Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6).
You've probably seen portrayals of AA meetings on television. There are metal folding chairs in a circle, and the first man begins, "Hi, I'm Bob, and I'm an alcoholic. My last drink was 47 days ago." (or something to that effect). The rest of the circle answers, "Hi Bob." Then, the introductions proceed around the circle.
If we were to begin PPA (Pagan Practices Anonymous), we would find believers sitting in a circle. These men and women want desperately to live as Christ has called them, but they get caught up in pagan practices. No...not sacrificing chickens, worshipping golden idols, or casting voodoo spells on others. These pagan practices are loving others and praying.
WHAT?!? Pagans don't do these things. They don't love others...they don't pray. How can you say such a thing? Why would we ever want to stop believers from loving others...from praying? Well, let's slow down, put on an oxygen mask, and walk through that again. I don't want believers to stop loving others and praying. I believe Jesus wants us to stop the pagan practices of loving others and praying. There is a difference, and Jesus lays it out for us.
In Matthew 5:43-47, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love you neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?"
In telling his followers to love, Jesus distinctly tells them to avoid the pagan practice of only loving those who love you...only greeting those who greet you...only caring for those who you know care for you. This is why we need the PPA...we believe that the secret to holiness and living a righteous life is to seclude ourselves from all things pagan. Use Christian doctors, mechanics, and interior decorators. Only buy books at the Christian bookstore. If you have a choice between Starbucks and the Christian coffee shop down the road, forsake your taste buds and get the drinkable motor oil (FYI...not all "Christian" coffee shops serve bad coffee).
This doesn't limit itself to doing business though. We see those who look or act radically outside of what we call "Christian" and we avoid them like the plague. We'd just as soon have a special section of the country for everyone who didn't profess Christ. We are like Jonah...hating the Ninevites around us and hating the very idea of grace entering their lives and transforming them. Maybe we're like those who sat at the table the first time Mephibosheth came to dinner at the palace with David (2 Sam. 9). We look at this cripple from the enemy's family, and we are suspicious of him and his motives...never knowing if he'll turn on us. Whatever the case may be, I believe Jesus would look at such practices and say..."How is that any better than pagans? How is that the radically different life I've called you to? It's not...it's not the life I called you to live. Love you enemies." So, let's take our place at PPA and say, "Hi, I'm Toby, and I practice pagan love for others. The last time I remember loving my enemy was..." Confess this attitude, and ask God to break it.
The next section comes in chapter six, as Jesus is instructing his disciples in how to pray. In verse 7, Jesus says, "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." Jesus is not condemning repetition in praying. If so, He would condemn Himself for using the same words in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew 26:44 says, "So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing." Repetition is not the problem.
The problem is that these prayers just go on and on. It's "babbling" in the NIV and NLT. It's "vain repetitions" in the KJV, "meaningless repetitions" in the NAS, and "heap up empty phrases" in the ESV. I think I like the ESV best. In other words, when pagans go to pray, they really pile it on...the longer they sit there and ask for something, the more credit they believe they have. They're not really saying anything of meaning because there is no real faith from which these prayers come. They do not pray believing...they simply have empty conversations, looking up at the ceiling and talking to someone they don't really believe is there or will intervene.
This is the pagan practice of prayer that we must avoid. Simply praying out of duty is not good enough. Even flowery, biblical phrases in King James language can be empty if there is not a heart a faith producing them. Again, repetition is not the problem. It is even taught by Jesus. In Mt. 7:7, the literal translation of Jesus' instruction is "keep on asking...keep on seeking...keep on knocking." Also, Jesus holds up the example of the widow and the unjust judge as an example of persevering in prayer in Luke 18. The repetition is not the problem...it's the vanity of the repetition, the emptiness of the prayers, the meaningless nature of pagan prayers that is the problem.
So, join Pagan Practices Anonymous, and confess, "Hi, I'm Toby, and I practice pagan, empty praying. My last sincere time of prayer was..." Confess it, and beg God to renew your energies for a vital prayer life. Let Jesus reteach you how to pray. Read the prayers of great saints of the past. Pray with those who truly know how to pray. Don't just pout because you feel disconnected in your prayer life. Do something about it.
You see, this is why it is dangerous to just teach that we should love others and pray. That's not good enough. There is a specific way we must love and pray. There are pitfalls even in the most honorable spiritual disciplines. Even pagans can do some of these things. It is the way a changed heart engages spiritual disciplines that sets the believer apart from the rest. So, my friend, love others and pray, but don't do it as the pagans do...do it as a Christ follower does.