Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Publican's Prayer

Luke records a parable spoken by Jesus to a group of men "which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (Luke 18:9), probably the Pharisees of His day. It begins,
"Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican" (v. 10).

The publicans, in Christ's day, were the tax collectors, traitorous Jews who colluded with the occupying Roman authorities. They were seen as corrupt and hated by the other Jews of their day. The Pharisees were the respectable people, the doctors of the law, the scholars and teachers.

"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. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner." Then Jesus gave the moral of this story, "I tell you, 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" (Luke 18:11-14).

Something snapped inside of me this month. Maybe it was when a friend made a hateful comment about my worthiness. Maybe it was just a lot of built-up irritation at living in "The Bubble" for too long. In any case, I realized that so much of what was bothering me, and what I had been learning the past few years, could be summed up by this parable of the publican's prayer.

I recently wrote about how tired I am of philosophies that divide the world into "us" and "them," that shut others out while vaunting ourselves, that allow "family values" to trump Christian charity. It is in this spirit that I write about my own inadequacy and unworthiness. As was the case with Joseph Smith, "in making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature" (JS-H 1:28). After all, we are all sinners, all in need of Christ's infinite Atonement. I think we all recognize that, at least mentally. But one of the most frequent errors we make (and I'm certainly guilty of this, from time to time) is to believe, in some small, perhaps unspoken, part of us, that "of course we all need the Atonement. I just need it a little less than most, thank you very much. I'm doing pretty well on my own." How incredibly presumptuous!

Maybe that's why I like sinners so much. I've had the opportunity to mix with some communities of very broken people, people who only came to their senses when they hit rock bottom and realized how much they needed their Savior. Whatever other problems they may have, they've been honest with themselves about what a big mess they've made of their lives. They sincerely want to change but know that they will need a power greater than their own to conquer the demons of each day. They are acutely aware of their reliance on their Redeemer. They have callused their knees in prayer. They have broken hearts. They are acquainted with the Lord in their extremities. My two favorite books about the Atonement (see here and here) are written by such people. Their challenges may be peculiar to them, but their understanding of the power of the Atonement is universally applicable. They realize in humility the truth that many of us try to avoid--we all need the Atonement, and we need it desperately.

I remember talking to such a friend one night. Despairing because of the mess he had made of his life, my friend was only beginning his journey toward understanding the true meaning of the Atonement (as, I suppose, we all are). "We're all sinners," I told him, as we talked about that great gift. He scoffed. "But Amy," he said, "my sins are so much bigger than yours." I hesitated. And then, the Spirit bore a powerful witness to me, and I began. "No, John. Both of our sins separate us from God. They keep us both from enjoying His love as fully as we could. Our sins differ in degree, not in kind." In the following months, I learned the truthfulness of those words.

There is a lot of humility required to admit that we are all "prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love." It's hard to admit that we're broken, profoundly damaged, not just superficially wounded. But the scriptures continually testify that the Atonement is not a Band-Aid for a flesh wound, it is a quadruple bypass for a stony heart. And it is that heart that must become new in order for us to return to our Heavenly Father. It is that heart that must be given to the Lord, wholly and without reservation. It is that heart that must be carried into the land of Moriah, and left there on the altar.

This is not easy. But it is sweet, and oh, so necessary. God can only give us a new heart if we are willing to give up the old one. It is easy to imagine that we can obey the gospel, and do all the right things, and thereby become good people, better versions of ourselves, but still retain our own natures. It is easy, but it is wrong.

I am beginning to understand that the Lord requires more than that, but that what He offers in return is infinitely more than I had imagined. He offers His holiness. He offers exaltation. He offers blessings beyond our comprehension. As He told His children in an earlier time, "Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation" (D&C 58:3). He offers to make us saints through the Atonement of Christ, but only if we are willing to put off that which is natural and normal and and corrupt, and put on that which is eternal (see Mosiah 3:19). And we cannot do this without admitting that what we are is so far below what God wishes us to be that only the infinite Atonement of the Infinite One can save us. The people of King Benjamin learned this, and "viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth." Only then could they all cry "aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mosiah 4:2). The Lord gave them what they asked for, and they experienced a "mighty change of heart" (Mosiah 5:2). They felt to sing the song of redeeming love (Alma 5:26).

And so have I. Not because I am so very worthy, so very good, so very righteous, for I am a sinner. I am redeemed, not on my own merits, but "because of the righteousness of [my] Redeemer" (2 Nephi 2:3). I am saved because of His love and His holiness, not my own. And having caught a glimpse of that great love, that infinite holiness, and my own carnal state, my own tendency to wander from my God, my heart cries out in the words of a beloved hymn, "Here's my heart, Lord, take and seal it for Thy courts above."

For, in the words of the publican, God has been merciful to me, a sinner. (Luke 18:13).


  1. We want so badly to be whole that sometimes we pretend we have no wounds. We need it, and we can't reach it on our own, and sometimes it's just easier to push the pieces together, to make everything fit, than to admit that we're lost and broken.

    It's so hard.
    It would be impossible except that a man broke himself open and let the love of God pour out of his wounds and out to the whole wide world, and because he broke himself, I can be made whole. All I have to do is turn to him and ask (which is both faith and repentance).

    We have to follow Christ to brokenness before we can follow Him to healing.

  2. I've been reading some things very similar to this in another place. The most recent post is about defining ourselves through love, rather than through political divisions. The one before that addresses the sort of healing that comes from publicly acknowledging that we have sinned.

    The author is Mormon and Jewish and (I should admit) my older brother. But don't hold him accountable for that last one... It wasn't his fault at all :)

  3. I just wanted to add my witness to how true this entry is. Absolutely beautiful, Amy Gordon. Thank you, yet again, for being such a blessing to me :)

  4. I love this insight and the prayer, "God be merciful to me a sinner", because how often my prayer mirrors that of the Pharisee's. Your comments and quotes also struck a thought I've have been incubating since this Sunday's lesson, though it is not directly connected to this post, but your posts in general. I appeal to the words of Elder Packer regarding the Book of Mormon and the Bible, " you pore over one you are drawn to the other; as you learn from one you are enlightened by the other. They are indeed one in our hands." Thank you for bringing these two blessed books together in such an unpretentious and poignant manner.