"Humility in Prayer:
Passport to Grace"





A COMMON AXIOM about prayer states that prayer does not change God but changes us.  God is perfect in every way and is the standard of perfection.  The book of James refers to Him as "the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."  (See James 1:17).  It is sinful, fallen humanity that has deviated from the standard of perfection that God set for us when He created us in His image and likeness.  This is communicated by Paul in his statement that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."  (See Romans 3:23.)  We are the ones who need to change.

Prayer is a means to change.  When we pray, we are saying that both we and those for whom we pray need to change.  We are directing our prayers to Him who is the standard to which our lives are to be aligned.  In prayer, we are looking by faith to the God whom we worship in order that He might restore us to His image.  Paul writes that as we by faith look into the glorious face of our God, we are "being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory."  (See 2 Corinthians 3:18.)  The more we look to Him, the more we become like Him.  

If our prayer lives are to be a means that God uses to change us and make us more like Him, our prayers must be offered in humility.  It is God's grace given to us freely through Jesus Christ that changes us, and the only proper response to grace is humility.  As William Barclay states, "No man who is proud can pray.  The gate of heaven is so low that none can enter it save upon his knees."  It is only God's grace that changes us to become like Him.  Prayer is simply humility embracing grace.  

This teaching aims to inspire us to exercise humility in our prayer lives and to find humility in prayer to be our passport to grace.  Humility is the only way to receive God's grace.  Scripture states that "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."  (See James 4:6.) 

In this teaching, we will study the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. By comparing the example of prayer that each depicts, we will come to better grasp the futility of prayers offered in pride and the power released through prayers offered in humility.  Then we will extract from this parable five specific lessons in effective prayer.

The Prayer Test:  Pharisee or Publican?

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican offers the clearest contrast in Scripture between the futility of prideful prayer and the effectiveness of humble prayer.  Luke 18: 9-14 gives the context and text of the parable as follows:

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."

The lessons on prayer that are conveyed through this parable might best be grasped by noting the similarities and the differences between the Pharisee and the Publican in the story.

Similarities Between the Two

What did the Pharisee and the Publican in this parable have in common?  For meticulous note-takers, I will give a full list of their similarities.  We read in verse 10, "Two men went up to the temple to pray."  

  • They both went to the temple to pray.

This ends the list of similarities between the two!

Differences Between the Two

As you've figured out by now, the parable is really meant to highlight differences between the two.  Let me list seven differences and comment briefly on how each point instructs us in prayer.

1.  One was confident of his righteousness and one of his sinfulness.  The opening verse of the text tells us that the Pharisee in the parable was meant by Jesus to depict those who "were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else."  (See verse 9.)  The prayer of the Pharisee definitely depicted this attitude.  He prided himself in the fact that he was a keeper of God's law and not among "robbers, evildoers, adulterers."  (See verse 11.)  The Publican, by contrast, could only say, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  (See verse 13.)  The Pharisee exuded confidence; the Publican depicted a lack of confidence.

Humility in prayer means that we do not place confidence in our righteousness.  Isaiah writes, "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags."  (See Isaiah 64: 6.)  Our proper posture in prayer is to admit our own unworthiness apart from Christ, our dependence upon God for pardon, and our confidence in Him to meet humility with mercy.  Like the Publican in the parable, we should make humility our passport to grace.

2.  One stood up and one stood off.  The Pharisee was following the normal custom of going to the temple to pray and standing in prayer.  The place and posture of prayer emphasized here is meant to underscore the fact that the Pharisees saw themselves as separate from others.  When Pharisaism was first established, such separation was necessary as it demonstrated true piety in keeping oneself pure from paganism that would nullify one's devotion to God.  However, in this parable it is the pride that aspires to be better than others purely for the sake of prestige that is the motive for separation.  The Publican, on the other hand, went to the temple to pray but felt unworthy to draw near to God.  We read that he "stood at a distance."  (See verse 13.)  He had a reverence for God that would not allow him the presumption of barging into God's presence irreverently.

In Christians circles today, the awareness of what God is doing in our churches and around the world in answer to prayer is rightly motivating believers to become more consistent in their prayer lives.  Many are realizing the call to a lifestyle of intercession and the unique ways in which God uses them to accomplish His kingdom purposes through intercessory prayer.  Consistency in prayer and devotion to intercession have a rightful place -- as did Pharisaism at its inception.  However, when we begin to mentally see ourselves as superior to others who pray less or whose spiritual giftedness is in areas other than intercession, then we succumb to the pride of the Pharisee in this parable.  Like the Pharisee, we may find that subtle pride soon hardens into haughtiness that causes our approach to God to become presumptive and irreverent.  The Scriptural corrective to this attitude in prayer is stated as follows:  "Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.  God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few."  (See Ecclesiastes 5:2.)  It is proper reverence for God in prayer that is called for.

