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The Prayer of the Penitent.

by Isaac Williams

from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days

throughout the Year, Vol. II. Trinity Sunday to All Saints' Day 

Rivingtons, London, 1875, pp. 148-154.

Second  part of Sermon LVIII. for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.
 1 Cor. xv. 1-11.    St. Luke xviii. 9-14.

And the Publican, standing afar of would not lift so much 

as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, 
GOD be merciful to me a sinner.—ST. LUKE xviii. 13.
(for the first part, on the Epistle.

This, the very character of all Christian holiness, is exhibited to us in the Gospel for to-day, in that memorable parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in the temple; and the same may be very well exemplified by what St. Paul says of himself in the Epistle.  Jesus spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. Our Blessed Lord here sets before us two characters, as they appear before God in prayer. This, my brethren, is everything to us, how we appear in the sight of God when we come before Him in prayer, with what degree of acceptableness we then are looked upon by Him. This is, in short, the only thing of any importance; it matters not what we seem to be to ourselves or to others, but only how God looks upon us when we pray to Him. Our everything depends upon this. This you may take as the test and proof of anything you say, or do, or think: and of the real importance of any event that happens to you. What difference does it make when you come to appear before God in prayer? Will it render you more pleasing and acceptable or not? Will this or that circumstance add weight and avail to your prayers or not? If you do this, or leave it undone, if you say this or leave it unsaid, will it make a difference when you come before God in prayer? And if you would weigh the distinctions between one man and another, between different stations and conditions in life, you can have no surer test or proof of them than this, which renders yet most availing when you come before God in prayer. “Blessed are the poor in spirit;” and “blessed are the merciful;” now this their blessedness may be known from this, that they have power and worth with God, when they come before Him in prayer. And if, moreover, “blessed are they that mourn,” and “blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” and “blessed are they that hunger now;” it is because these are conditions of life and circumstances which put the heart in that frame which will make prayer of avail with God. Let any one notice each day,—there can be no better rule or safeguard,—what will render him at his hours of prayer most acceptable with God. There can be no better standard or measure of the real value of all things than this. And, therefore, when our blessed Lord introduces two characters as going up to the temple to pray, and is about to instruct us in their acceptableness, and the availing of their prayers with God, there is nothing whatever can be conceived of a more lively interest to us. It is bringing two characters into the light of God’s own presence, and telling us how they there appear; it is allowing us to see both put in the balance, and weighed by God Himself; nay, more, it is telling us, admitting us to witness the power which they have respectively with Almighty God.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Publican I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess.  Now here was a religious man, righteous according to the law; fasting, and giving tithes, and going up to pray in God’s house. Nay, more, he attributes all this his righteousness to God; and not only that, but gives God thanks for what He had made him; for preserving him from extortion, dishonesty, and adultery. In what respect, therefore, does he differ from St. Paul, in that passage we have been considering? For if this man compares himself with others, so does the holy Apostle; for he also says, “I have laboured more abundantly than all” the Apostles. And he also gives thanks to God for it; for he says, “yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” But it must be observed, that St. Paul is not here speaking to God in prayer, but is making his defence to men; and being constrained to show the weight of his testimony as a witness and Apostle of Christ’s resurrection, he cannot but allude to the fact of his more abundant labours and sufferings; but in so doing, he hastens, as it were, away from the subject, as one he could not dare to think of, and loses himself altogether in the sense of God’s goodness and grace. It is his own former ignorance, and the sad consequence of that ignorance, in being the occasion of his persecuting the Church of Christ; it is his own present infirmities and inability of himself to do anything, on which his whole heart was set.

When St. Paul turned to God in prayer, it was under a sense of his many miseries; of the thorn in the flesh, that bodily infirmity which humbled him in the sight of men, and seemed to impair his usefulness; it was under the constant recollection of his having been once a “blasphemer,” or one that denied Christ, a “persecutor and injurious;” it was as one fearing to fall short of his high calling at last, and being “a castaway;” as one beating down his body and keeping it under; as one weak with the weaknesses of others, and sympathizing with them in their temptations; as praying to God with many tears, both for himself and for others; and finding no relief from all these things, but in forgetting himself altogether, in the deep overwhelming sense which he had of God’s love, and of Christ crucified. In short, there can be no doubt but that when St. Paul appeared before God in prayer, it was with the mind and spirit, not of the Pharisee, but of this Publican, who would not lift “up his eyes to Heaven, but smote on his breast, saying, God he merciful to me a sinner.” If the Publican was abashed and humbled, because he had intercourse with the heathen; no less was St. Paul, because he had been a Pharisee, one of these the great persecutors of Christ.

