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The Start of Prayer: Humility

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Praying Biblically  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  42:40
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Praying Biblically Series

Today we begin a new sermon series that will last through the next 2 months, February and March. 9 Weeks. The title of this series is “Praying Biblically”, and the goal is for all of us to grow in the area of prayer, to have a right understanding of what prayer is, what our attitude should be regarding prayer, how we can be sure our prayers are heard, among other topics. If you were to get an honest assessment of how Christians view their own prayer lives, you most likely would find that not many would claim they pray enough, and hardly anyone would claim that they pray too much. But the true assessment for most Christians would be that they are not praying enough, if at all. Some pray quite well publicly, and have much to say out loud in prayer when others are present, and never pray out loud when they are alone, which may indicate who they are really praying to or for whose ears those prayers are meant. Many times in groups for prayer, more time is spent talking about the prayer requests than actually praying, which makes one wonder whether it is really a prayer meeting at all, or a gossip circle disguised as a prayer meeting.
Most Christians fall short in some way in regards to prayer, or at the very least, they need to be reminded what their attitude and focus should be when communicating with a holy God, so it is important at times to review our prayer lives, see what scripture can teach us, and learn or relearn what prayer is about. So this series has very important application for all Christians, and even for non believers who would seek for God to reveal himself to them. For believers who feel they really don’t know how to pray, you will be given a good starting point. For those who feel they have a prayer life that is good, you may find some inspiration from God’s Word to strengthen and grow the good prayer life you already enjoy. We will be looking at private prayer, family prayer, and corporate prayer, or praying in groups, and if you should choose to be an active listener and active participant, I am sure that you can be blessed by an improved prayer life.
During this series, each week’s bulletin will have an insert with some topics or guides for prayer that week, that will reinforce the ideas of the sermon. I encourage you to keep that handy through the week so that you can refer to it. We know that learning is greatly enhanced by hearing, reading, taking notes, and reviewing, so for this sermon series, imagine you are back in school, but rather than getting a good grade, your goal is to grow in relationship to the Almighty Creator through and improved prayer life.

The Start of Prayer: Humility

When a person first puts faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, part of what happened was a moment of humility. For a person to understand their need for salvation, they must realize that they are lost, utterly hopeless, and without any ability whatsoever to save themselves. What are they being saved from? God himself. His wrath towards sin, His holy nature, His righteousness and justice, and the eternal punishment that every person deserves because of their sin. So a person who finds salvation has had to realize that they are utterly hopeless, under God’s wrath, and in desperate need of a way of salvation. I came to faith in Christ because I was convinced that the story of the cross was true, but also because I had to come to a full acknowledgment of the truth of who I was and who God is. I am wretchedly sinful, and under God’s wrath. I had to realize this. This is the truth about me. And the truth about God is that He is holy, righteous, and angry with sin. Realizing the truth about myself and who I am and God and who He is, is an acknowledgement of my own wretchedness and His holiness. This moment of realization is a moment of humility, where one stops trying to take the authority of God on one’s self, and chooses to submit to Him, and in that moment of feeling utterly lost and wretched, cries out to God for mercy, through Jesus, and if this was in sincerity, then that person is once and for always saved from God’s wrath, and given adoption as His child, and the promise of eternal life.
This is how our relationship with God as a merciful savior begins, with utter humility. He responds to this cry for mercy as a father. And since this attitude of humility marks the beginning of our relationship with Him, our ongoing relationship, to be healthy, must continue in an attitude of humility. So my premise this morning is that we must, to have the right attitude for prayer, realize our own wretchedness in light of God’s holiness. Throughout scripture we learn that God responds to humility, he loves a contrite heart, and that, in contrast, he will not listen to prayers that arise from a prideful, self-indulgent attitude. God does not want us to come to him as our butler, as though our prayers should be all about having him serve us for our comfort, but instead, he wants a relationship with us where he is our heavenly father. He is the creator God, and even though he loves us like a father, we must not come to him casually, or as if he owes us anything because we have served him.
Luke 18:9–14 ESV
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “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.”


Not much background is required for us to understand this parable. We are told who the parable was given to, some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. And so today, we may not witness the same scene, but we are certainly witnesses of the sentiment, both of the Pharisee and the tax collector, or publican as some translations put it. We read this and usually think of someone we think may fit one of the characters.
Kent Hughes, in his commentary, said this: But what about us? We have heard the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector so often that it has become to us like a comfortable old slipper that other people wear. They wear it to their discomfort, and we enjoy seeing them wearing it! Actually, this parable paradoxically both fits our feet and pinches them.
Walter Liefeld reminds us that our understanding of Pharisees in this parable is different than would have been for those who first heard Jesus give it. He said:
The modern reader will probably not feel the impact of this story to the extent a first-century reader would. We already think of the Pharisees as hypocrites and the tax collectors as those who received the grace of God. Jesus’ original hearers would have thought, on the contrary, that it was the pious Pharisee who deserved acceptance by God.
So here is the context in which we find this passage. Jesus is speaking to people who trusted in their own righteousness and gives both a negative and positive example of how one ought to approach God.

