There's something comforting about repetition. Most of us have a safe place and it is typically in the same 'ol, same 'ol, the patterns that help us navigate the madness. Fruit Loops. coffee, the MapQuest commute, the desk we arranged the day before, the digits on our calendar, and meat loaf are the comfort zones of every day life.. Our days are bearable because they are predictable and vary only minimally week upon week. Panic visits when there's an unplanned detour, a side-track in the schedule, people and events that veer us into another lane. The repetitious life is a norm that we pray for and seek. This is especially true for us OCD types. It's the stuff of aspirations, targets, goals, and life purposes. Let me do it and do it again.
Interestingly, repetition was essential in our movement from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy. Around 1913, years after the industrial revolution, Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to the construction of automobiles. His innovation reduced production of an automobile from 12 hours per vehicle to 2 hours, 30 minutes each. Every worker on that line was given a repetitive task that became automatic, and, therefore, fast. This new model of production revolutionized manufacturing of most complicated machinery. In the modern world this repetitive task system introduced the lean manufacturing road map that capitalizes on quick decision making and standard training regimens that make the world go around faster.
You must know there's a down-side to doing the same thing over and over again. Sure, humans develop muscle memory that elevates some movements to an automatic status, what we do by instinct, without thought. And, there are danger markings here, movements in sync with the last one, the rhythm of memorized steps, variations at a minimum. The assembly line introduced new levels of work-place injury to the manufacturing process, those malfunctions when something unusual interrupted the flow. Repetition is good until something gets out of sync. Sameness may add a layer of carelessness to our process.
So, shift to the spiritual disciplines of life and consider repetition in a greater context. Over and over again I am personally thrilled by the words, phrases, themes, and general consistency so apparent throughout Scripture. It is a book of repetition, the truth of God's redemptive plan through Jesus Christ revealed in the Old and New Testaments. In Scripture, and in other literary forms, repetition is an element of emphasis, the word or thought or phrase or biblical ideal revealed being central to our grasp of the truth in question. I cannot tell you how the phrase "when Jesus had finished..." opened my heart to understanding the Gospel according to Matthew. That is not to mention the hundreds of other incidents, lessons, and interactions that have been repeated for emphasis sake.
As mentioned previously, there is a down-side to religious repetition as well. Jesus said, "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" (Matthew 6:7, ESV). The New American Standard version renders the verse as, "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7, NASB). I found it interesting that he was speaking about the Gentiles rather than the Pharisees who were usually depicted as being automatons in their prayer and worship. in either case., our Lord's point is profound: our prayer and spiritual life should not be an accumulation of wonderful sounding words with little meaning. And, that is a danger of repetitiveness. It can become automatic and thoughtless.
That's a prevalent thought in contemporary worship and modern expressions of personal faith these days. Many Christians prefer the more liturgical forms of worship while others seem stifled by it. Recitation of creeds, prayers, traditional hymns, and other prescribed rubrics introduce comfort and stability to people tossed in the seas of contemporary movement. To "be still and know..." (Psalm 46:10, ESV) brings many reverently to the throne of grace.
Others prefer the unscripted dynamics of a more free-form worship. Except for the verses of many modern Christian choruses (what traditionalists refer to as 7-Eleven songs), there is little repetition. Most congregational participation is reading words from a screen or following a cue from the worship leader(s). There's a freshness about contemporary worship and Bible teaching.
The danger of any worship form, personal devotional life, or other expressions of faith is that they can become meaningless repetitions, empty words that may look and sound good but have little personal depth. Every day I am reminded of the newness of a personal relationship with Christ where he is making all things constantly new. My personal prayer is that I will be the new wineskin Jesus talked about, being "...renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth" (Ephesians 4: 23-24, ESV).
One day a scribe asked Jesus to identity the most important commandment.
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12: 29-30, ESV). You see, these vain repetitions aren't simply verbal expressions. They are the stuff of a heart out of sync with the Father. And, that result is running in religious circles.