Pray Your Helplessness

Owning our desperation can lead to mercy and grace.

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How to pray helpless and receive mercy and grace.

In a wonderful story depicting a despised tax collector praying in the Temple, Jesus said, “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13-14, NIV).

In contrast to a prideful Pharisee nearby, the tax collector did not approach God as someone who had anything to offer, but stood “far off.” He did not gaze up toward heaven as someone who could face his maker, but “would not even lift up his eyes.”

He did not stand tall and puff out his chest as someone who could expect some reward or praise, but “beat his breast,” humbly and brokenly owning his responsibility for his sin.

When Jesus told His followers to pray, “Forgive us our sins” in His model prayer (often called “The Lord’s Prayer”), He prescribed not only a phrase but an attitude.

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He tells us to admit our helplessness, like a child (Matthew 18:3) asking for food (Matthew 7:9-11). He urges a humble awareness of our need of mercy and grace.

Theologian Karl Barth wrote:

“We are God’s debtors. We owe him not something, whether it be little or much, but, quite simply, our person in its totality; we owe him ourselves, since we are his creatures, sustained and nourished by his goodness. We, his children, called by his word, admitted to the service of his glorification—we, brothers and sisters of the man Jesus Christ—come short of what we owe to God. What we are and what we do correspond in no wise to what is given us. We are his children and we know not how to recognize it. Calvin says, ‘Whoever refuses to confess that we offend God, as debtors who do not pay, excludes himself from Christianity.’ And Luther, ‘Before God everyone is compelled to lower his plumes.’”

 Lowering our “plumes” is a reference to the decorative feathers attached to a military headdress, which indicated a soldier’s rank or regiment. It means removing all badges of honor and symbols of rank, standing “far off,” lowering our gaze and beating our breast. It means owning our helplessness, our utter lack of right or rank before God.

The person who prays like that will find grace, for “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6, NIV). So pray in the confidence that comes from desperate helplessness, and you will receive mercy and find grace in your time of need (see Hebrews 4:16).

Adapted from The Red Letter Prayer Life by Bob Hostetler (Barbour Books 2015)

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