The Prayer that Saves

Before I read the passage, I said that the salvation prayer, the one that saves, is grounded in an attitude of humility, and this attitude must attend our prayers, no matter how long we have been in the process of being saved. The same prayer that saves from hell, is the prayer that saves us from despair, from temptation, from losing control of our anger, it is the prayer that saves us from covetousness and pride, and that is a prayer, that, though the words may differ, has this sentiment, “Have mercy on me, a sinner”.
And why is this so important? Well, think of it as remembering where you came from if that helps. A man that went to my high school is now a very famous actor, has made who knows how many millions, is world famous, married a superstar singer, and one of the great virtues people from my hometown see in him is that he still comes home from time to time. People will excitedly post on Facebook that they saw him at the YMCA or at a restaurant. In fact, he has invested in his hometown, and when Minot was flooded some years ago, he organized a benefit concert, and got many of his celebrity friends to give relief money. Now, I don’t know him personally, though others in my family know him, my sister was in his class. Whatever else his life is about, the locals appreciate that he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. This is seen as a great virtue. For the Christian, it is also important that we remember where we came from. If we forget what a wretch we were (and are), we begin to imagine ourselves as virtuous, and we may even drift into an attitude marked by a self-reliance that brings us to a place of thinking we deserved salvation, and we were not chosen for it, but rather somehow merited it.
Yes, I believe our attitude in prayer should be humility grounded in our own sense of wretchedness and an understanding of God’s holiness. And yet, today, many Christians would shake their head at this concept, and they would say, “No, we must have victorious thoughts”. We are justified by faith. The sinful man is not who we are anymore, we shouldn't be looking back on the past at what we were but instead we should live in victory now. They would say, “why should we wallow in our sinfulness, when we now have Christ?”.
This would be a fundamental misunderstanding of what I am saying here. Yes, we should live with victory over sin, we should look with great hope on our future in Christ, but what I am talking about is not a return to sorrow and despair, but instead I believe that in crying out to God, even though we know we are saved, “Be merciful to me, a sinner”, that is the proper beginning for us to begin our communion with God in prayer, for this he loves. For a Christian, who is saved by God’s grace, to cry out to him for mercy is not a denial of their salvation, it is not making little of the cross, but rather it is an acknowledgement that we need his mercy anew all the time, and thanks be to God, his mercies are new every morning!
Now, if one were to fake humility, and mourn with sackcloth and ashes while making no strides in maturing their faith, that would be different, but a mark of maturity in Christ is that the more one has matured, the more they realize how much they fall short, and that does not ultimately result in despair, but instead in great rejoicing, because the grace of God becomes so much more valuable to the one who can understand what the cost of their salvation was! And so, as Christ said, the one who has been forgiven much, loves much. God show me how much I have been forgiven so that I may love you even more!
The two examples Jesus gives in the parable are the Pharisee, who is about self elevation, and the tax collector, who is about self evaluation. Let’s look a little closer at these two individuals:

Self Elevation

First, the Pharisee. We love to looks at what the gospel says about the Pharisees, because we think we are better than them. Isn't that ironic? Yet, as I said before, the ones who heard this parable saw the Pharisees as the devout, the ones who went all out to prove their allegiance for God. They had every outward appearance of holiness, and to be a Pharisee was not considered a bad thing. That is because the world looks at the outward appearance. John Bunyan wrote a long discourse on the Pharisee and the Publican, and among many gems in that discourse is this:
Thus diverse were they in their appearances; the Pharisee, very good; the Publican, very bad. But as to the law of God, which looked upon them with reference to the state of their spirits, and the nature of their actions, by that they were both found sinners; the Publican an open outside one, and the Pharisee a filthy inside one.
Do you see? Jesus was pointing out that dependence on outward appearances can be very dangerous. And so we see many times in scripture, as well as in world history, as well as in our own witness of life around us, that when we rely on appearances alone, we may be fooled. The cover is not the book, so open it up and take a look, because under the cover you may discover that the king may be a crook. Psalm 5:9–10 (ESV)
9 For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.
Bruce Larson, in his commentary, said
Someone once said to me, “Larson, do you know what’s wrong with you? You judge other people by their actions and yourself by your intentions. If you could reverse that, it would change your life.”
John Bunyan said in strong terms that it was delusion for the Pharisee
But a strong delusion! to trust to the spider’s web, and to think, that a few of the most fine of the works of the flesh, would be sufficient to bear up the soul in, at, and under the judgment of God. “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness.” (Prov 30:12) This text can be so fitly applied to none, as to the Pharisee, and to those that tread in the Pharisee’s steps, and that are swallowed up with is conceits, and with the glory of his own righteousness.
We will leave the pharisee for now, but let us not forget the lesson here. We look to him and say that we cannot imagine doing this ourselves, for who would stand in the church and say these things? Of course none of us would say this…Out loud. Oh, but most of us have thought those thoughts at times. We look around and see where others failing where we see ourselves succeeding, and how easy it is to think well of ourselves! The reformed alcoholic looks at someone still struggling with drink has smug thoughts about how he beat that, why can’t the other? The one who has learned to manage finances well, does he shake his head at others who have trouble with their finances, forgetting that he had to learn this lesson with difficulty? Does the one who has learned to soften his language act indignant at the one who lets the wrong words slip between his lips? We could go and on. So the pharisee has more problems than just believing himself to be righteous based on his actions, he also has the sin of looking at others with disdain. Perhaps his prayer could have been ok. There is nothing wrong with thanking the Lord for helping us to change, but the Pharisee had to play the compare game, one of the most dangerous games we can play, because we quickly become blind to our own faults and needs when we compare ourselves to one another instead of comparing ourselves to Christ, the perfect one.

Self Evaluation

So we move now from the Pharisee to the tax collector, from self elevation to self evaluation. Here now is a man despised by most people. He was a Jew, we know this since he was in the temple. But he was a Jew who had taken a job with the Romans as a tax collector. Tax collectors were no more highly regarded then than now, but they were often extortioners. The Romans cared not if the collector swindled extra from the people, so long as they got their share. It was a crooked business. How could a man like this even be brazen enough to come into the temple? R. C. H. Lenski, a Lutheran commentator, put it like this:
But how dare a gross sinner approach God, and that right in God’s Temple? Because there is forgiveness with God, his Temple is open to sinners, he has provided expiation for their sins, and this is applied to sinners in his Temple, and his Word declares all this and seals the forgiveness. This publican was a Jew who knew all this and was now acting upon it. It was this gospel provision of the old covenant that drew him in the first place. The Pharisee disregarded all gospel, made the whole Old Testament law, and thus prayed as he did. The publican knew the true law that condemns sin, came smitten and crushed by that law, but, thank God, knew also the gospel in the Old Testament, the gospel in all the sacrifices for sin in the Temple, and made his prayer thus.
Jesus gives us a stark contrast here, doesn’t he? Not only in words, but in posture and attitude, the tax collector is so different. He doesn’t even look up. He beats his breast, a sign of deep distress and sorrow. Here is a man who realizes what a wretch he is! While the pharisee exalted himself, this man has examined himself and found himself in dire straits, a sinner under god’s wrath. He knows that no sacrifice can save him, no changing of behavior, were he to stop sinning and do so successfully for 40 more years of life, there is nothing he can do except to appeal to God’s mercy. So he does. He makes no excuse, he gives no mitigating circumstances, he does not sugarcoat, he declares himself a sinner. One translation puts it “Have mercy on me, THE sinner.” Perhaps a small difference in translation, but can you see the difference? As THE sinner, he is not merely describing himself as a sinner, he is embracing that identity fully and without reservation. He knows who he is and what he needs.
In his despair and probably fear of God’s wrath, he needs no fancy prayers. He simply cries out from a place of total humiliation and wretchedness. This is the attitude of prayer. A response of the heart of one who realizes their desperate need for God. This is what happens when the Holy Spirit convicts someone of sin and convinces them of the truth.
Acts 16:29–31 ESV
And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
You see, this is the work the Holy Spirit does, He brings people to a conclusion they cannot ignore, and when this happens, they cannot help but cry out for God’s mercy. No poetic words needed, no great grammar, just the sincere words from the mouth of one who has come under conviction of sin. There is no sinner’s prayer needed, no coach to tell them what words to pray; the one under conviction, who has realized their own wretchedness and lostness, and has realized God’s holiness and their need for His mercy will call out to God in their own way, appealing for his mercy. I’m not a big fan of sinner’s prayers, and this is part of the reason. For one, no recited prayer will ever save anyone, but when someone comes to the realization of their wretchedness and need for salvation, they will on their own cry out to God.
Acts 2:37–38 ESV
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Peter didn’t have an altar call, he didn’t give an invitation, he just presented a gospel presentation, the Holy Spirit was at work, and the response was to plead, “what shall we do?”. Peter didn’t whip out his gospel tract or tell them repeat after me, I see that hand in the back, he said repent and be baptized.
The attitude of the Tax collector, this attitude of feeling miserable over sin, and in complete need of help from God, that should be our starting attitude for prayer. It is the attitude that brings us to true salvation and it is the attitude that helps us to approach God with the right attitude in prayer.

