Complacently Pleased

Have you ever met someone who “thought more highly of themselves than they ought”? We all know someone who is conceited, arrogant, braggadocios, and perhaps even narcissistic. They are in our family, in our workplaces, and in our church. On the one hand, it is good to have a certain measure of self-confidence and a healthy dose of self-esteem. But folks who carry that to a new level and think they are better than everyone else are hard to take.

Jesus had the same problem. In a wonderful parable told in the book of Luke, Jesus calls out the showy and self-absorbed Pharisees:

Luke 18 (The Message)

9-12 He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

First, we have to admire Eugene Peterson’s choice of words in The Message. I laughed out loud at the phrases, “complacently pleased,” “looked down their noses,” and the notion that the Pharisee “posed” to pray. What vivid pictures these words conjure up! We get an image of a totally insufferable religious hypocrite.

Next, Jesus introduced a tax man as the foil to the puffed-up Pharisee. This meant a lot to the hearers of this story, because tax men of the time were the lowest form of humanity, the dredge of society, and the dirtiest scoundrels around. Like politicians, some might say.

13 “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”

14 Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

So, the folks listening to the story were shocked that the tax man was the hero of the tale, and the religious man was the villain.

Jesus’ point here was the level of humble sincerity we must bring to the altar. When the tax man asked for mercy and forgiveness, acknowledging that he was a sinner, he was speaking for all of us. We are that man slumped in the shadows with our faces in our hands. That is where God meets us with his saving grace.

The show-off went home not being made right with God because the show-off couldn’t be honest about his sin. Even though he ticked the boxes of tithing and praying, his heart was insincere, and his offering was shallow.

God desires more from us. He invites us to “simply be ourselves.” What does that say to you today? We can boldly come to his throne just as we are, without one plea, and be forgiven. That level of honesty with God is all that is required to be made right. Where is God calling you to come clean and be real? It’s time to come home.

Looking for a new devotional book? Psalms by the Sea makes a great Christmas present.

Coming Home by Michelle Robertson

Prevenient Prayer

Do you know someone who has an admirable prayer life? Whenever I think about people who center their lives in prayer, I remember a beautiful lady named Betty Brown. Betty was a part-time church secretary for many years at the church where I heard my call to ministry, and she was active in almost every aspect of church life. She participated in the choir, Sunday school, Disciple Bible Study, Welcome Ministry, and of course, the Prayer Ministry. She was so revered, when the time came to open a new young mother’s circle of United Methodist Women, it was named after her. I had not heard my call to ministry yet, but God was moving me toward something new and I joined the Betty Brown Circle as a very young mother. I know that many seeds were planted there for me and the other young moms who participated.

Betty was invited to give a talk about prayer at a UMW gathering, and I will never forget the wonderful advice she gave us young moms. She told us that we should start praying for two things for our babies: (1) that they would have good college roommates who will be positive influences in their lives; and (2) that they would marry Godly men. I remember looking at my 9-month-old daughter on my lap, and I couldn’t imagine a time when college and marriage would ever come, but I began to pray that way.

It was a kind of “prevenient prayer” … in other words, a prayer that came before it was needed, paving the way to the answer in God’s time. And many of you know the rest of that story: my daughters are still best friends with their remarkable college roommates, who were selected at random, and I have the two best sons-in-law that a mother could ever hope for.

That’s what prayer can do.

Jesus tells a parable about what happens when we pray continuously that demonstrates the power of NOT GETTING DISCOURAGED in our prayers:

Luke 18 (Common English Bible)

18 Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” 

We can be sure that if an unjust judge will acquiesce to the persistence of a widow’s plea, how much more will a God who loves you enough to sacrifice his son for you hear and answer your prayers!

The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”

God is never slow to help us. He hears us when we pray and answers according to his will and what is good for us. Sometimes that can be confusing, if we are praying for things that he knows will not serve us well in the long run. But Scripture, and Betty Brown, were right. Just keep on praying, and when you’re done, pray some more.

Are you discouraged in your prayers? Never mind. Just keep at it. God is here.

Good prayer requires STILLNESS. Read what my friend Shannon says about that.

Morning Bird by Michelle Robertson