I can get stuck in a mental loop of self-congratulation and it can seep into my prayer life.
Jesus said a lot about prayer and showed even more by his actions, like praying all the time, especially when he was busy. One of the most helpful lessons to me comes in a parable.
First a confession to make: I can get stuck in a mental loop of self-congratulation and it can seep into my prayer life. In some rare quiet meditative moment I’ll start comparing myself to others. An image will flash through my head, a person’s name might flit by and I’ll say, “Well, at least I’m not that bad.”
A red light should go off as soon as that happens. In a parable Jesus did shine the light on just such a prayer. The story contrasts the prayers of a holy Pharisee and a tax collector. Mind you, tax collectors in ancient Judea had a worse reputation than used car salesmen today.
So what does the holy man say? His prayer goes like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, cheaters, adulterers or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I tithe.” He thinks he’s hot stuff. Probably looks like it too.
By contrast the tax collector beats his chest and prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Heartbreakingly simple words.
When I’m honest like that, not bragging, truly humbled, even desperate, my prayer life gets going, and by reflection my creative life does too. It’s so opposite of what I expect. Shouldn’t I be puffing myself up? Shouldn’t I be congratulating myself on some imagined triumph? No, not at the expense of honesty.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty works best. “God,” I’ll say, “look at the mess I just made. ...” Now we’re ready to talk.