As human beings, we have an innate desire to show off. It starts at an early age. Toddlers exuberantly plea, “Look at me – look at what I can do!”
When it’s a child, it’s cute. But then we grow up.
We are taught in Scripture to refrain from boasting about our positive qualities, the good things we do, and our prayer life. But bragging is not completely off-limits. In 1 Corinthians 1:31, Paul instructed the church in Corinth, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (Emphasis added).
Jesus told a story about two men who went into the temple to pray:
The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself:
God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get (Luke 18:11-12).
Putting this story in today’s context, one might justify such a prayer. He might believe that by expressing thankfulness, he is giving God credit for his peak performance. He might even convince himself that he is “boasting in the Lord.”
I’m forced to ask myself, “Do I have a hidden Pharisee?” How often do I throw a camouflage net over my true heart, hiding my motives even from myself? Could it be that if my thoughts, prayers, and spoken words were scrutinized and exposed, I would at times be found in the same prideful category while believing I was honoring God?
Proverbs 21:2 says, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.” Once again, I’m left with the Psalmist’s plea,
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)
Meanwhile, Jesus’ story continues:
But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:13-14).
The second man was obviously aware of and humbled by, his many faults. After all, he fell into most, if not all, of the categories condemned by the religious man (extortioner, unjust, adulterer, tax collector). He recognized he had nothing to offer, and it was only because of the great mercy of God that he could be made right with Him.
The Pharisee easily overlooked the pride in his heart as he focused on the other man’s observable failings. I’m guessing he walked right past the morally inferior tax collector as he constructed his prayer. Somehow, in those moments of self-assuredness, I seriously doubt he would have imagined his prayer would be used by God as a really bad example for thousands of years to come.
People who exalt themselves often gain a long list of admirers. This is nothing new. We can look at any presidential campaign and see evidence of that.
It seems we have a couple of choices. We can think highly of ourselves, or we can think highly of God. We can impress others by casting ourselves in a positive light, or we can help them by pointing them to Christ who said in no uncertain terms, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
In reality, we have nothing to brag about. We could not, and we would not have a relationship with the living God at all if it were not for His faithfulness. All that we brought to the table was our sin and a few filthy rags. And, no matter how extensive the list of credentials evidencing our “staying power” may be, it is because of His character – not ours – that the relationship remains intact. God is the One who sustains us and completely sanctifies us.
Therefore, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” The statement is reiterated in Paul’s second letter to the same group of believers (2 Corinthians 10:17). Perhaps it merits repeating.