In the New Year, I paid $25 for access to an indoor walking path in a nearby gym. I typically go in the afternoon, and this tends to be an older crowd. Some of the walkers even have physical limitations. This has helped boost my sense of physical fitness as I am usually the fastest walker! But who am I comparing myself too?? Yesterday there was a totally different crowd – a couple of young runners, and several speed walkers. They left me in the dust! Hmm, maybe I’m not so fit after all. Comparison can be deceptive.
Spiritual comparison can be deceptive too.
Here is an excerpt from my book about spiritual pride:
The classic passage on spiritual pride is the parable told by Jesus in Luke 18:9-14 that features a Pharisee and a tax collector. It begins with the direct statement (verse 9) that Jesus told this parable as a message “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”
Pharisees were a respected Jewish sect known for their piety and obedience to God’s laws. Tax collectors, on the other hand, had a bad reputation among the Jews. They were typically dishonest and extorted excessive money from the people. Since they collaborated with the Romans, they were also thought of as traitors.
In this parable, both men pray. The Pharisee prays by thanking God that he is not like other men in committing certain sins and reminds God that he has fasted and tithed. The goodness we think we possess can distance us from God, hindering our ability to see how much we need him.
In contrast, the tax collector was acutely aware of his sinfulness and simply pleaded for mercy as a sinner. Note that the Pharisee compared himself to other people. We will always be able to find people who are worse than we are, thus boosting our sense of moral success.
The tax collector did not compare himself to others. Jerry Bridges points out that it is even more poignant in the original Greek, as the statement of the tax collector actually reads “God be merciful to me the sinner” rather than a sinner.[i] He was the sinner, standing alone before God, and he realized in comparison to God he fell desperately short.
The parable ends with a clear statement that it was the tax collector who went home right with God because of his humility. This is a dire warning for us as practicing Christians. There is at least some Pharisee in all of us, but many of us fail to see it. Our confidence should not be in our righteousness, but in Christ’s righteousness. Pride lurks around the corner, and its danger is greater and nearer than we think.
[i] Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 31.