Luke 18:9-14 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.”
You and I are hardwired to expect to receive only what we have earned. No one expects an ‘A’ on a test they bombed, no one expects a promotion after a year of poor results in the office, no one expects a healthy marriage if one or both spouses fail the other miserably. You get what you work for, you get what you earn.
This is our default thinking and posture before God. You want a prayer life in which you see answered prayers continually? You want to see people respond with faith to your gospel presentation? You want to become a pastor or church-planter? Work hard, spiritually. I mean, you really think God is going to respond to the prayers of a consistent screw-up? You think God is going to bless your missional efforts if you can’t kick your known sin? You think you will “rise” to the top of ministry (excuse me while I go throw up) if you can’t show that you have no known sin you are holding on to? (Yes, you must be biblically qualified, I don’t deny that with that last sentence).
If you are unsure whether or not this is your default way of thinking, think back on the last time you went to church and began to worship, or the last time you prayed for someone, or shared the gospel with someone. Did you start thinking, “Have I been decently holy this week? Have I held anything back from Jesus? How did I do this week?”
If before worship, or whatever, you began to examine yourself, to see if you could proceed with confidence, because you find yourself worthy, you are in a works-based, performance-based trap in that moment. You are believing, I am believing in that moment, God is pleased with us and accepts us only as much as we can say, “God, thank you that I am not like those unrighteous, uncommitted, always-failing, consistently-screwing-up sinners. Yes, we are all saved by grace, but thank you that I am doing such a great job now that I am in the kingdom. Thank you that because I am doing well, you will listen to me, or accept my worship.”
We expect to receive only what we have worked for and earned. So we examine ourselves. How are we doing? Are we “fully surrendered“? Have we been radical for Jesus? If our answer to those questions is, “I don’t think so” or “I don’t know,” well, then we proceed with great caution in our relationship with God, if we proceed at all. We believe we will only receive what we have earned. And since we don’t think we have earned much, we might just walk away from prayer or worship in that moment. We don’t ask for mercy, because in that moment we barely believe there is any for us. We don’t understand what the dude above understood that led him to say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Let me cut to the chase, this way of thinking is anti-gospel. This is anti-Christianity. You preach to yourself a works-based “gospel” when you search yourself to find something worthy of God’s acceptance and attention. “I’ve read my Bible a lot this week, so I will sing at church with joy, who knows, maybe even raise my hands, because God is happy with me!” That sounds silly, but don’t we do that?
I am not saying that nothing can hinder our prayer life, see 1 Peter 3:7. I am not saying there is no place for self-examination, see 2 Corinthians 13:5. What I am saying is that when it comes to God’s love for you and acceptance of you, it has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with anything you have done or could do. It has nothing to do with how “surrendered” or “committed” you are.
God’s love for you has everything to do with Jesus performing perfectly on your behalf, being slaughtered in your place, and rising for your new life, all received through simply trusting in all that He did for you. He doesn’t turn away his face from you, or his smile over you, or his ear from you, because you had a bad week as it concerns holy living. Yet, how often do we think He does just that. Let us not look to ourselves for assurance and confidence before God, but to Christ and Christ alone, joining the guy who asked for mercy and “…went home justified before God.”