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” (Luke 18:13, esv)!
Two guys go into the temple . . .
That’s how one of Jesus’ parables from Luke 18 begins.
Now neither one of these men was particularly likable. One was a Pharisee, a member of one of the three main sects in first-century Judaism, known for being over-the-top sticklers to the various rules of religion. The other was a tax collector, a position held by Jewish men who’d purchased from the Roman government the right to collect taxes in far-flung territories of the Empire. And any overage they were able to extort from the people, they generally pocketed. So needless to say—they weren’t very popular with the masses.
Between these two unlikely, unlikable characters, Jesus selected one of them to show us what it means to go deeper in prayer.
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’” (Luke 18:11). He is the picture of what prayer is not—seeking a place of public prominence, looking down his nose at others, considering his own character to be superior to those around him.
Yet, to discover what deepening prayer truly is, let us take a good accounting of the tax collector’s approach.
• Assume a humble position. Posture is helpful in prayer. Kneeling is an indication of submission. Bowing your head communicates your awareness of God’s honor above your own. Closing your eyes and folding your hands contributes to the earnestness of your heart. The tax collector “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven.” He knew the kind of man he was. He knew the kinds of sins he’d committed. He approached God from a lowly position, from a heart attitude of humility.
• Come with true contrition. Contrition means heartfelt confession—sorrow and admission put together into the same package. To “beat his breast” didn’t mean he was inflicting pain on himself as some sort of penance. This was more of a sign that said he wasn’t seeking his own comfort in prayer. He was willing to go to the depths of himself with God, and to see it all . . . in all its ugliness. True contrition results in a change of direction from sin, which proves the sincerity of a heart that wants to be free of it.
• Make sincere petitions. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Only seven words. There’s no need for eloquence when your heart is in prayer; no need to try to impress the Lord (much less other people) with your command of spiritual language. For as Jesus said, “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 18:14).
The way up in prayer is down—down to where you don’t care what it costs or looks like, down to where you want God more than you want anything else in the world.
Humbly. Contritely. Sincerely.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner. In Jesus’ name, amen.