Not Empty Words, but Words Nonetheless

One of the things Jesus taught his disciples about prayer is that it’s not about throwing a pile of words toward heaven and hoping some of them stick.

Jesus taught his disciples saying, “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask” (Matthew 6:7-8 CEB).

Not all words are empty

The problem with the “Gentile” way of praying is not that they use words, or even a lot of them. The problem is that

  1. the words are empty (jabbering on with no connection to the heart), and
  2. the words are a tactic to get God to listen (revealing a false assumption about who God is and how God works in the world).

We know the problem with “empty words” isn’t the words, because Jesus goes on to give his disciples a liturgy of words to guide their prayers (what we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer” today). Any liturgy can become “empty words”, of course, but that’s not necessarily the fault of the liturgy. Liturgy itself is not empty or full, alive or dead. That’s a category mistake. Liturgy can be good or bad, but it’s the person praying that determines whether the words are “empty” or not.

By giving us actual words to pray, Jesus makes prayer into something we can actually do, even if we don’t know the ins and outs of how it “works,” or its metaphysical underpinnings. Because Jesus said, “When you pray, say…”, we can just pray. And in praying the prayer Jesus taught us, we are trusting that, as we say these particular words, we will be learning to pray.

I find a lot of freedom in this, because I feel like I have more questions about prayer now than I did when I first started praying. It’s helpful for me to know that my questions can remain unresolved even while I say my prayers, and that in saying my prayers I am participating in a mystery that I will never fully comprehend anyway.

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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