Do you try to impress God? I admit there are times when I realize I’m trying to dazzle God, eager to hear not just “well done, good and faithful servant” but “Wow! You’re the best!”
Pride can easily creep into our good works, worship, and prayers. We don’t always spot it at a glance. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Jesus drew such stark contrasts in parables like this:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
Taking a closer look at this parable, we can spot some subtle differences between the attitude of the Pharisee and the tax collector to help us distinguish between trying to impress God versus pleasing Him by coming to Him humbly.
Self: Independent Versus Dependent
The Impressive Pharisee: Exalts himself (Count the “I”s in his prayer!).
The Humble Tax Collector: Counts himself a sinner.
When we’re seeking to impress God, we’re assuming we can offer Him anything apart from Him. Like the Pharisee, we forget that everything we have – even our qualities and morality – comes from God. Apart from Christ’s righteousness, we always fall short. The tax collector, on the other hand, saw that what pleases God isn’t us trying to act independently but rather us depending on Him.
In John 15:5, Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing.” That’s a fact but also an invitation. Throughout John 15, we find Jesus calls us to abide in Him, depending on Him to supply everything we need to glorify Him—including the mercy we need to truly serve Him.
Do your prayers exalt yourself rather than express dependence on God?
Worth: Earned Versus Received
The Impressive Pharisee: Lists his accomplishments.
The Humble Tax Collector: Acknowledges his need.
We unduly desire praise when we try to impress. We seek to exceed, not to honor. The Pharisee in the parable demonstrates this as he lists off his accomplishments, competitively comparing his status with others. He neglects the Spirit of God’s Word in an effort to earn praise by going above and beyond the letter of the law.
Aiming to please God requires us to know our need for Him. Like the tax collector, we please God when we acknowledge that we’re not enough on our own, coming to Him and even crying out to Him if we are ashamed. We do what God desires when we think of ourselves “with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).
Do your prayers acknowledge your need of God?
God: Acknowledged Versus Worshiped
The Impressive Pharisee: Sees God as his audience.
The Humble Tax Collector: Sees God as his Savior.
It’s ironic that the Pharisee’s prayer begins with thanks because he expresses gratitude to God as if God is equally delighted by his pride. Comparison and performance are not what God calls us to or measures us by. The standard the Pharisee expects God to use is his own invention – making God an audience or a jury playing by the Pharisee’s rules. The Pharisee acts as though God can be swayed by his case, exalting himself by lowering his view of God.
I’ve been guilty of thinking I can convince God of my worth too, neglecting the truth the tax collector evidences. He humbly worships God as judge and Savior. God is the exalted One. We are not. He sets the standards, and He gloriously, graciously exalts us—the humbled sinners. He saves us and is pleased with us as we turn, over and over again, to Him for everything.
Do you turn to God in prayer regularly, or do you wait until you think you can impress Him?
A Change in Perspective
The humble view of the tax collector had of himself, his worth, and of God holds promise for us when we’re tempted by pride. Consider the result of his attitude versus the pharisees: The tax collector went home justified because “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
We can trust God will exalt us and be pleased with us when we come to Him humbly – He doesn’t need our convincing!