What Does "Humbling Yourself Before God" Really Mean?

How do we posture our hearts to come to God in the RIGHT way?

While reading my Bible, I was inspired to write a short story based on the passage I was studying. This story is based on Luke 18:9-14, a parable that Jesus told. Now, I’m not a professional scholar of Jewish culture, so I am not claiming 100% historical accuracy. But I think it captures at least some of the heart of the story.

In this parable, we have two very different men. Initially, they seem different because of their occupation, status, and lifestyle. But I think the true difference lies in their heart.

Here’s my story based on this parable, followed by more of my thoughts below:

The Pharisee and The Tax Collector

Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else. – Luke 18:9 NLT

The Pharisee stopped before he entered the temple. He took a deep breath – and thought he heard his name. He glanced around.

Fellow Jews were walking past, giving him the proper amount of respectful distance and staring at him with the appropriate amount of awe. But no one appeared to be attempting to address him.

He took another breath, smoothed his beard, straightened his headdress, and walked purposefully into the temple with a flourish of his robes.

He walked into the center of the room, raised his arms, cleared his throat and paused, waiting for all eyes to find him. Once again, in that pause, he thought he heard his name, but he pushed it from his mind and opened his mouth.

“I thank you, God, that I am not like other people – cheaters, adulterers, sinners.”

He glanced purposefully around the room, making eye contact with a few choice people. His gaze fell on one man slinking near the wall.

“I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week and I give you a tenth of my income.”

He paused again, with his hands still raised, and soaked in the impressed murmurs of the people around him.

Again, he thought he heard his name, and it tickled in the back of his mind in a funny way, but he thought it must just be the people whispering in awe about him. He slowly lowered his hands and carried on with his temple duties.

The slinking man by the wall, who in fact was a tax collector, had nearly turned and run when that Pharisee called him out. But something stopped him – a strange feeling, a pulling at his heart – the same feeling that had caused him to enter the temple that day.

He continued inside and found a quiet corner away from the rest. For a moment he contemplated raising his hands and face like the Pharisee – perhaps that was the best way to make God hear you? – but he felt an immense weight on him and cast his eyes down. Tears filled his eyes as he realized how unworthy he was to be in this place, to presume he could talk to God. He wasn’t nearly as religious as that Pharisee. He couldn’t remember the last time he had fasted. He did give 10%...of his reported income. He owed so many sacrifices, he didn’t even know where to start. And it would be impossible to find a priest who would do the sacrifices for him without laughing him right out of the temple.

Tears streaked down his face. As sorrow gripped his heart, he beat his chest.

“O God!” he sobbed, begging to be heard. “Be merciful to me, for I am a sinner!”

He sank to his knees and, as he sat sobbing and praying, a strange peace came over him and the weight was lifted. He pondered the peace in his heart, and then, very clearly, he heard his name.

Pride vs. Humility

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:5-6 NIV

We live in a pretty reward-based culture. If someone asks you to do something, you want to know why and what you’ll get out of it.

This reward mindset is leading us to look for fulfillment in all the wrong places.

We want our reward to be tangible. We want our reward to come now.

And we actually think we deserve a reward.

Pride is a dangerous thing.

Our Pharisee here comes before God...technically. But really he was just coming before other people, making sure they could see him. He was prideful. He thought he had reason to be. He was such a good follower of God. He prayed and tithed and fasted and followed all the rules. God was lucky to have a follower such as him. And everyone should know it. They needed to know how amazing he was so they could be impressed by the man they could never live up to. He was great, and he liked – no, LOVED – hearing it.

But, unfortunately, a few “oohs” and “aahs” is all the Pharisee has to look forward to.

Now, on the other hand, we have our tax collector. He also came before God...for real. He wasn’t a great person. He knew what people thought of him. People were never going to be amazed by how well he followed God and played by the rules. Quite the opposite. He knew he wasn’t worthy to come before God. And he would definitely never dream of bragging about himself to God – that wouldn’t be the truth. He came before God with honesty and a humble heart, knowing he didn’t deserve anything.

And God rewards him for that, in spiritual blessings and eternal hope.

The Right Heart Posture

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. – James 4:8-10 NIV

If this is how we’re supposed to come before God, it’s fairly obvious that the Pharisee got it ALL WRONG.

He came before people, not God. He refused to acknowledge that he was a sinner, and therefore didn’t receive a chance to turn away from his sins. He felt no sorrow (for those sins he totally didn’t have). He didn’t recognize any need for God. You don’t need forgiveness when you have no sins. When you’re a perfect human being you don’t need any grace or strength to live well. He was full of pride, and while on the outside he looked like a perfect follower of God, there was nothing in his heart to show that that is who he was.

The sinful, despicable tax collector actually had it right.

So what can we learn from the penitent tax collector and this verse?

1) Come near to God

There’s a time and place for group worship and prayer, but it’s purpose is not to show off. Soul-searching heart-to-hearts with God are made to be private. And coming near to God isn’t too tricky. You don’t have to get your whole life in order and make sure you’re super righteous and then present yourself to God. You just have to come.

2) Purify your hearts

This step is easy, because Jesus did all the hard work for you already. The only work you have to do here is realize that you have, in fact, screwed up in your life. Once or twice. And you really need Jesus to cleanse you from your sin and be brought into new life.

3) Mourn

This does not mean God wants you to be super miserable all the time. But it’s important to recognize the gravity of your sin and the cost it required. God giving his Son for you is some serious business. Mourning your sin is about recognizing the great sacrifice that was made for you.

4) Humble yourself

“Humbling yourself before God” is a phrase we hear often, but maybe don’t fully understand. I think it starts with recognizing that Jesus’ sacrifice was NECESSARY. It’s not just something God did because he thought it would be nice or easy. It was horrible and it was hard. But it was the only way. Because He wanted us to be with Him, and the only way that was possible was through a perfect sacrifice. When we need come before God, we need to do it with humility, because there is nothing in our power that we can do to earn our own salvation or get God to love us.

Coming before God with humility requires awareness of how far we have fallen short, the great sacrifice that was made for us (by no work or merit of our own), and the great love we have in Him (again, by no merit of our own). We must come with hearts full of gratitude for all of God’s grace and mercy, and focus on getting more of God (not what more we can get out of Him).

It is necessary to have a proper heart posture when we come before God. God is worthy and He is King. And sometimes we need a reminder that we don’t actually deserve all that He does for us. We can get comfortable and take our salvation for granted. But every time we come before God, we need to do it with humility, because we absolutely 100% rely on Him for everything.

Which one are you – a Pharisee or a tax collector? How have you been coming before God lately? Proudly, expecting answers and rewards because you deserve them? Or humbly, simply searching for more of God?

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