Prideful Prayer

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To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14) 

I think the NIV footnote on verse 11 is the most accurate rendering of “the Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself.” The footnote says, “He prayed TO himself.” He made himself God, which, if you will recall, is exactly how satan tempted Adam and Eve—you will be like God (Genesis 3:5). 

In a portion of William Cowper’s poem Truth, he addresses the pride of the Pharisee, and warns us that this could be our pride too if we aren’t carefully guarding our hearts. 

Who judged the Pharisee? What odious cause
Exposed him to the vengeance of the laws?
Had he seduced a virgin, wrong’d a friend,
Or stabb’d a man to serve some private end?
Was blasphemy his sin? Or did he stray
From the strict duties of the sacred day?
Sit long and late at the carousing board?
(Such were the sins with which he charged his Lord.)
No—the man’s morals were exact. What then?
‘Twas his ambition to be seen of men;
His virtues were his pride; and that one vice
Made all his virtues gewgaws [gyoo-gaws] of no price;
He wore them as fine trappings for a show,
A praying, synagogue-frequenting beau.
The self-applauding bird, the peacock, see—
Mark what a sumptuous Pharisee is he!
Meridian sunbeams tempt him to unfold
His radiant glories, azure, green, and gold:
He treads as if, some solemn music near,
His measured step were govern’d by his ear;
And seems to say—“Ye meaner fowl give place;
I am all splendour, dignity, and grace!”
Not so the pheasant on his charms presumes,
Though he, too, has a glory in his plumes.
He, Christian-like, retreats with modest mien
To the close copse or far sequester’d green,
And shines without desiring to be seen.
The plea of works, as arrogant and vain,
Heaven turns from with abhorrence and disdain;
Not more affronted by avow’d neglect,
Than by the mere dissembler’s feign’d respect.
What is all righteousness that men devise?
What—but a sordid bargain for the skies!
But Christ as soon would abdicate His own,
As stoop from heaven to sell the proud a throne.

When the writer of Hebrews says that we can approach the throne of grace boldly, it is clear that it is not because of our righteous deeds, even if they are as exacting and as perfect as a Pharisee. We can only come boldly into God’s presence because we come in the name and the righteousness of Jesus. “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” 

Adding “in Jesus name” to the end of our prayers isn’t a password that opens the storeroom of Heaven, but it is a reminder that we have nothing in ourselves to commend us to God. We come boldly only in Jesus.

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