Cornerstone Prayer Time Meditations

Humble Prayer

Luke 18.13 (ESV) – But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

Humility is a character trait we ought to highly value. Yet the moment we value our own humility, it loses all value. The moment we think we’re something in God’s eyes, the moment we "recognize" that we’re humble, that’s the moment we slip into works, not grace. We think we have something to bring, to offer God that He can use and that He should recognize in return. This is false humility. And there is no room for false humility in prayer.

False humility thinks it can move God’s heart. But humility consists in being dependent upon grace alone. I wonder how many of prayers bounce right off a brass ceiling cue to false humility. How many of mine?

The Pharisee in Luke 18 was filled with prideful false humility. Jesus, in telling this parable, contrasts this with true humility in prayer through the publican.

Publicans, or tax collectors, were despised, reproached, loathed, hated. They were not "good" people. They were agents of the Roman government, usually natives of the land they were from, usually wealthy to begin with and master extortionists. they would have been rendered unclean by constant contact with Gentiles, so Jews tried to avoid them. Zacchaeus was a tax-collecting publican (Luke 19). Traitors, oppressors of their own people, shameless, lawless men: have I painted an adequate portrait of the vitriol directed toward a publican?

When you stop to think just how loathsome these men were, it’s easier to appreciate the Pharisee’s prayer: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. Child abusers, prostitutes, crack or meth users/addicts might fall in this category for most of us. And surely we see where these types of people face/judgment before God someday.

Yet Jesus shows us a publican, an ignominious chap if ever there was one. Why? First, to contrast the pride of the Pharisee with the humility of the publican. Here is this publican, daring to enter the temple grounds, let alone the temple proper. He comes and bows before the God who has become too much for him. His own sin has become too much for him to bear.

Holiness and sin cannot abide together. This man’s sin had become too much. He looks for a place to pour his heart out before the Lord. There is, perhaps, a recognition that he will be cast off forever, yet he approaches and seeks after God. Not all cry out as did Simon Peter "Depart from me!" (Luke 5.8) Some are truly drawn, through humility, to the holiness of God.

Look at the Pharisee, up there in the center of the temple, standing where all can see him and hear his devout prayer. See his face. He squints in derision and disgust. He clenches his jaw in revulsion,. And he prays, "I’m glad I’m not like him." Here we see false humility, which is pride.

I think Jesus also wants us to see the publican clearly. He was the one with "no nerve", no compunction about coming where he needed to be. He knew he was scum, lowest of the low. So he came – not too far in, but he came. God might strike him down should he come too close, in too far. This is true humility. Someone once said humility is the first thing a sinner truly learns.

Note his prayer: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. I started using the English Standard Version a few months ago. I’m still weighing it against the NASB95. Here’s a mark against it, in this instance: why no definite article before "sinner"? "O God, be merciful, I’m the sinner. It’s there in the Greek. NASB95 gets it. Darby gets it. Young gets it. Everyone else misses it (ESV, KJV, AV, NLT, CEV, even Peterson in The Message). I think it’s important.

As long as we’re just a sinner, as long as it’s sin in a general form, we really haven’t got a good grip on who we are yet. When we can cry out, almost in horror, "I’m the sinner! I am the foremost of sinners!" then we’ve reached bottom. Then we’re in the depth of humility. Then God’s grace can come & wash & cleanse & answer.

The humble prayer can do naught but ask for grace. What else can you do? You know you have nothing to offer but the lament: Be merciful, I’m the sinner. The answer to this plea will either be grace or death.

 Do you offer humble prayers before the Lord? Do you offer nothing unto Him who is Holy but the tremendous need for grace? A prayer for grace doesn’t go unanswered when that is all that is requested. Such prayer glorifies God. It is humiliating for us and it should be. When we fallen creatures acknowledge our fall before the throne of Sovereign Grace, God is pleased. We are never too wicked to come to Jesus. We can only be too good in our own eyes. Don’t despair. Don’t give up. It’s the devil who tells us we’re too wicked to pray. It’s the devourer of our soul and joy who gets us thinking we’re good enough to pray.

Make sure you hear the prayer of the publican: this side of heaven we will never get past a need for it. Because sin is  in us ’til our final breath, we’ll always need grace. O God, be merciful to me, the sinner.

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One Response

  1. Great post. It is easy to say “Amen and Amen” when the truth refers mostly to someone else, but when it hits very close to home, it is just downright convicting.


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