The contents of our prayers to God reveal a lot – especially about how we view ourselves in relation to God.
Luke 18:9-14 [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else:
“Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people – greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me – a sinner!’
I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The prayers of both men revealed their basis for relationship with God. Everything the Pharisee said was true – he wasn’t committing the sins that he saw others do, and he gave a fraction of his life and money to God. However, he expected God to accept him based upon these “good” things, based upon his terms.
On the other hand, the tax collector’s prayer was simple and direct. When he said God, turn Your wrath from me, the phrase could also be translated as God, be propitious. The word propitious isn’t used much anymore, but in this context the tax collector is asking God: May Your wrath be appeased and turned aside by the sacrifice. The tax collector was looking to God to determine if his relationship was acceptable.
These conflicting ideas for the basis of our relationship with God go back a long way…so far, in fact, that we find them in Cain and Abel.
Genesis 4:3-7 In the course of time Cain presented some of the land’s produce as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also presented an offering – some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but He did not have regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was furious, and he was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you furious? And why are you downcast? If you do right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain knew how to “do right” and approach the Lord in manner He required – with a blood sacrifice, not with Cain’s best work. However, Cain wanted to approach God on his own terms…and his offering was rejected. Similarly, the Pharisee went home without being justified because he wanted God to accept him for the good deeds he had done, rather than asking God to accept a substitutionary sacrifice.
The hearts of the men in Jesus’ parable were revealed in what they prayed. One was self-focused, the other was God-focused. One exalted himself and would eventually be humbled, either by correction or rejection from God. The other humbled himself and would eventually be exalted, because of his relationship with God.
Let us also, then, pray humble prayers…because we know that Jesus’ blood sacrifice on the cross is the basis of our relationship with God, not anything we have done or will do.