“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.Matthew 6:5-8
And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
Prayer is not a tool for the proud, but rather it is a petition of the weak. If you spend more time in prayer glorifying yourself and your deeds and your own personal value to the kingdom, then you have completely missed the point. Prayer is about humbly submitting ourselves before our Sovereign, yet merciful God, recognizing that we do not have all the answers, but He does. By His providence, He sees our past, our failures, our mistakes, and our sin. By His grace, He forgives knowing that His Son paid the penalty for our transgressions. By His omniscience, He knows what our future holds before we even imagine it.
In Jesus’ day, it was a common practice among the religious elites to not only walk around with bells on the hems of their robes to announce their coming, but at certain times of day they would suddenly and without provocation stop and loudly pray in the street – bringing attention to themselves. In many cases, contextually speaking, these prayers would be spiked with pride and self-aggrandizement. Other times, they would point out the sins of others or give thanks for their high position relative to others around them.
Jesus illustrated this with the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which is related by the gospel writer Luke. Two men enter the temple to pray, one a Pharisee (the religious elite) and one a despised tax collector. And Jesus made a point to describe the tax collector as “despised.” It was more of an indictment of the heart of the Pharisee than the condition of the tax collector. Tax collectors were often locals who would volunteer to collect taxes on behalf of Rome in exchange for protection or relief from their Roman oppressors and were often paid out of the taxes they collected – resulting in some cases over taxation for the benefit of the collector.
The Pharisee’s prayer was full of selfish pride: “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” (Luke 18:11-12) Oh the hubris! The pride. The arrogance to stand before a holy God and compare yourself to another of His creations, when the only comparison that should be made is to Him alone. When we stand in the darkness of our sin, we are blinded to our own wretchedness in comparison to Him. However, when we stand in the light of His holiness, we stand exposed for all that we truly are.
And the tax collector in Jesus’ parable knows this all too well. His own prayer is a simple confession: “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) And acknowledge not only of His own spiritual condition, as is our own condition before a holy God, but a plea for mercy. It is a shorter version of Isaiah’s prayer before the throne of God:
“Woe is me, for I am ruined!Isaiah 6:5
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Genuine prayer sheds light upon the holiness of God and exposes our nature by this same light. When we see God for who He truly is, we see ourselves for who we really are. And it changes us. For better or for worse, it transforms us. Either we fall on our face in repentance before Him, or we run away rejecting His authority. Often times, this rejection will play itself out as we live lives contrary to His word. We demonstrate a rejection of His authority by our own refusal to repent of our own selfish agendas.
Consider the words of your prayers. If the focus of your petitions before God shines more light on you than it shines on Him, then I beg you to re-examine your heart. I beg you look upon God for who He truly and deservedly is. Contemplate His holiness. Meditate upon His mercy. Embrace His grace. Then and only then will your prayers prevail upon the ears of righteousness and move the heart of our Abba.