“Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3 NLT)
Jesus told a story in Luke 18:9-14 about two men who went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, a very religious Jewish man, and the other was, in Jesus’ words: “a despised tax collector.” The Pharisee prayed this prayer: “I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” Then in verse 13: “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’
Then Jesus said in verse 14: “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What can we learn about the “language of prayer” from this story?
- Religious “pedigrees” and “credentials” don’t impress God. Years ago a man came to preach at a church I served. He came highly recommended, had served as a pastor for many years, and was well respected as a leader in the Church Organization in which I was credentialed. At that time we had a very godly and humble man who led our worship, and who also had pastored many years, but in a different denomination. When the man who came to preach learned that our Worship leader was from a different group, he refused to be on the platform with him. That kind of nonsense grieves the heart of God (and mine). To believe we can impress God by our spiritual or theological credentials, and treat a brother in Christ like we’re somehow better than they are, closes the ears of God as fast as anything I know.
- The words we use only have meaning to God to the extent they are: a) truthful and b) flow from a humble heart. The Pharisee’s claims, for the most part, were simply not true. To claim he wasn’t “a sinner” and to exalt himself above another person, regardless of their lot in life, violates God’s Word, but equally important, violates the intent of prayer. The purpose of prayer is to open a lifeline between us and God, giving us opportunity to see God for who He is and ourselves as we really are – sinners in need of a Savior and Lord.
- Humility is the Language of Prayer. The longer I live and the more clearly I see who Jesus is, what He’s done and what He continues to do in, through and on my behalf, the less I find to “brag” about in my life.
Through the years God has given me opportunity to be in the presence of some truly godly and gifted people. After they spoke or performed in whatever area they excelled, I’ve never heard any of them say: “Oh, that wasn’t me, that was only the Lord.” Although I’ve heard people with lesser talent and a lot of false humility say things like that, people who are walking close to the Lord recognize every good and perfect gift comes from God. They understand that “apart from Jesus they/we are nothing,” so they don’t have to give expression to the obvious.
Prayer, like so many other dimensions of our walk with God, is a gift He gives us, that when used as intended, opens avenues for us to learn and be more than we ever imagined possible. Over the next few days we’ll be exploring other dimensions of prayer.