We can never hear “I love you” enough. Right?
Well, we may need to add a little more–we can never hear “I love you” enough when the person saying it means it. We can never hear it enough when it’s given as a gift, not meant to manipulate. We can never hear it enough when it’s true and free and welcome. If those conditions are met, those are the sweetest words in the world. We thrill to hear them the first time, and while the hearing becomes less surprising with repetition, it’s no less welcome.
I love you, repeated often, becomes a strong thread woven through the tapestry of our lives. We know, by hearing it regularly, that it’s true. We know that it means something–we know that the meaning goes far beyond the syllables and to the implications of the word.
We can trust that person.
We can depend on them.
We can be vulnerable and open with them.
And that’s just the little miracle that happens when we receive that repeated affirmation of love. What happens when we give it?
It could be hard for us to say those words the first time to someone. What if they don’t feel the same way? Is it too soon? What if you think it’s love, but it’s not? That hesitation goes away with “practice,” though, right? The more you say it, the easier it is to say.
No, not just that though. The more you say it, the more you mean it. The more you say it, the more you become aware of its truth. The more you say it, the more it becomes part of what defines you. It becomes who you are. You are both beloved and lover. You are part of something greater than yourself.
The same thing holds true with God, and with our repeated words of praise and love for Him.
Jesus warns us against “vain repetitions,” and for good reason. It’s easy to forget the meaning of words we say a lot. It’s easy not to think about them. It’s easy to use them to manipulate others, or to try to manipulate God into doing what we want. We can say your will be done and mean my will be done. We can say to God be the glory and mean look how holy I am. We can say praise Jesus and mean well that was lucky.
But I think many of us think the “repetition” part is the problem, and so think we have to eschew any old, memorized prayer.
Here’s the thing. Growing up, I never said the “Now I lay me down to sleep” rhyme, largely because it was “vain repetition.” Instead, I made up my own prayer. And you know what? I said that same exact prayer every night for years. Oh, there was a place to “personalize it” and name particular needs. But even those were the same so often that eight-year-old Roseanna would sometimes just say, when she was really tired, “and all of those others.” Did the repetition ever become vain? Sure. There were nights I rattled it off, barely thinking about it. But that wasn’t the norm, and it wasn’t my habit. My habit was to pause and think about it.
With my own kids, we’ve prayed together every night since they were little. And guess what–it’s the same basic words every night, the same basic pattern. Oh, we fill in different blanks, and I have a few variations…but in general? It’s the same. Why?
Because when we find the words that capture the meaning of our hearts, we use them over and over again. And that’s good. There are words and phrases and prayers we should repeat!
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit!
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts–heaven and earth are full of your glory!
Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world–have mercy on us!
Our Father, who is in heaven, may your name be set aside as holy!
I remember years ago, there was a member of our church who asked me why we said the Lord’s Prayer in every service. “Don’t you think that’s vain repetition?” she said. This was no novice of the faith, either–this was someone who’d grown up in the church and was in full-time ministry.
I just blinked at her. I mumbled something about wanting to make sure the kids knew it. But the real answer should have been, “It’s only vain if it’s vain.”
Let’s look at the main definitions of the word, shall we?
1: having or showing undue or excessive pride in one’s appearance or achievements
2: marked by futility or ineffectualness
3: having no real value
It isn’t the repetition of a memorized prayer that makes it vain, now, is it? No. The only thing that makes a prayer vain is our intention. Are we saying it to look good? Vanity. Are we saying it without believing it will do anything? Well, God may still surprise us, but if we truly don’t believe, I’d call that vain. Do the words themselves have no meaning? Same.
But that’s on us. Not on the words. The words themselves, no matter how many times we repeat them, are good words. They’re the words God Himself gave us in His Word. They can bring life and hope and promise and joy…if we use them right.
We don’t render the mathematical table “useless” by memorizing it. We learn its value, in fact. We don’t render our declarations of love futile by repeating them often. A million heartfelt thank-yous will be a million times genuinely received. The danger is when we say “you’re welcome” and really mean “I resent you.” It’s when we speak of love but feel bitterness.
It’s when we pray, but want God to comform to our will.
In our lives, whether we’re talking to our spouses or our children or our God, repetition can be one of the best things we do–as long as we keep our hearts right. Say those words a lot. Put them on repeat. And every time you say them, hear them, or even think them, let the truth of it sink deep.
Dwell in the words. Dwell in what they represent. And mean it.
I’ve hear the term “ex corde” used to refer to prayers you make up on the spot, as opposed to prayers that are pre-written or memorized, but I think that gives a misleading impression. As you pointed out, using words that have been used by other believers for centuries can be just as much “from the heart”.