How often should we pray for something?
I keep a prayer list, to help me remember the things that I should bring before the Lord, and to recognize the answers to prayer that he gives. Perhaps you have such a list, as well. A natural consequence of such a list is that we may pray repeatedly for something. But our Lord warned,
Mat 6:7 When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do
Is it wrong to ask repeatedly for something? Should we limit our prayers to, say, three instances (as Paul did for his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Cor 12:8, and as our Lord in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemene)?
Let’s start with the Lord’s command about “vain repetitions.” The reasons he gives for this prohibition is,
Mat 6:7 They think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
There are religious practices that emphasize repetition for the sake of repetition. Each rotation of a Tibetan prayer wheel sends another copy of the prayer written on the wheel. Such practices are “vain,” because they become empty echoing of words that do not engage our minds.
The context shows that repetition in itself is not wrong. After mentioning “vain repetition” in Matt 6:7, our Lord gives his disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Luke 11:2 records his instruction concerning that prayer: “When ye pray, say, ‘Our Father …'”. The most straightforward reading of his instruction is that each time we pray (“whenever” οταν), we should repeat these petitions. In our fellowship, when we join for prayer, we seek to honor this command by beginning with the Lord’s Prayer. Over the years, we have prayed this prayer thousands of times. Far from displeasing the Lord, we are doing as he asks.
The examples of 2 Cor 12:8 and our Lord in the garden are very interesting. In both cases, the requests end because of something other than a sense by the one praying that enough is enough.
Paul indicates that after he had asked three times for relief, the Lord spoke to him and told him that his “thorn in the flesh” was there for a purpose:
2 Cor 12:9 My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.
Did Paul stop because he felt that three times was enough? No, he stopped because the Lord answered him with a direct verbal revelation, and the prayer was no longer appropriate.
Something similar is happening in the garden. Note two things.
First, Matthew’s record (26:36-46) makes clear that his prayer was ended by the arrival of Judas and the soldiers. Three times he prays. After each, he returns to the disciples and exhorts them to watchfulness. Twice, he returns to his prayer, but the third time, he observes,
Matt 26:45-46 Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.
Immediately Judas arrives. We don’t know whether our Lord would have prayed more, had Judas not interrupted him.
Second, our Lord’s prayer is widely misunderstood. The common understanding is that he asked, unsuccessfully, to be delivered from the coming sacrifice, and that in the end the Father’s will prevailed over his own. But consider the description of this episode later in the NT:
Heb. 5:7 in the days of his flesh, … he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared.
The only episode in our Lord’s recorded life when he “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears” is the agony in the garden, and the writer to the Hebrews says that our Lord “was heard in that he feared.” This description is appropriate to a request that was granted, not one that was refused. On closer reading of our Lord’s request, we note that he asked, not that the cup would pass by him, but that it would pass from him. I don’t believe he is praying to avoid the crucifixion, but rather, he is praying for restoration to the Father’s fellowship after he has endured the “forsaking” of Ps 22:1. He realizes that the magnitude of the sin that he is taking on is so great that it could separate him from his Father forever. He is willing to drink from the cup of judgment, but he prays that once he has drunk of it, the Father would remove it from him, restore him to life, and return him to fellowship with the Father.
If this understanding is correct, then God did grant him his request. What was done was both his will and the Father’s will.
So there were two reasons for the Lord to stop praying. First, Judas arrived. Second, he received assurance that the Father would take the cup from him after he had drunk it, for he confidently said to the thief on the cross,
Luke 23:43 This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.
As with Paul, once the prayer is answered, there is no need to repeat it.
It is not often that we end our repetition, as Paul did, because God speaks to us with a special revelation. But our prayer can often lead us to an understanding of Scripture that shows the answer, and in such cases we need pray no longer. When we gather to pray, if one person suggests we pray for something that God’s word makes clear we should not, it’s entirely appropriate for another brother to bring up that Scripture and suggest that we should not pray for it–not because we have prayed too much, but because God has answered in his word.
One more thought about repetitive prayer. We persist in prayer, not because God is unjust and stubborn, but because we are weak. One function of prayer is to respond to Peter’s encouragement:
1 Pet 5:7 Cast all your care upon him, for he careth for you.
As long as my heart is troubled about something, God’s door is open to me, and by coming to him, I am reminded that he is in control. As we mature, such repetitions become less frequent. We have heard his answer in the promises of Scripture, and we calm our hearts by recalling those promises, just as Paul calmed his heart with the Lord’s specific revelation to him. But as long as we are still learning to discern the Spirit’s voice, we find comfort by responding to troubling thoughts, not with worry and fret, but by casting them on the Lord as many times as we need to remind ourselves that he is taking care of us. No father resents repeated requests for encouragement from a frightened child. We want our children to come to us as often as they feel troubled, recognizing that as they mature, these requests will become less frequent.