St Luke 18.9-14
Pride often masks fear. The fear that I won’t be seen. The fear that I won’t be loved. Loved for who I say I am. Loved for the good I present to you. So, pride masks the fear that I won’t be loved on my terms.
This kind of pride is an arrogance which quickly descends into hell because it degenerates into wrath and envy. And then feeds all the other passions: lust, greed, overindulgence, and despair. Pride is the mother of all of these ungodly desires; and it is toxic—both for the proud person and for those it influences.
You see this pride in the Pharisee. Not in every Pharisee, but certainly in the Pharisee Jesus draws. The Pharisee who goes into the temple to pray. For this Pharisee is not content to show God his goodness. The man needs to judge and tear down another in order to build himself up. And as he does this, the Pharisee shows that he truly envies the publican. For just as Cain intuited that his offering was no offering, so this Pharisee intuits that his prayer is no real prayer—so he has to brag rather than pray.
So blind is the Pharisee that he cannot see himself. So hateful that he loves only himself. So envious that he resents humility and despises repentance.
Repentance and humility are not about being beaten down. They’re not about refusing to look up or be glad. Eeyore is not the model of humility. For “humility is not thinking less of yourself; humility is thinking of yourself less.”
Repentance and humility begin with fear. But not the fear that’s afraid of getting lost, the fear that fears not being seen, the fear of being mistreated, the fear that fuels being offended.
Repentance and humility begin with the fear of being loved by God. Because we know we are undeserving of His kindness. It is not the fear of the weak and timid, but the trembling of those who are truly loved—who are attracted and drawn in and warmed by Love’s love.
This kind of fear is not afraid. Because this godly fear arises not from a bad conscience, which we want to hide. Rather, this godly fear arises from a true faith, which says that the Lord’s mercies are too wonderful; we cannot reach them; they can only be given.
The Lord’s mercy is too wonderful to understand, too bright to behold. And His mercy requires a deep-cleaning which is both painful and necessary. A deep-cleaning that I must do by saying aloud the truth about myself.
Now confessing my truth requires that I admit that my truth is not the truth. Confessing my truth requires that I not excuse or explain away or dismiss with “becauses” and “reasons” for why I have done what I’ve done. Confessing my truth requires that I own the sins the Lord identifies—not the ones I think don’t apply anymore because I’m convinced they are from another time, or don’t fit my science. Confessing my truth requires that I admit not that I’ve been human, but that I’ve become less human by giving into the things—the words and the deeds—that everyone else says are okay.
Ultimately, confessing who I am is both laying myself bare, and then asking for the courage to amend. Not just do better, but change. From the inside. To transform what I prefer, how I think, what I’m sure I know. And to discard my chosen identity for the identity the Lord supplies. For the Lord speaks His love to me, not so that I love me better but so that His love radiates through me. And the Lord wants to feed me with His Body and Blood, not so that I can digest Him but so that He consumes me.
In that word of absolution spoken by the priest individually to me, to you; in that food placed into my mouth and yours at this holy altar—there “we gain the strength we need to approach Our Lord and enjoy Him. We do not find it, however, until we embrace the mediator between God and men—the man Christ Jesus. He calls and says, ‘I am your Way, your Truth, your Life.’ And He offers the food which we lack the strength to eat; the food which He mingled with our flesh” so that we might then have courage and the drive to lay bare who we truly are, knowing that He had already laid Himself out for us.
The publican wanted this. Courage brought him into the temple to pray. Courage that was rooted in the hope, the promise, the truth that “there is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love?”
So, the publican goes into the temple to pray. Because he was not afraid, even as he stood trembling in fear. The fear that he knew himself too well. The fear that he might not live up to his promises. And the fear that the Lord’s kindness was too wonderful, nearly incredible, approaching impossible.
Yet the publican prayed. Unafraid of the Pharisee’s judgment. Unafraid of what others would say. Unafraid of the priest hearing his confession. Unafraid, because the Lord’s mercy blinded him to everything he saw, and drowned out what others said, and calmed every anxiety he felt.
And this is true humility. Humbling yourself before the Lord God, casting every care and every fear and every bit of yourself on Him. Locating your burdens in the burden of His cross. And then seeing your true self in His mercy, in His absolution, in His statement that says, “You are mine. I have called you by your name. You are my beloved One. I am well pleased.”
The publican goes home justified, not because he had the right attitude but because he refused to let pride mask his fear—a pride that would have kept him away from confession. Instead, he feared the Lord but was not afraid. And so, he got what his heart desired: God, being merciful to him, the sinner.
May God, through His Son in the Holy Spirit, be merciful to us and bless us. To whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.
Acknowledgements: CS Lewis; St Augustine; Fyodor Dostoevsky