Can Prayer Be Bad?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)

It is time for us to take a deep breath together. We are here at the start of the pre-lenten period. For the next few weeks the Church will take us on a path to prepare us for a profitable and enriching lenten struggle. Each of these weeks has a certain theme based on the gospel reading of that particular Sunday. This week we are encountered with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican or tax collector.

In the gospel according to Matthew during the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Our Lord Jesus Christ offers these poignant words: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is a terrifying passage for those who have ears to hear. Why should it be terrifying? For the exact same reason that this parable should strike us as a harsh reality. Of all the forms of pride and delusion that mankind can harbor and nurture within themselves, the greatest and most destructive of all is the religious pride and delusion. Put another way, pride is a great sin, yet pride that is somehow wrapped up or covered in religious wallpaper is even greater. It means that the sacred place where God should dwell is not only devoid of God but is a place where the self becomes our greatest idol, our god.

I have mentioned before that the atmosphere of Orthodox Christianity if one is not careful could lend itself to a degree of phariseeism. If we are not careful and we don’t have guidance in the spiritual life we can very easily fall into the delusion of thinking that if we pray a set number of times or a set number of prayers per day, and if we confess a set number of times per year, and if we fast a set number of times per week or per year, and if we read a set number of Bible verses daily, and if we read a set number of prayers of preparation for Holy Communion and if we go to a set number of services and read a certain number of pious comments on Orthodox forums and a certain number of quotes from the church fathers on instagram, and if we have a certain number of icons hanging in our home, then of course it is proof that we are holy, righteous, good and justified before the judgment seat of God. This my brothers and sisters is a mindset that does not lead us to growth and life but rather to the opposite, to darkness, decay and spiritual death.

The true goal of the lenten experience is to take us on a journey where we begin to question ourselves, our motives, our actions, our inner thoughts and inclinations and where we go even further by doing the opposite of justifying ourselves and our lives. We take the opposite stance and we condemn ourselves, we see ourselves as failures and we begin to see that we are sick and that our actions and choices have only put us further into sickness, have caused real and lasting damage to our souls and bodies and have ultimately ruptured our communion and relationship with Christ our God.

We go on a path of self-discovery yet this path isn’t focused on the self. In today’s parable if you pay attention, the Pharisee’s prayer was all about the self. He used his time of prayer to compare himself and his exceeding goodness to the failures of the tax collector. “I thank you that I am not like other men.” This is a great blasphemy. Because those men you condemn were created in the image and likeness of God, and you are not so different from them. You differ only in types or in degrees of failure and sin.

Above all lent is a time for us to reorient ourselves to our own brokenness. This happens not by focusing on ourselves, but through a radical and uncompromising focus on Christ. It is a time to reorient ourselves to our need for a physician, a savior, a messiah to heal us. The theme today is one of humility. Lent is a time for humility and humility is the path to salvation. Why? Humility allows us to communicate and to understand and connect with God because Christ is humble. “Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.” Conversely, if we are prideful, we can’t know God. To be sure, we know of God, but knowing God intimately and communicating with him in intimacy is another matter completely.

Lately I’ve been listening to a book by Fr. Stephen Freeman called “Face to Face: Knowing God beyond Our Shame.” It is a marvelous book and I highly recommend it. It is interesting to note that the author quotes heavily from St. Sophrony. He talks about one of the hallmarks of St. Sophrony’s teaching being the need for a Christian to learn to “bear a little shame.” This is healthy. This is what the tax collector did isn’t it?

There is a way in which we need to expose our shame and weakness and failures before God. This happens in our private prayers and must also happen in the context of confession with a priest. And when we bear a little shame, God uses this process of humbling ourselves as a path to healing. Our hearts are now cracked open and the Holy Spirit can enter and dwell within us. We hear this echoed in the Psalm 51:17 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That’s it. Everything else is extra. Everything else is a means to an end.

Does that mean that we can skip the fasting and the praying and the almsgiving? No. The Church has given us these practices as powerful tools to help us find the deep heart and grow as children of God. When these practices are undertaken with the right focus and in the right spirit, then our sins will be magnified, our neighbors sins will be minimized, Christ will be glorified and we will be sanctified in the process.

For all the “religious” activity of the Pharisee, he couldn’t produce one single solitary humble thought or prayer. He entered the temple and left not only unchanged, but even worse since he sinned while addressing God with his pride and simultaneously condemning the man next to him. Yet the tax collector had a poor and beautiful soul didn’t he? He entered the temple with a heavy heart and could barely even utter his prayer from his sense of brokenness and unworthiness of God. He only cried out “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” And for this single heartfelt prayer, God rejoiced and loved the man. Can I produce a similar prayer from the depths of my heart?

I will leave you with this beautiful quote from St. John Climacus: “An angel fell from Heaven without any other passion except pride, and so we may ask whether it is possible to ascend to Heaven by humility alone, without any other of the virtues.” + St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 23.12


Source: Sermons