“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’” Luke 18:13
Last week I began writing about the fine art of letting go, and I want to delve into this important topic more deeply again this week. The parable of the two men who went to the temple to pray casts light on the most necessary but neglected part of letting go. Namely, we ignore the fact that nearly all of our problems are spiritual in nature, and we must rely on God for help.
The Pharisee in the parable typifies us in many respects. He was a religious man, knew the right answers, and assumed he was making all A’s in the tests of life. Unfortunately, his religious knowledge and convictions were at once his greatest strength and most dangerous blind spot. He knew a great deal about God, but did not know himself and really did not know God.
By contrast, the tax collector had come to a simple conclusion about his own life: he was spiritually bankrupt. He did not have the strength or insight to work his way back to God. At that moment of stunning self-appraisal he simply surrendered to God. And he found grace.
The desire for mercy implies a spiritual problem called sin. No one likes to talk about sin, but it is the greatest problem we face. Not ISIS, Ebola, racism, global warming, etc. In fact, I could argue that each one of the problems I have just named are rooted in the human capacity to make a mess of things through self-will that is as old as the original sin itself. All the fractured-ness of our lives is simply a radiating consequence of The Breaking. Adam and Eve broke their lives and the world, and we continue to both feel and multiply its effects.
Sin is unpleasant, very uncomfortable, and, many of us think, a bit obsolete. However, if we use the parable as our guide then we must accept that confession of sin leads not to guilt and shame, but to grace and forgiveness. The tax collector realized the nature of his problem, brought it to God, and walked away lightly. The Pharisee continued to carry the burden of his own self-sufficiency, and didn’t even realize the devastating effects of that delusion. If we are going to move forward in life then we must be honest about the fundamental problem that holds us back. Pogo had it right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We have a spiritual problem called sin.
This simple acceptance of a fundamentally spiritual problem must lead immediately to the acknowledgement that we are incapable of solving the problem. The Pharisee was sure his expertise gained favor with God. One of the challenges of the parable is that the Pharisee is so outrageously proud that we have trouble relating to him. We all think we’re doing better than him because, well, we’re not Pharisees.
We fail to recognize how deeply enslaved to pride we are. Think about it. When we face a problem we usually tend to become “practical.” Say you have had a hard time with another person that has left you bitter. Your response may include something very positive like attempting to reconcile. More likely it will include telling other people how you have been wronged. All efforts, good and bad, result in nothing. The bitterness remains and likely simmers.
This “practical” approach ignores the fact of the fundamental spiritual problem. Without realizing, our efforts to solve the problem put us in the same camp as the Pharisee. We’re trying to work our way back to wholeness, trying to arrange life to suit us on our terms, and in our way. We fail. Now what? C. S. Lewis wrote, “All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you say “You must do this. I can’t.” That’s where the sinner was. It’s where we must be.
If the problems we face are fundamentally spiritual in nature, then we must seek a spiritual solution. We must say “You must do this. I can’t.” We need the grace that only God can give. However, it’s hard to receive grace when, at some level, you’re trying to convince God you don’t need it. “I can handle this” holds you back. “Only You can handle this” sets you free.
God gives us daily what we need to handle our problems. As long as we hold on to the notion that a particular problem is outside of God’s purview then we eliminate God from our lives. He will not remove what we refuse to let go of. Confession, surrender, powerlessness are not comfortable terms but they are the gateway to letting go of the main problem that holds us back.
The sinner came to the end of himself and found God waiting with a soul-full of grace. So can you. Let go of self-sufficiency. Honestly abandon yourself to God. And 2015 will be so much lighter.
Dr. Terry Ellis
January 4, 2015