But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. Matthew 6:7-8
Why do people use vain repetitions? Why do we babble in prayer? Jesus gives us the answer: he says that people do this because they think they will be heard for their many words. It seems to me that the mindset behind such praying is belief in a God who does not really care about us, and who therefore needs to be cajoled into meeting our needs through the use of many-worded prayers. In other words, the God to whom the pagans (and many times the not-so-pagan) pray to is a God who has to be coaxed into hearing us. He has to be worn down. Or he has to be impressed. Then, if we have prayed enough, if we have been pious enough, then God will hear us. This seems to be what Jesus is inveighing against.
Thus, when Jesus tells us not to pray like this because our Father knows what we need before we ask him, he is not so much protesting against a lack of belief in the omniscience of God as he is protesting against a lack of belief in the love of God. Of course people who pray believe that God is omniscient (if he is not omniscient, how could they be sure he could hear their prayers in the first place?). But there is knowing about something in the sense of having information about it, and then there is knowing about something in the sense of caring about it. You have this distinction illustrated in Scripture over and over again. God foreknew his people (Rom. 8:29); but this does not mean that God was merely aware of their existence. It goes deeper than that; it means that God loved them before the world began. In our text, the two are combined. God is aware that we have needs, yes. But more than that, as our Father he deeply cares about them. I think that must be one reason why Jesus keeps referring to God, especially as the object of our prayers, as Father. He is reminding us of God’s deep concern and care and love for his children.
You see this in the way Jesus speaks to our anxiety in verses 25-34. In verse 32, he tells us that “the Gentiles seeks after all these things [food and clothing],” but “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” Now that would be no consolation against anxiety if the knowledge of God referred to in verse 32 was merely a reference to God’s omniscience, the bare knowledge that God has of his created universe. Rather, this “knowing” is the knowing of care and love. It is expressed in verse 26 in the words, “Are you not of more value than they [the birds of the air]?” It is expressed in verse 30 in the words, “. . . will he [God] not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” God knows his children in the way any good father knows his children: he knows them in a way that values them and cares for them much more than any other thing in his created world. Therefore, when Jesus says that our Father knows what things we have need of before we ask, he is saying that we need not treat God in prayer as if he didn’t care for us. Those who do so end up just muttering vain repetitions.
In other words, in the pagan way of praying, there is a complete absence of a relationship with God in prayer. There is no drawing near to him. In contrast, when the psalmist differentiates himself from the wicked, he says, “But for me it is good to be near God” (Ps. 73:28). He not only drew near to God, but for him it was a good thing. It was enjoyable, it was a real blessing and delight. That is what prayer ought to be like. It ought to be like children wanting to be with their father.
Thus, prayer is not some tactic that we wield to coax God into doing our bidding. Prayer is not some religious technique we use to impress God so that things go well for us and not badly. Rather, prayer is that part of a real relationship with God in which we speak to him as a child would speak with a father. It is not that cold, mechanical performance which the pagans call prayer; it is the natural expression of a warm and personal fellowship with God the Father.