Praying Like a Publican


Sometime back someone said to me, “Whenever I’ve sinned I never feel like praying. I feel unworthy and I just can’t pray.”

The statement sounded correct – I’ve had the same feeling often enough. But I kept thinking about it until the question came to me, “What am I waiting to feel before I pray?”

In the case at hand, I would suppose one would be waiting not to feel like such a sinner. And then I understood.

There is the story in Scripture of two men who went to pray, one a Pharisee and one a Publican (bad tax-collector for Rome) (Luke 18:10-14). We are told that the Pharisee prayed easily, lifting his eyes to heaven, and thanking God that “he was not like other men.”

The publican did not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

What struck me on reflection, however, was the puzzle of not wanting to pray when I feel guilty of sin. Having sinned, I do not wish to pray, I do not feel worthy of prayer. What am I waiting on?

I think, upon reflection, I’m waiting until I feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so I can pray, without realizing that such prayer is almost useless. Indeed, strangely, I pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” with greater ease when I feel like a righteous man than when I feel like a sinner.

And this is part of the disease of religion – for make no mistake – religion is frequently a disease.

Relgious feelings (the Pharisees were masters of them) a deceptive in the extreme. I think I feel like praying, I am in fact feeling “pious.” And it’s a deep tragedy. I am not ready to pray – I’m eaten up with myself as a pious man.

When you feel like a Publican, then y0u can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell me, “Father, I can’t serve in the altar today, I don’t feel worthy.” No doubt. But you’re in much greater danger when you do feel worthy.

Come in and approach God’s altar knowing you are not worthy and you will find grace and forgiveness.

None of this is to say don’t go to confession. But it’s good for us to say, sometimes, “Father, forgive me, I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere.

To see the truth of ourselves is a very hard thing. And to love God precisely in the truth of ourselves is harder still. But this He wants from us. Pray like a publican. There are so many more times available for prayer if you do. And while you’re there, pray for those who are praying like a pharisee. May God free us from delusion.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





5 responses to “Praying Like a Publican”

  1. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    This is a very tired author, leaning against a tree on a warm winter afternoon, by the Trinity River in Southern Utah. I don’t know whether he’s praying like a publican or a pharisee. Probably like a tired man.

  2. Steven CC Avatar
    Steven CC

    Excellent post, Father Stephen. I’ve recently discovered your blog and will be a regular visitor.

    I have a few comments, if I may be so bold, which I mean not as a critique but as a supplement to your thoughts above. I would like to suggest that the Publican-Pharisee dichotomy can at times be limiting, or at least an incomplete way of viewing prayer. At times, it might be a good idea to pray neither like a Publican nor like a Pharisee, to neither focus on one’s goodness nor to focus on one’s sins. Perhaps, at times, it’s good to simply glorify God, to lose yourself in your love for Him and His Love for you.

    One might argue that this naturally leads to a Publican-type mentality. I’m not sure that’s necessary. At times, a man may look upon his beautiful wife and think “She’s too good for me.” At other times, he may just be happy to look upon her, and almost lose himself for a moment.

    I remember hearing a lot about the Publican-Pharisee dichotomy when I was young student. It’s certainly a helpful story, but I simply want to point out (in my typically long-winded way) that it shouldn’t be the last word on prayer. We need to acknowledge and hope for Divine Eros. Perhaps that’s why, in Luke, Christ immediately followed the parable of the Publican and Pharisee with comments on receiving the Kingdom like a child.

  3. John Hudson Avatar
    John Hudson

    I have the same experience, having sinned, of finding prayer difficult and an uninviting activity, but I don’t think I am ‘waiting’ for anything, e.g. until I ‘feel righteous’ [Do I ever feel righteous? I’m not sure; ‘my sin is ever before me’.] At those times, I am struggling to respond to the grace to pray, which I know is there, but which I have put myself at a distance from through sin. In my experience, sin and grace are like virus and immune system, and I try to be conscious of my spiritual health. Prayer, fasting, abstinence, sacrifice, charity, etc. build up the immune system because they are attuned to grace and invite God’s presence. Sin attacks the soul, weakens the immune system, and is an open invitation to the adversary, who like a cancer seeks to take over and to kill us from within. But God’s grace, being stronger — and sufficient to our struggle — can make good even of our failure, prompting us to repentance and renewal, and assisting us through the sacraments He has given to the Church to administer for our salvation.

    I read the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican as being about the source of prayer, about what brings us to prayer, and how that is reflected in our attitude. If the Publican, as a result of his repentance, reforms his life, begins to pray regularly, is he doomed to become like the Pharisee eventually? No, of course not, so I agree with the other commentator who writes that this parable should not be the last work on prayer. It is more like the first word on prayer: be conscious of what prompts you to prayer, remembering that ‘the sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit’. [Leaving aside, for now, other fine promptings to prayer: wonder at God’s creation, gratitude for His gifts, the simple impulse to worship, etc.]

  4. mysticheart Avatar

    “Jews died for their faith the way a pagan would never have thought to.”

    My good Father, sheer, total honesty requires me to say that this statement is completely inaccurate. The error that is made here is focusing exclusively on religious developments of the Middle East.

    But look at Northern Europe. I’ll give you an example: Raud the Strong, a Norseman who refused baptism and had a metal tube forced down his throat, all the way down to his stomach, and a snake fed into the tube. The tube was then heated with a torch, forcing the snake to crawl down into his belly and kill Raud from the inside. Raud was, to use a Germanic term instead of a Latin term, a heathen. He refused to give up the spiritual paths that his father and grandfather and ancestors from long ago had walked. He refused to give up the Gods of his people.

    And no surprise, really. People such as Raud would have believed that the spirit of his ancestors lived on in everything around him – himself, his family, his friends, the community he lived in, etc. Germanic and Scandinavian heathens (that is, non-Christians) really deeply believed this.

    “Saint” Olaf of Norway did all kinds of horrible things to non-Christian Norwegians who refused baptism. There are likely a number of Scandinavian heathen martyrs whose names we just do not know because they have been truly lost in the mists of history. But they did die for their people’s traditions all the same. They seriously did.

    Also, look at all the Saxons who were slaughtered by Charlegmane for refusing to convert. We don’t know their names, but we know what Charlegmane did.

    There were and always have been pagan/heathen martyrs, yes, just like there are Catholic ones. Are you a Catholic or Episcopal or Orthodox priest? You should know about martyrs. I would say that there are some even today; I know of one art director for a pagan magazine who was stabbed to death in her own home. Her calls to local police went ignored. It is believed she was targeted because she was pagan.

    So I would encourage you to not assume that just because someone wasn’t or isn’t Christian, that doesn’t mean they have no faith that they would not be willing to give their lives for.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m not certain why your note wound up attached to this post – my quote was surely elsewhere. But your point is well made and I will make note of it in future thoughts on the matter.

    The history of Christian missions has some sad chapters. Happily, the history of Orthodox missions have been less mixed with violence. Your point is well taken

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