 3.  One looked in and one looked down.  The Pharisee was introspective.  His prayer was not focused upon God but upon himself.  His prayer began, "God, I thank you that I . . . ."  (See verse 11.)  His first word was "God," but he never mentioned God again.  His second word was "I," and he never got off that subject.  The rest of the prayer was about himself.  There was a casual reference to God followed by a  preoccupation with self.  The Publican had proper balance in his prayer.  His prayer was simply "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  (See verse 13.)  Here's the balance:  God is merciful; I'm a sinner.  Unlike the Pharisee, when he looked in, it made him look down -- and to reach out to God for mercy.

Prayer should always make it's primary focus upon God and not upon self.  The prayer that says "God, I . . ." has only addressed God but has not focused upon him.  The prayer that says "God, have mercy . . ." both addresses him and focuses upon Him -- He is a merciful God.  While prayer is to focus upon God, there is a proper place in prayer for self-examination.  But what do you see when you look inward?  Pride sees all the ways we would commend ourselves to God.  Humility sees all the ways in which we are dependent upon His mercy.  If we like the Pharisee fail to see our need for God's mercy, we won't ask for it and He won't give it.  But, if we like the Publican see our need and make our appeal for mercy, our humility in prayer will be our passport to God's grace.

 4.  One beat his drum and the other beat his breast.  The Pharisee in our parable was marching to the beat of his own drum.  He said, "I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."  (See verse 12.)  Rather than seeing fasting and tithing as disciplines in self-denial and sacrifice, this Pharisee saw these disciplines as merit badges and acts of righteousness.  Only the Day of Atonement was mandated by God as a national day of fasting.  But this Pharisee prided himself on fasting twice per week.  As for tithing, it was intended to bless those called to full-time ministry so that others could reap the blessings and benefits of that ministry.  But the Pharisees' meticulous tithing wasn't mindful of the needs of others.  Jesus said of them, "You give a tenth of your spices -- mint, dill and cummin.  But you have neglected the more important matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness."  (See Matthew 23:23.)  

The Pharisee wasn't mindful of the needs of others who would be blessed by his self-denial and sacrifice.  He was merely beating his own drum.  The Publican, though, had no drum to beat.  We read that he "beat his breast."  (See verse 13.)  His was a life through which others could be blessed.  For he realized that his acceptance before God required the mercy of God to pardon and overcome his own sinfulness.  Only then could he turn from a sinful lifestyle to one of love for God and others.

Our prayer lives should certainly include expressions of thanks to God for what He has done and is doing in our lives.  If we have experienced God's saving grace and are experiencing His sanctifying grace, we should be able to acknowledge and thank God for the changes that He is making in us as He is conforming us to the image of His Son.  This is not beating our own drum.  It is boasting in the Lord for what He has done in us.  Such rejoicing should be tempered with humility.  God hasn't finished with us yet, and there is still need for confession of our weaknesses and appealing to God for the grace we need to live the life of the overcomer.  Because of what God has done for us in Christ, we need not beat our breasts in despair any longer.  By the same token, because Christ's atonement for us is our only means to pardon, we have no place for beating our own drum of self-righteousness.  We must make humility and faith in Christ our passport to the grace of God.

5.  One compared himself with others and one with God.  The Pharisee compared himself with other people.  He bolstered his own self-esteem by picking those whom he viewed as below him:  "God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector."  (See verse 11.)  To him, the tax collector fit the category of a robber and an evildoer as well.  Tax collectors in that time had a reputation for exacting more than was required and keeping the balance for their own benefit.  In a sense, they were taking liberties to write their own paychecks at the expense of others.  They were extortionists.  

The Pharisee was probably correct in his assessment of the tax collector here.  But, in finding fault with others like the tax collector, he fell prey to a subtle trap of the Enemy described by the Psalmist's depiction of the wicked:  "For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin."  (See Psalm 36:2.)  The Pharisee failed to see that his own pride was more of a stench in God's nostrils that the extortion of one who acknowledged the guilt of his own sinfulness.  After all, God is pleased when a sinner repents.  The Pharisee in this parable had no interest in the tax collector repenting.  He just wanted to pride himself on being better than the tax collector in his own eyes.

Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector did not compare himself with others but with God.  No doubt, he could have easily found others whose sins seemed more reprehensible than his own.  (If he had just looked up, he would have seen one of them talking to God about him!)  But, he wasn't comparing himself with others.  He was comparing himself with God.  As a true worshipper, he acknowledged the holiness of God.  In the light of that holiness, his heart was moved to appeal to God for mercy.  His sense of the presence of God -- his worship of God -- moved him to humility and repentance.

Our prayers should be focused upon God in worship.  There are two unique aspects of worship that will positively impact our prayer lives.  First, when we are focused upon God in worship, we are drawn out of ourselves.  We cease to be introspective.  Second, as we worship God, we are being transformed by His Spirit to become more like him.  We are "being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory."  (See 2 Corinthians 3:18.)  As New Testament Christians, we need not be self-exalting or self-demeaning.  Our prayers should become increasingly self-less.  Even when we present our petitions before God, they should be offered to Him in humility as His provisions to us are expressions of His grace extended to us in Christ. 

6.  One exalted himself and one humbled himself.  For all the differences we can cite between the Pharisee and the Publican in this parable, the root of them all was the fundamental difference between pride and humility.  Note the irony of this parable:

  • The Pharisee was proud of his humility.

  • The tax collector was humbled by the realization of his pride.

The Pharisee was bringing God down to his own level and exalting himself before God.  The tax collector had such an exalted view of God in His holiness that he was humbled in his own eyes.  The Pharisee's eyes were clouded over by his own pride; the tax collector's humility caused him to see things in right perspective.

Our prayer lives should be about exalting God.  We cannot exalt God and exalt ourselves at the same time.  The exaltation of self clouds our spiritual perspective so that we see ourselves enthroned and God at our beck and call.  But, when our prayer lives focus upon worshipping God and exalting Him, then we are able to see ourselves as sons and daughters of God preoccupied with the honor of our heavenly Father whose name we bear.  The petitions we present to Him in prayer are motivated by our desire to honor Him and not by the tendency to use Him for our selfish ends.  The desire to honor God naturally leads to the desire to humble ourselves in the interest of upholding His honor.  This is the humility that taps into His grace.

7.  One went home self-satisfied and one went home justified.  We've noted several differences between the prayer of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector.  Now we come to where the rubber meets the road.  Whose prayer was answered?  Listen to what Jesus said about the tax collector:  "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God."  (See verse 14a.)  The Pharisee, who thought he was already in right standing with God, went home alienated from Him.  The tax collector, who stood at a distance and appealed for mercy, went home with a restored relationship with God.  He humbly appealed for mercy, and he received it.

Why was the tax collectors prayer answered while the Pharisee's was not?  Jesus answered this question in his closing statement:  "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."  (See verse 15b.)  When it comes to prayer, pride always hinders the receptive of grace while humility always assures it.

The punch line of this parable gives us a simple litmus test for the effectiveness of our prayer lives.  Every prayer we offer to God should be examined by this criteria.  Is the prayer genuinely offered to uphold God's honor or is the motive behind our petition that God honor us?  The motive must be correct if we expect our prayers to be answered.  God wants to honor His people, but it happens only as they honor Him.  Selfish praying is proud praying and falls short of receiving God's grace.  But the prayer that honors God is a prayer of humility that becomes a passport to His grace.

Lessons in Effective Prayer

As we've noted the differences between the prayer of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector in this parable, we've sought to demonstrate how their differences would instruct us in futile and effective prayer habits.  I want to close this teaching by pointing out five specific lessons in prayer that emerge from our study of the parable.

1.  The discipline of prayer is upheld.  Both the Pharisee and the tax collector went to the temple at the hour of prayer.  They were both committed to the discipline of prayer.

While Jesus used this parable to illustrate the difference between futile and effective prayer, he presupposed the discipline of prayer.  Without coming to God regularly and petitioning him for his grace, we forfeit the grace that could be ours.  As the Apostle Paul wrote, "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit."  (See Galatians 5:25.)  Having regular times and places of prayer is necessary if we are to maintain fellowship with God through His Spirit and live with the continual inflow of His grace.

2.  The basis for prayer is identified.  We see from the example of the tax collector that the proper basis for our prayers is the mercy of God.  He appealed to God on the basis of His mercy.  

