this skill of only asking for what is right, we can become like the prophet Nephi who was given the sealing power and the unconditional promise that anything he asked for would be granted because God knew he would never ask contrary to His will.

I have gone back to praying for asking blessings now. But I’m trying really hard to ask more for others than for myself. I’m trying to never ask to “cover my bases.” And I’m trying to express more faith and gratitude instead of asking so much. And that is making all the difference.

This post first appeared on Power in the Book