A Hedge of Clichés
by Katherine Britton
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. - Matthew 6:7
A Bible study friend recently encouraged me to rewrite the famous passage on Proverbs 31 woman in my own words, with application to my own life. I took her up on the challenge, thinking the task wouldn't be too hard for someone who writes for a career.
Crafting a modern application took an hour—much longer than I figured. Getting away from verbatim repetition to explore specific application required much more of my time and energy than I would typically spend journaling on a passage. Stepping back from the verse-by-verse analysis, though, I thought I saw the Proverbs 31 woman's characteristics a bit more clearly. Rewriting the passage didn't destroy the original language for me—on the contrary. The "words, words, words" seemed fresh and clear from my new vantage point.
Unfortunately, reading and "hiding Scripture in our hearts" quickly slips into rote recitation for me. It's like Tim Hawkin's hedge of protection comedy sketch; the words have power, but we start spouting them off without much thought. Pretty soon, I'm sitting in church and halfway through a hymn before I realize that I'm singing. My heart gets left behind too when my mind is disengaged. Pretty soon, I'm praying a "hedge of protection" for somebody, partially because the phrase sounds good without making me think too carefully about their specific needs.
The Pharisee Jesus described in Luke 18:9-13 had mastered the art of hiding insincerity behind the right phrases. He knew the turn of phrase that would convey holy devotion, regardless of the filth in his heart. "Words, words, words" became meaningless, as Hamlet saw them in the dead books - they became a socially acceptable key to avoid the real attitudes.
Contrast this to the tax collector. He understood that social niceties wouldn't veil his sins before God, and he didn't continue with a recitation the way the Pharisee did. His simple prayer was, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." That was it. He knew the impact of his simple phrase far better than the Pharisee did. He didn't need to "babble" to impress God or those around him; he simply spoke his heart, knowing that ability to pray is itself a mercy.
The beautiful language of Scripture is best adorned with sincerity of heart, not how many words we can string together in holy sentences. After all, consider how simple the Lord's Prayer is written - and how difficult and miraculous it is to proclaim "Your will be done."
Intersecting Faith and Life: There's not a "holy attitude" that we put on at "holy times" - we are called to be holy all the time, in our joking with friends as well as our prayers. We need to speak simply, truly, and to God's glory all the time. This week, practice this by eliminating Christian catch phrases from your prayers, instead journaling your prayers to bring a fresh application.