Note: This post is part of a series about building a personal relationship with God by reading the parables of Jesus. You can browse the entire series here

    How do you deal with the areas in your life that make you feel embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed?

    I have always had a hard time just being myself and being “comfortable in my own skin,” especially when that involves being honest about my shortcomings or weaknesses.

    Jesus tells a story in Luke 18 about two people, a Pharisee and a tax collector, who chose to deal with uncomfortable truths and emotions about themselves in very different ways. Through this parable, Jesus presents us with a choice between pride and humility: we can either choose to deny our faults and sins or we can own up to them and ask for help. 

    The way we choose to deal with our guilt and sin will have a profound impact on our relationships with other people and our relationship with God. Pride and self-righteousness turn us into people who look down on others, leading to distance in our relationships. Humility keeps us grounded, allows us to get the help we need, and brings closeness in our relationships. 

    We can either choose to deny our faults and sins or we can own up to them and ask for help.

    We learn from this story that dealing with sin doesn’t have to be negative—it can be a stepping stone to closeness with God. We all need mercy every day; the more often we’re aware of this and vocalize our need for it, the more secure we’ll feel as we enjoy the freedom to be ourselves.

    Because God has unlimited mercy, we can feel confident that anything we bring up to him will be met with compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. He can handle anything we throw at him, so we don’t need to pretend to be someone we’re not. 

    Before we dive into our devotional, take a moment to reflect on these questions:

    • When I see my shortcomings or faults, how do I feel and how do I react?
    • Do I see understanding my sin as a way to get closer to God, or as a source of shame and embarrassment? Why?

    The false promise of a perfect performance

    To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

    Luke 18:9-12 NIV

    First, let’s look at who Jesus directed this story toward. He told this story to people who did not feel like they needed to learn anything from God. They were confident about how good they were, and they looked down on other people to bolster this confidence in themselves. In our world today, these people might be like those who are very religious and think they know what is right.

    Jesus knew that no one is really perfect or good all the time (see Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8-10, and Mark 10:18). He wanted to set these people free to be themselves and be close to God, so he told them a story to help them identify the things they didn’t really want to see.

    There are two things to notice about the first person who prays, the Pharisee. First, he stands by himself. His self-righteousness and criticalness of the people around him must have affected his relationships. After all, would you want to be around someone who was always critical of you? 

    Read more: Why Should We Be Humble? 3 benefits of humility

    Second, he is obsessed with and defines himself and other people based on performance. If someone messes up and sins, they are “evildoers” to him. He does not want to think of himself as an “evildoer,” so he focuses only on what he thinks he does right and never mentions anything he has done wrong. In a word, he is prideful. 

    Sometimes we think that pride will make us feel secure or confident, but this is a false promise. We learn from Jesus’s story that pride actually leads to loneliness. Focusing on our own and others’ performances does not help us build relationships. 

    The Pharisee does not feel, understand, or experience God’s love and forgiveness for himself, and therefore he does not show mercy toward anyone else. The great tragedy of being like this is that he is pretending to be someone he is not, so he can’t be close to anyone, including God. 

    Sometimes we think that pride will make us feel secure or confident, but this is a false promise.

    When I was in high school, I always competed with everyone around me. I wanted to be the fastest, strongest, and smartest. I would walk down the halls and rank myself by comparing myself with other people. And because I wanted to rank high, I constantly criticized them in my head. I made fun of people whom I perceived as weaker than me to increase my rank, and tried to cut down those I thought were stronger. 

    This left me feeling not only very pressured and but also lonely because I never developed the ability to be vulnerable and honest with people so we could become real friends. So while I kept trying to better my performance through competing with people, I became jealous of those who had real friendships and a freedom I didn’t have. I was trapped. I had to learn how to become like the second person in Jesus’ story. 

    Pause and Reflect:

    • Do I define myself by comparing my performance to other people in order to feel better than them? Or, do I define myself through God’s eyes in which performance means nothing and close relationships mean everything?

    The surprising security that comes with being real

    “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

    Luke 18:13-14 NIV

    The second person in Jesus’ story, the tax collector, is emotionally expressive. He has very strong feelings of shame and guilt, but he expresses them honestly to God. He does not try to prove himself nor make himself look better than he is.

    He is not comparing himself to anyone else; he just wants to tell God how he feels. He knows that God can handle hearing all of his emotions and will still love him, believe in him, and respond to him with mercy.

    In fact, he is the one who leaves justified with God. That means his relationship with God is right again; he and God are on good terms. Knowing that the God who created the universe is on your side and accepts you, faults and all, is an incredible source of security and confidence. It is much better than the false sense of security that comes from comparing yourself to other people or pretending to be perfect. 

    He knows that God can handle hearing all of his emotions and will still love him, believe in him, and respond to him with mercy.

    I would imagine that knowing his relationship with God was right meant that the tax collector could leave this prayer time relaxed, confident, and free from guilt.

    I played intramural basketball in college. In one particularly terrible game, my team and I played very poorly and lost by a lot. When we all sat down after the game, we were angry, sad, and defeated, with each one of us blaming the other for the loss. No one really wanted to talk.

    One of my teammates stood up and said, “I was horrible in that game! That guy I was guarding beat me like a …” That made another teammate stand up and say how bad his own shots were until everyone said something. We went from being angry, blaming, and defeated to relaxed, laughing, and determined.

    I learned that day that expressing honest emotion is what frees us and brings us together in relationships. That is what God wants in a relationship with us. He does not care about our performance, but just wants us to be our true, messy selves.  

    Pause and Reflect:

    • How much do I express my honest emotions to God and my friends? 
      • One way to tell is how comfortable you are in your own skin. God wants us to leave our time with him feeling free and relaxed. 

    Wrapping up:

    Jesus told this story because he knows it can be hard for us to handle uncomfortable truths and feelings of shame and embarrassment. He wants us to understand that God can handle any emotion we feel, so we can express these feelings honestly. Instead of always having to cut people down to feel better about ourselves, he wants us to be comfortable being exactly who we are so we can be close to him and others around us.

    In closing, spend some time reflecting on these questions:

    • Which person in Jesus’ story do I relate to the most? How?
    • What are one or two things I have been holding in that I could express to be more free and relaxed? 
    • How can I change my view of God to understand that he can handle any emotion I throw at him without losing his love and belief in me?

    Scott Colvin works in ministry and community service in the San Francisco Bay Area. Scott ran cross country for the University of North Carolina. Some say he's still running to this day.

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