Against Long-Winded Public Prayers
Study the exemplary prayers in Scripture, and you cannot help noticing that all of them are brief and simple. Prayer that is heartfelt, urgent, and unfeigned must be of that style. Verbiage and windbaggery are badges of insincerity, especially in prayer. The prayer of the publican in Luke 18:13 is as short and to the point as possible: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Then there’s the prayer of the thief on the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Scripture records very few long prayers. Much of Psalm 119—the Bible’s longest chapter—is addressed to God in the language of prayer. Other than that, Nehemiah 9:5–38 contains the longest prayer in all of Scripture, and it can be read aloud with expression in less than seven minutes. John 17 is the New Testament’s longest prayer. It’s also the longest of Jesus’ recorded prayers, but it’s still just twenty-six verses long.
We know, of course, that Jesus prayed much longer prayers than that because Scripture records several instances where He prayed in solitude for extended periods of time (Matt. 14:23; Mark 6:46). When it suited Him, He would even spend the entire night in prayer (Luke 6:12). It was His habit thus to pray, both privately and with His disciples (John 18:2). And the pattern was clear: His long prayers were the ones He prayed in private. His public prayers were perfect examples of crisp, forthright plain-speaking.
When the disciples asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), He responded by repeating the very same model prayer He gave in the Sermon on the Mount. Like all great praying, it is both succinct and unpretentious. There is not a wasted word, not a hint of vain repetition, and not a single note of ostentation or ceremony in the whole prayer:
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11:2–4)
The various elements of Jesus’ prayer are all reminders of what our praying ought to include: praise, petition, penitence, and a plea for grace in our sanctification. But what is most remarkable about that prayer is its straightforward, succinct, earnest brevity. It is the very antithesis of what Jesus had in mind when He condemned the long, rambling prayers of the Pharisees (Luke 12:40).
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 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. (Matt. 6:6–8)