The American airwaves are awash with crime drama television shows.
No matter what night it is, you can flip through the channels on your TV and find either new crime dramas or reruns of old favorites. One crime drama show recently tried to capitalize on a relatively new area of scientific study. The show “Lie to Me” featured a private detective firm that solved crimes by studying micro expressions and body language. The science behind the show is rather amazing. Detectives read a person’s feelings by the subconscious and uncontrollable reactions of the body.
Just like physical posture gives us insight into the emotional life of an individual, so a person’s posture in prayer gives us deep insight into their spiritual lives. And ultimately, the body language of a person’s heart is intimately connected with their acceptance before God. This truth we learn from one of Jesus’ parables in Luke 18:9-14 where he seeks to answer an important question: Who then is accepted before God?
Jesus begins his parable by telling us that “two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (v. 10). You couldn’t find two more different people: There’s the Pharisee—known for his moral character, for following God’s law, and for his complete devotion. And there’s the tax collector—known for being a greedy sinner, known for extorting his own people. The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (v. 10).
The tax collector, standing far off, had a very different posture. He would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast. The tax collector feels the guilt of his sin before God to the point of not even wanting to look up to heaven. And his prayer is simple. He says in verse 13, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
So who will God accept? Will it be the righteous Pharisee or the sinning, greedy tax collector? Jesus gives us the verdict in verse 14: “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Three Traits of a Prideful Person
We learn from this parable that the body language of our hearts towards God in this life has eternal consequences. And so we desperately need to consider the body language of our hearts before God. How have we presented ourselves before him? What is our posture?
Let’s make three observations about the person who exalts themselves before God and examine our own hearts beneath them.
People who exalt themselves feel confident before God. That is to say; people who exalt themselves feel confident in their acceptance before God. This is the driving force behind the body language of their hearts. The Pharisee stood confidently before God, and he prayed confidently about himself: “I…I…I…I…” The Pharisee’s prayer represents a dangerous attitude to assume before the righteous God: Confidence in our acceptance because of our own righteousness. Is this your attitude when you come before God? Do you stand proudly before God and boast proudly about your own ability?
People who exalt themselves define righteousness by how others perceive them, rather than how they look before God. Look at the Pharisee’s prayer again. What is his standard of being accepted by God? He states that he is not like other men, and that he fasts twice a week and gives tithes of all he possesses. At the forefront of his definition of righteousness is how he is perceived by others, not how he looks before God. How we come to God in prayer reflects our spiritual posture towards him. Does outward appearance and comparison permeate your prayer life?
People who exalt themselves demonstrate their view of themselves by how they treat others. We get an important insight at the beginning of the parable: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (v. 9). Here we have an internal attitude linked with an external evidence. How do we know how we view ourselves before God? Look at how you view yourself before other people. The Pharisee’s prayer shows his contempt for other people. He says, “I’m not like them.” Consider this in your own life. What is your reaction towards those whom you know to be sinners? Do you treat them with contempt?
There is Hope for the Prideful
Maybe you are reading this, whether you know Christ or not, and are saying to yourself, “That sounds a lot like me.” Well, good news! There is great hope in this passage. Jesus does not leave self-exalted sinners on their own, but he calls them to humble themselves.
He gives us this promise at the end of verse 14: “But the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” To be exalted is to receive salvation. It is to be lifted up in the last days to be with God forever in eternity. Contrary to the one who exalts himself, who will face God’s judgment on account of his sins, the one who humbles himself will be exalted by God and will receive blessings and honor when Jesus returns to judge the world!
By acknowledging our sinfulness, just as the tax collector did, and crying out for God’s help through Jesus, we can be exalted before God. Humility is both assessing ourselves honestly before God and clinging to the help that he provided for us in Christ Jesus. And so my plea for you today is to embrace humility. Realize your utter sinfulness before God and accept the help that he has provided for you in Jesus Christ.
Do you see any of these prideful traits in your own heart? How does the gospel give you hope?