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.
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
"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,
"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.
Between the Two
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."
ends the list of similarities between the two!
Between the Two
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.