Justified by faith

Luke 18:14 ESV
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.”
Jesus makes the final call on which man was justified. Not the Pharisee, with his confidence in his behavior and appearance, but who inwardly looked down on others in judgement. No, the tax collector was justified. Now, you may need to be refreshed on what justified means. The Bible Exposition Commentary defines it:
To be “justified” means to be declared righteous by God on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Now, we may find here some of the objection for those who want to live victoriously without thinking of their wretchedness, for they would say, “I am in Christ, I am justified”. Yes, the one in Christ is justified, this means declared righteous. It means in God’s eyes, the one in Christ is clothed in Him, and God counts him as saved, but while this justification in regards to one’s final state is not to be minimized, it does not mean that practically speaking a beleiver in Christ is done with sin, but rather the testimony of scripture is that the battle with sin continues. So we see king David, a man after God’s own heart, who still sins, and still has consequences for that sin, and so cries out to God,
Psalm 40:11–13 ESV
As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me! For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me. Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!
Psalm 41:4 ESV
As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!”
This is why Paul, in Romans 7, agonizes over the fact that his desire is to be sin free, but he misses the mark again and again, and in the end, he declares victory, not because of his own doing, but based upon Christ. I have heard it argued that Paul here was not talking about himself after salvation, but before, but this makes no sense at all, since every use of language in this particular discourse is in the present tense. He does not say, I once struggled with sin, but now I am in Christ, he says, using the language to indicate he is talking about his present condition as he writes to the Romand church, that it is a struggle ongoing. He did not say wretched man that I was, he said wretched man that I am? Who will save me? and answers his own question by giving glory to Christ.
And so it is that the Christian is justified by faith, this salvation coming from a clear understanding of one’s need of salvation, and also a recognition of one’s own wretched state, and so also the mature Christian, as Paul, will say, wretched man that I am, who will save me? And this acknowledgement is not a request for salvation from hell and God’s wrath, for Paul already had this, but rather it is a cry for mercy that God would save him, that is, to continue a sanctifying work in his life. It is not rudeness to the sacrifice of the cross to say, I am saved, but I still need mercy day by day, because I am wretched, for we find that although true saving faith in Christ is effective and permanent for the true believer, but the salvation is not yet complete in the sense that we are not yet fully saved from sin, because we still do it. And so
1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Finally, in regard tot the tax collector, I should note that he used a word only found one other place in the new testament, which is translated propitiation in Hebrews. Translated in our text it is merciful, but the plea is not only for mercy in the sense we usually mean it, but he cries out for God to make propitiation for him.
Hebrews 2:17–18 ESV
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Propitiation is the turning away of anger by the offering of a gift.
The tax collector is asking God to make propitiation for him. This is what I would call bold humility. He realizes there is no sacrifice he can bring to be saved, and appeals to God’s promise through the prophets that He would provide the sacrifice, as was foreshadowed when Isaac was spared because God himself provided the sacrifice.
Now, I will attempt to draw all of the ideas of this message together. First, our example stands as a strong one. This is one of the easier parables to understand, since we see ourselves in it, and hopefully not only as the hero of the story, but in a reflective way of warning against the attitudes of the pharisee. We see that Jesus himself said the tax collector was justified and not the Pharisee, but note Jesus did not say that the tax collector was more justified than the other. Justification is all or nothing. The tax collector was completely justified because he had the right attitude towards God, and the pharisee was not justified at all.
So the prayer that saves when salvation first comes to someone is the prayer that begins with a posture where a person feels utterly wretched and lost, and comes before a God who is holy, and that attitude of prayer must continue throughout our Christian lives. We must avoid self elevation and practice self evaluation, in a biblical way, and finally, realize that our justification is by faith alone. Our behavior does not save us, but we ought still to cry out for mercy to God to save us from our own propensity to sin, we must ask him to stave off our arrogance that leads us to serve ourselves rather than God.
What can this look like?
Take home:
Monday: Lord, help me to understand my wretchedness
Tuesday: Lord, give me a desire to understand my sin in light of your holiness
Wednesday: Lord, Let my sin become repugnant to me, that I may confess it more freely and completely
Thursday: Lord, may you guide me in my prayers as I recognize my fallen nature
Friday: Lord, Help me to pray with sincerity
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