To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
- Luke 18:9-14
“It was the fault of the Pharisee that, though he entered the temple to pray, he did not pray, there is no prayer in all that he said. It is one excellence of the tax collector that he went up to the temple to pray and did pray; there is nothing but prayer in all that he said. ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ is a pure, unadulterated prayer throughout. It was the fault of the Pharisee that when he went up to the temple to pray he forgot an essential part of prayer, which is confession of sin; he spoke as if he had no sins to confess but many virtues to parade. It was a chief excellence the devotion of the tax collector that he did confess his sins and his utterance was full of confession of sin; from beginning to end it was an acknowledgement of his guilt and an appeal for grace to the merciful God.”
- Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes
May I pump the brakes on this Spurgeon sermon quote? Does all prayer have to contain confession of sin? Sure, the ACTS initiative stemmed from the concept that prayer should contain Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. R. C. Sproul said in one of his videos that if you do the ACT properly, you won’t have time for the Supplication. He hinted that God already knows what you were about to ask for, for yourself and in intercession for others.
But I would like to go beyond what Spurgeon wrote in his sermon notes here to examine what makes one a good prayer and the other something Spurgeon said was not a prayer at all.
I want to avoid saying that something is not a prayer, as Spurgeon stated. I also wish to avoid saying that we can pray “wrong.” Our younger son heard a preacher state that if you pray “wrong,” God will get angry. Our son successfully avoided prayer for a couple of years, until he accepted Jesus into his heart. He was afraid of getting God angry, while the entire time, God simply wanted to start a conversation. We left the church where that pastor was preaching. He did more harm than good.
No, let’s look at the heart of the issue in this parable. The tax collector knew he had done wrong and went to the temple to confess his sin. He was the sinner. God is holy, without sin. The tax collector was humbled by the great difference between him and God, but he was emboldened in desperation, seeing his own wretchedness, daring to reach out and ask God for mercy.
The Pharisee does so many things wrong, he shouldn’t have bothered, but it wasn’t his words that betrayed his prayer. He talks to the crowd instead of talking to God. He is trying to impress the crowd as to how wonderful he is, never giving God the credit. He uses the word “thank,” but does he really state that it was God who made him different than the loathsome people around him? Not really. He brags to God, reminding God of all the things that he provides to the temple, which is the minimum that God requests, nothing in the way of offering beyond the minimum. And he looks down on the others, including the tax collector, that are near him.
It is the condition of the heart that makes the difference. Sure, the Pharisee’s words are offensive, but the condition of his heart would have been the reason why God did not grant his prayer request, if he’d actually made one. Yet, God granted mercy to the tax collector.
Let’s not worry about structure. Let’s not worry about saying the wrong things. Let’s acknowledge that God is holy and we are not there by a long stretch. Let’s not worry about what elements should be in a prayer or what makes a prayer not a “Real Prayer” at all.
God knows what’s in our hearts. Let’s just talk. You might hear God whisper a nugget of wisdom every now and then.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.