Hiding beneath the cloak of our perceived goodness are religious sins, those that feed self-awareness of our spirituality. Instead of driving us to God in humble dependence upon his grace, they blind us, fuel self-righteousness, breed spiritual apathy, and often neutralize the Holy Spirit’s conviction. Religious sins are hazardous because they produce false confidence in the soul. In a vicious cycle of increasing self-worship, they steadily feed the pride from which they were born. This impels us to strive for godliness in the flesh, the deep irony being that the more we do this the less godly we become. Striving in the flesh only enslaves us further to the law’s conditional approval and its resulting condemnation, and increasingly cuts us off from the grace of God that is our only source of hope.
Under the influence of religious sins we become dangerously pleased with our own spiritual performance and become judgmental of others in our perceived superiority. This ultimately results in conflict with God, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Religious sins can provide us with an outward appearance of loving God, even as they cripple our capacity to truly be changed by transforming grace.
What is the solution? How do we escape from this cycle of self-congratulation and self-elevation? Just as you and I would never have conceived of the atoning death and resurrection of the Son of God as the answer to sin, the answer to this question is likewise one we would never have chosen ourselves. We generally escape from the vicious cycle of religious sins only when God spiritually breaks us.
The Pharisees—the hypocrites of Jesus’ day—were preoccupied with displaying their righteousness. They sought to impress others with their supposed spiritual maturity because they were impressed with it themselves. Such hypocrisy was a frequent subject for Jesus, for he knew that even those who would be filled with his Holy Spirit following his resurrection would continue to struggle with this religious sin. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer, we find an especially helpful lesson in the delusions of self-worth.
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 (Luke 18:10-14).
The Pharisee confidently justified himself, believing he had no need of God’s mercy. The Pharisee was self-righteous. His confidence was built on the great, awful lie that the righteousness which saves is found within the good or religious person. But the tax collector humbly offered to God his truckload of sin as he pleaded for mercy. He was just an average sinner, and well aware that righteousness could only come to him as a gift. If he was ever to be justified, God would have to do it. He realized that the only way anyone can ever be in good standing with God is if God counts the righteousness of Jesus to the credit of the sinner. Theologians call this imputation. Righteousness can only be ours if God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us. In this parable both men went to the temple to pray, but God only listened to one of them. The tax collector brought to God humility of faith birthed in brokenness, and he was heard and justified by God. But the Pharisee, while outwardly religious in many of the right ways, brought to God only an arrogant sense of superiority and confidence in his own flesh. The most meaningful difference between these two men was their hearts, not their behavior. The tax collector was a broken man who saw himself with a certain humble clarity. The Pharisee, full of religious sins, was blinded by the curse of self-honor.
To be sure, the Bible never teaches that outward manifestations of an inner righteousness are wrong in themselves. There is an outward righteousness that is legitimately connected to the true inner righteousness of Christ imputed to us by the Father. Jesus even says later in the Sermon on the Mount that outward manifestations can serve as proof of inner righteousness (Matthew 7:18-20). But there is also an apparent outward righteousness that is connected to nothing except its own sense of self-importance. It is the righteousness of independence and self-justification, a false righteousness that presumes to possess an inherent, self-contained goodness— something only God possesses in and of himself. The challenge we all face is that we tend to start congratulating ourselves. We place our confidence in our performance (our practical righteousness) rather than the righteousness of Christ that has been imputed to us (our actual righteousness).
So when Jesus warned, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people,” he was not diminishing the importance of practical righteousness or forbidding its outward display. The focus in that warning is on the Pharisaical quest for self-honor, the religious hypocrites’ motive “to be seen by [others]” as especially holy (Matthew 6:1). The Pharisees’ problem was not their practice of religion. It was not that they gave alms, or prayed, or fasted in public settings. It was that they did these things in public with a particular motivation—to draw attention to themselves so that people might think better of them (see Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). The best that such vain striving for approval can ever attain is the shallow, fleeting, and ultimately meaningless approval of man. It fails completely to achieve the eternal, glorious approval of God himself.
This parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector provides us another clear category for unanswered prayer: God rejects the prayers of the self-satisfied and the self-righteous, but accepts the prayers of the humble and broken.
Earlier Posts in this Series
- 6 Common Reasons God Does Not Answer Our Prayers
- The Problem with Pet Sins
- Why Refusing to Resolve Conflict Hinders Prayer