As New Testament Christians, we appeal to God in prayer based on the atonement of Christ for us -- the act of divine mercy by which God the Son took the penalty and punishment for our sins.  Unlike the tax collector, we don't have to beat our breasts for our sins because Christ's body was beaten for our pardon and wholeness.  Unlike the Pharisee, we cannot beat our own drums because we are pardoned on the basis of Christ's merits and not our own.

3.  The heart attitude for effective prayer is clarified.  Prayer does not focus upon one's own spirituality but honors God to whom we pray.  It was not the Pharisee's acts of righteousness that dishonored God.  It was the pride of his heart by which he put his own honor ahead of the worship of God and concern for others.  By the same token, it was not the tax collectors sinfulness that honored God.  It was his humility, confession of sin, and appeal to God for mercy that honored Him.    For God, the issue at stake wasn't righteousness and sinfulness.  It was pride and humility.  

When our heart attitude in prayer is one of humbling ourselves before God and exalting Him, he will lavish His grace upon us.  It is that grace that, in Paul's words, "teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions . . . ."  (See Titus 2:12.)  Because of what God has done for us in Christ, we need not focus on our acts of righteousness or our sinfulness.  Rather, as we worship Him in prayer, He changes us to become more like him.

4.  The motive for effective prayer is adjusted.  God is interested in motivation adjustments in our lives, and adjusting our motives in prayer is a primary way that He changes us.  What is our motive in prayer to be?  Based on the effective prayer of the tax collector, it is fair to say that our motive in prayer should be to receive God's grace -- for ourselves and for those we pray for.  This agrees with the writer of Hebrews who exhorts, "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."  (See 4:16.)  

The rightful motivation for prayer should be the reception of God's grace for the meeting of human need.  I like to say that God's grace alone enables us to live gracefully and graciously.  Since God's grace given to us in Christ is the means by which we are accepted into his favor, we need God's grace daily in order to live victorious Christians lives and to have fruitful ministries. When our motivation in prayer is the reception of God's grace for life and ministry, then our prayers are offered in the humility that becomes a passport to grace.

 5.  The outcome of effective prayer is fulfilled.  What is the outcome of prayer intended to be?  As we said at the beginning of this teaching, prayer is intended to change us.  God wants to take out of us self-exaltation, self-righteousness, self-commendation, self-satisfaction, judgmentalism, and condescension -- all the vices that so glaringly jump out at us when we read the short prayer of the Pharisee.  He wants to bring us to the place where we live in constant dependence upon His grace as grateful recipients of His mercy.  He wants to conform us to the image of His Son.

The outcome of effective prayer is that we become true worshippers of God who learn to live our lives in the grace of God and minister that grace to others through the empowerment of God's Spirit.  The key to effective prayer is humility, our passport to God's grace. 


Our prayer lives are intended to be an effective means through which God changes us.  Through prayers aligned with God's will, God conforms us to the image of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  This can only happen, though, when our prayers are offered to God in humility. For "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."  (See James 4:6.) 

To emphasize the futility of prayer without humility, Jesus gave us the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  It is a parable contrasting the Pharisee's prayer that was offered in pride with the Tax Collector's prayer that was born out of humility.  The Pharisee is depicted as one who was confident of his own righteousness, stood boldly in God's presence, focused upon himself, called attention to his own works, boasted that he was better than others, and left the place of prayer self-satisfied.  His prayers went no higher than the roof.  The Tax Collector, on the other hand, acknowledged his sinfulness, stood off at a distance, looked down in disgrace, beat his breast, humbled himself, and appealed to God for mercy.  His humility became his passport to grace.  His prayer was answered, and he went home justified.

While contrasting the futility of haughty prayers with the power of humble praying, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector contains several lessons in effective prayer.  We learn of the importance of the discipline of prayer as evidence by the fact that both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went to the Temple at the hour of prayer.  We learn that the basis for prayer is the mercy of God as we see the tax collector appealing to God's mercy for the forgiveness of sins.  We learn of the heart attitude that is appropriate to prayer as we see how humility focuses upon God's righteousness rather than asserting a basis for self-righteousness.  We learn that our motive for prayer should be to uphold God's honor above our own and to appeal to him for grace.  Finally, we learn to find in prayer our place of continual dependence upon God whereby he gives us a continual impartation of grace by which we are conformed more and more into His image.

Humility in prayer assures that prayer becomes the agent of change that God desires it to be in our lives.  Through humility in prayer, we see ourselves in right perspective and embrace God's mercy by which we are accepted and changed.  Humility in prayer is our passport to grace. 


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