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God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are ... God be merciful to me a sinner. — Luke 18:11,13
Here we have two kinds of prayer set side by side for our instruction. The first really is no prayer at all; it is only a bit of self-felicitation in the presence of God. Yet it was not much comfort, after all, that the Pharisee found. He was better than certain other men, he said. He never thought of comparing himself with God, the only true thing to do.
This Pharisee has many followers. A great many people’s whole stock of piety consists in not being as bad as some other one. The dishonest man felicitates his conscience with the reflection that he is sober and temperate. The false-tongued man is thankful that he pays his debts. The gossiping woman finds great comfort in the fact that she is not a heathen like her neighbour, who never goes to church at all. But it is a poor kind of virtue which has nothing better to build on than such imperfect relative goodness. One may be clear of a great many ugly faults that his neighbours have, and yet not be a saint himself.
The other man’s prayer was different altogether. There was in him no measuring of himself with other men to see whether he or they were the worse. Then there was no going over sins he had not committed. He said nothing about his neighbour’s sins, but was very free in speaking of his own sins. He stood before God burdened with the consciousness of his own personal guilt, and cried to God for mercy —mercy wholly undeserved, to be granted only through grace. It is very obvious which was the true and acceptable prayer. It is the penitent’s prayer that reaches heaven. God wants honesty in our supplication; He wants humility. It is not enough to be worried about other people’s sins; the particular sinner with whose sins each man ought to be most concerned is himself.