The words by which God pointed out St. Paul to his Church as worthy of all acceptance, were these, “Behold, he prayeth.” (Acts ix. 11.)  Thus he commenced, thus he continued, thus he ended his course, in the character and spirit of availing prayer. Before angels and men is seen the great power which he had with God; but the secret of that power was in these words, the testimony of God, “Behold, he prayeth.”

And the Publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven; he thought, not of other men, but of God: this was the reason why he could not lift up his eyes to Heaven; he was filled with a deep sense of the holiness, and the power, and the mercy of God; and, therefore, he would not lift up so much as his eyes. He had some knowledge of what God is, like the angels have, who cover their faces in His presence; (Isa. vi. 2.) and those in Heaven, who cry aloud in the Apocalypse, “Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy Name? for Thou art holy.” He felt that he was in God’s sight, even as Daniel, who lay with his “face toward the ground,” and as St. John, “when he fell down at His feet, as dead;" or as Job, who says, “Mine eye seeth Thee, wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” He stood afar off, even as the lepers, constrained by the law to do so; and as St. Peter, when falling at Christ’s feet, and holding down his head, he said, “Depart from me, for I am unclean.” But because he stood afar off, God brought him near by hearing his prayer; because he ventured not to lift up his eyes to Heaven, God looked down from Heaven upon him, and lifted up upon him the light of His countenance : for the sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit.

These instances I have mentioned indicate that this Publican, by his outward gesture and demeanour, showed that he did in some degree realize God’s presence. And how then could he at such a time think of others, and compare himself with them? No, it was of himself, of the wicked self within him, of what he had said, and done, and thought; of his own unclean heart that he thought, as his actions spoke more powerfully than words, “He lifted not up his eyes, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.”  His misery pleaded to God most powerfully for mercy; and he felt his misery, because he knew what God was, infinitely holy; and that he in His presence was a sinner. He earnestly desired to be released from himself; he felt the infinite distance between himself and God, and earnestly desired to be united to God. It was this made him so miserable, to stand afar off, to hang down his eyes, to beat on his breast, to say and know nothing, but that God was merciful, and he a sinner. Prayer is always answered according to the greatness of the desire, and the greatness of the need; and his desire and his need were infinite. But the Pharisee had nothing to ask for, he needed nothing. How then could it be otherwise, but that the hungry was filled with God’s mercy, and the rich was sent away empty?

Christian brethren, I fear we do not pray as we should do, none of us; because we do not earnestly desire or feel our need, we are more like the Pharisee in God’s house than the Publican. And oh, how much do we lose every time we come here, because it is so! We do not feel each in himself what it is to be a sinner, because we do not know God and ourselves. O that we could feel miserable, and sore distressed, and cast down, and unable to lift up the head!  O that we knew our need, and that according to our need were our desires, restless, insatiable, and as infinite and immeasurable as is God’s mercy! We sit down by a boundless sea of goodness, but have no desire to be filled. The Sun of Righteousness would kindle us into life by His beams, but we hide ourselves from Him, content to be as we are and as we have been, not as He would have us to be. We keep as it were with the Pharisee in the dark of the temple; and not where the rays of God’s presence pour down light, and show us unto ourselves.

And for this reason we return home from God’s house of prayer much as we came. I tell you, adds our Blessed Lord Himself of this Publican, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Do we return from Church more justified, or with a sense of God’s pardon shed abroad in our hearts, and His unspeakable peace, as those who are lifted up from our own deep humiliation by His own sustaining Hand? Or do we return as we went, like the Pharisee, barren and self-satisfied; with no feeling of want, no craving after God? This is certain, that according to our desires we are filled. Some indeed there are that ever walk in heaviness; and come and go, and walk in and out in humiliation and sorrow, because they love God; and, therefore, are ever grieved that they love Him not more, and that others around them love Him not. Yet in prayer and Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, they have a comfort which the world knows not of; and, even in sorrow, a peace that surpasseth knowledge. Thus, God is pleased to leave them in humiliation and self-abasement, in order that they may not be satisfied; but enlarge their desires after Him, nay, feel more and more their sense of sin, and their need of His righteousness. For the more they feel, this their need of it, the more is it growing within them. The more they feel their own nakedness, the more are they clothed of God.

What we need is not comfort, but that sorrow which must go before all true comfort; it is not peace that we, my brethren, mostly need; but war with ourselves, like that poor Publican; war and earnest contention with our worldly hearts and desires, so that we may long beyond all things for the peace of God.