We may cringe when we read the following words from the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke’s gospel. How could anybody pray such a prayer? But I suspect that our cringing may be based on the fact that we are familiar with the story. We know before we ever read this section of Scripture that the Pharisee is the bad guy. So we avoid offering up these kinds of prayers. However we are not so keen on avoiding comparing ourselves to others in our minds and words to others.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men.”
On one occasion I was speaking with a church going woman about a sinful issue in her life. At first she offered a few attempts at rationalizing her sin. She soon realized that those excuses sounded much more lame out loud than they had inside her own head. Finally, she blurted out, “Well at least I’m not like (name of another person).”
We may never actually say these words out loud. But if you are anything like me, you have probably thought something like it. Instead of comparing our holiness to the holiness of God, we would much rather find some other sinners and compare ourselves with them. The good news for this approach is that unless you are a notorious serial killer, we can always find somebody that will make us feel less guilty about our own sin.
The Comparing List
The Pharisee had a ready made list of sinners for which he felt confident that his holiness exceeded. He specifically mentioned that he was not like extortionists. An extortionist was one guilty of robbery. It may not have been armed robbery, but it was robbery nonetheless. Most of us feel pretty good that we are better than these thieves.
He also told God that he was better than the unjust sinners. As a Pharisee he would have thought himself righteous or just. He did not understand that we are all unrighteous when measured against the law of God.
Continuing his prayer, he reminded the Lord that he was not like adulterers. Perhaps he had remained faithful to his wife. Even so, by listing these particular sins he had not grasped the teaching of the Bible that every man has violated the holy law of the Lord and stands guilty before the holy God.
Finally the Pharisee nodded in the direction of a sinful tax collector. Compared to him the Pharisee felt confident about his own worthiness before the Lord. The “righteous” man might have believed in mercy and grace, but those were best used on the really sinful people. He was willing to be weighed on the scales of righteous judgment confident that he would measure up.
The Comparing Error
How tragic! The very purpose of the law and the commandments is to demonstrate to us just how unrighteous we are. We all stand condemned because our hearts and our actions are sinful. We all desperately need mercy and grace.
Ask an average unbeliever on the street as to why he thinks he will get into heaven, and his answer will typically include a claim that he has not broken one of the “big” commandments. “Well, I’ve never killed anybody” is a favorite response. In other words, the person thinks he is okay because he is no Adolf Hitler, no Charles Manson, nor no John Wayne Gacy.
After this prayer Jesus commented that this Pharisee did not return to his house in right standing with the Lord. He had exalted himself and would be humbled. Our prayers should never be offered as if we were on God’s level as a peer. We dare not approach him trumpeting our own righteousness. Rather we come because God has extended to us mercy and grace through the Lord Jesus Christ. We deserve not to be before the Lord. Yet he bids us come as sinners because Christ in all of his righteousness stands in our place before the Father.
It does no good to compare ourselves to other sinners. We may sin differently than other men, but we are all in the same miserable condition apart from Christ. If our measure is lower than that of God himself, we can only hope that God will be merciful and punish us not. We can only hope that he will be gracious and grant us to be with him.
Are you trusting in how good you are comparing yourself to others? Please don’t. Trust solely in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus and trust that his death has paid your penalty.