Three laws of spirituality

A reflection on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

Two men came to the house of God to pray. Apparently they did not know each other. Spiritually and socially, they were worlds apart—or at least that is how they saw themselves. (Some communities make much of such distinctions!) These two represent two groups of people who have always found their way to the house of God to pray.

One was considered a basically good and respectable person. He belonged to the “middle class.” He lived a decent life and probably saw himself as a role model. He was clear about what was right and what was wrong. At least he thought so. The other person was considered a crook whose conduct did not take well to exposure—really, quite a despicable character. One was looked up to, the other certainly not. One was described as a “Pharisee,” the other a “tax collector.”

Lest you become troubled by the inference that people who enter the house of God to worship and pray can readily be divided into two such groups, let me say immediately that that is not so. One would be hard put to find many with the steel, zeal, and discipline of a Pharisee. And probably not many who come to church have sunk to the depth of the proverbial tax collector. I suspect that in most of us there is a bit of both—a bit of tax collector and a bit of Pharisee; sometimes more Pharisee and sometimes more tax collector. But between the two we probably have a fair cross-section of people who come to pray.

The basic message of this story, told by Jesus and recorded in Luke 18:9-14, is a message of both judgment and salvation. The judgment is primarily directed against those who tend to compare themselves with others in the church, and in that exercise end up feeling quite good. They see themselves as accomplished and successful; in contrast to some, of whom they have negative opinions. As the two men expressed their thoughts and feelings before God in prayer, it becomes clear how they see themselves.

One commends both himself and God for what he is and for what he is able to do. He has no wish to be otherwise. He has no request to place before God. His fasting, prayer-life, tithe-and-offering contributions are impressive. (“Surely, God, you recognize that!”) His mind is focused on what he is able to bring to God, not on what he has received from God. Therein lies his first major flaw.

By contrast, we see the other person who looks pathetic and feels very out of place. His job itself (“tax collector”) was a liability. Decent people did not take up that profession. Socially, he did not belong. Many saw him as a moral “leper.” So, it was most proper that he should stand “at a distance,” as the text says.

One could ask: Is it possible that we have in this story a basically upright man who had just become, unfairly, a victim of a burdened profession? No; not a chance! He was corrupt and a crook. His posture and his words all reflected his true state. Everything was wrong with him. There was nothing in him to commend himself.

But precisely therein lies his salvation. He had the courage to be honest with himself and God. Standing before God, he found nothing in himself to feel good about. He saw only failure and misery. With sentiments reminiscent of David many years earlier (“Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me,” Psalm 51:2, 3*), he cries out for help.

Laws of spirituality

From this memorable story come three important laws of spirituality.

The first one: The person who in sincerity confesses his or her sin before God is closer to God than the one who believes he has nothing to confess. God can deal with sins; He does so all the time. He is good at it. (“Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” Isaiah 6:7.) But the blindness of arrogance is difficult to cure.

One may ask: By what criterion did the Pharisee feel so spiritually accomplished and successful? He compared himself with an individual for whom he had nothing but contempt! To compare ourselves with others, which we often do, is usually of little help. The conclusions we then draw are unsafe. And that brings us to the second law of spirituality:

The second law: The one who admires his or her own spirituality usually finds it correspondingly difficult to see the good in others. We are reminded of Paul’s words of caution: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Standing before God, there are probably no sentiments more hazardous to harbor than that while others may not be able, Lord, I am thankful that I am. This brings to mind the well-known thought: “The nearer we come to Jesus…the less we shall feel like exalting ourselves. Those whom heaven recognizes as holy ones are the last to parade their own goodness” (Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 160).

The sentiments of true pilgrims are that they find no satisfaction in proclaiming their own spirituality. Humility is their profile (see Philippians 2:3). A pilgrim knows from personal experience the frailty of humanity. A true pilgrim understands and takes time to give a hand to fellow travelers who find the journey difficult.

The third law of spirituality: While humans naturally and spontaneously hail the winners, Jesus Christ spontaneously and profoundly cares for the losers. The story in Luke 18 tells us about Christ’s solidarity with those who struggle and find it all a bit much. He said: “‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick’” (Luke 5:31). He also stated, through the prophet, “‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly’” (Isaiah 57:15).

The wonderful truth is that before God no one needs to despair. David prayed: “There is none like you, O Lord. …You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:8, 15). The good news for us all is that God can provide the Balm of Gilead to find healing for our wounds (Jeremiah 8:22).

Jan Paulsen (D.Th., Tubingen University) is president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

* All Scripture passages in this article are quoted from the New International Version.