The Perfect Prayer

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I’m very prideful. And while it’s tempting to think, yeah, well, who isn’t? – no matter how true it is – the sins of others don’t negate my own.

It’s easy for me to look at those around me, whether it’s peers in my classes or strangers I notice on the bus, and judge them by their words and actions. I witnessed almost my entire stagecraft class cheating on our midterm last month; I overheard two girls the other day discussing their experiences of losing their virginity, one of them saying that her first time was after a party with a guy she had known for a month.

Often, my reaction to things like this is a mixture of pity, shock, and slight disgust. After those feelings wear off, however, it’s easy for me to slip into an attitude of self-righteousness. When I do something bad, I can make myself feel better by remembering the kids who cheated on that test, or the girls who have no consideration of the sacredness of sex. At least I’m not like them; I’m ashamed to admit that the thought has crossed my mind.

Yesterday, as I thought about these things, I began to think about how I should pray. Lord, help me to be more kind to those who are worse sinners than me.

Wait, that’s not right.

Lord, help me to be more humble.

Hmm, a little better, but it still implies that I think I’m better or more righteous than others, and that I just need an attitude adjustment. But that’s not what I need.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And I realized that this is the perfect prayer. It can be simplified even further, reduced to its core: Lord have mercy.

Lord, have mercy on those students in my class. They are clearly misled and deceived by Satan into thinking that cheating on a test is the better option, or that it won’t hurt them, or that it doesn’t matter.

Lord, have mercy on those girls who are lost and searching for love. Help them see how precious and sacred sex can be. Show them that they are treasured.

This prayer is perfect because there is no pretense; when I utter these words, I am not feigning humility in order to show off my own self-righteousness (which is not righteousness at all). I am not praying for the “worse” sinner around me. It is a prayer for all humankind, because it cries out for the one thing we all need.

Lord have mercy on us all.

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