Praying Like a Publican – A Reprint

Sometimes I want to say things I’ve already said. My parishioners have apparently learned to put up with this as my children did long ago. The subject of this posting came up recently in a sermon (probably not for the first time – but who can remember?). It is not all that is to be said about prayer – but it should be said sometime and is said too infrequently. If you are struggling with your prayer-rule don’t give up. But if failure is keeping you from prayer (or worse, from Church) then rush to pray – the doors of heaven are open – and now you can pray like the Publican (who “went down to his house justified”). The text of this post first ran in December of 2006.

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) are 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 you 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 retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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16 responses to “Praying Like a Publican – A Reprint”

  1. […] Praying like a pubican ought to be helpful to someone, or at least me: 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? […]

  2. […] Praying like a Publican – Reprint […]

  3. Jake Avatar

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen, this is one of those posts that hurts to read, because the words are stinging with truth and honesty. My guess is the Psalmist did not wait until the guilt of his sin had passed before he penned Psalm 50/51.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    What’s worse, if I might add a thought to the Boar’s Head Tavern comment, is “what are we doing when we don’t feel like a Publican and yet are praying?” It’s the level of delusion that frightens me. To pray like a Publican, also means that Repentance, meekness, humility, are the proper states of mind at all times. This runs contrary to the popular view of sin as a legal problem to be rectified by saying “Sorry” to God. God forgives, but the forgiveness of God is a deep, healing matter. And the kinds of sin that infect us – pride, avarice, greed, envy, etc., are slow in healing, often. We have no choice but to pray when those sins are still much intact. Thus we lower our eyes, smite our breast and pray like a publican.

    Though the point of everything I’ve written here is pray!

  5. The Scylding Avatar

    Thank you father! It has now often happened that somebody like you write something that speak to my spirit’s need exactly, at the moment I read it.

    The delusion of religious feelings is very great, indeed.

  6. d burns Avatar
    d burns


    What do we do though when we don’t want to go to confession? Not because we feel we don’t need it, but because we’re ashamed of our sin and don’t wish to acknolege to ourselves, much less God and a priest.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand the feelings – though we are in delusion. When I am really sick I am not ashamed and afraid to go to the doctor – I rush there! You should work on seeing the priest as standing in the place of the Physician. A priest is taught (and succeeds if he has the grace) not to judge anyone who comes to him for confession. If you’re worried about the priest’s good opinion, give it up. You don’t need his good opinion, but the sacraments he was ordained to serve. Believe me, I know the difficulty. But these are simply the hurdles of the spiritual life. Renounce pride. The humiliation of speaking the truth about ourselves before God and his priest are good medicine. The humiliation doesn’t kill us, it can heal us.

    When our relationship with the priest is built on “good opinion” etc. it is a false relationship. As a priest I would worry far more about giving an important task to someone whom I thought well of who nevertheless avoided confession than someone whose confession I had heard regularly. It is a broken and contrite heart that God can use. What use does God have for the talents and good opinion of man?

    Go to confess. Weep. Embarrass yourself. It’s very good for you.

  8. papa_rod Avatar

    I love that prayer, The Pilgrim’s Prayer or whatever it is called nowadays, sometimes that has been the only thing I have been able to pray. This reminds me of a few times when I decided I couldn’t go to church because I was angry or hurt or whatever excuse I could find but in the end I realize that that’s precisely why I should go to church and pray as well. Thanks for sharing this and God bless you.

  9. kevinburt Avatar


    the big difference — to which you alluded with the word “embarrass” — is that I feel no embarrassment when I go to my doctor with the flu, or sinusitis, or a broken arm, or cancer, etc. My sin is at least part a chosen path, thus much more shaming to confess and seek healing. I occasionally have patients whom I suspect have an ocular infection related to promiscuous behavior… trying to take a good medical history with them in order to correctly diagnose them is difficult; I can frequently detect a hesitancy to share much information with me. This makes it more difficult to treat them, too.

    I suspect it makes it more difficult for you and your brother priests when we hold back for similar reasons.

    I wish it were easier for me to just “open up” and let a priest deal with my sins. But, I have to admit, it is difficult, and the impulse for me is to only confess the things that do not make me look quite so incompetent and sinful.

    Thank you for this post; it encourages me — one who has often found it difficult to pray for reasons of sin, discouragement, or the like.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    kevinburt – good points.

    One of the most common problem in American confessions, is the tendency to analyze. We not only want to say what we did wrong, but also how we’re doing about it, that we’re better now, etc. or whatever. Most of which is needless.

    It is probably better to name our sins, without excuse. If some circumstance needs to be mentioned, fine, or the priest may ask something about the circumstance. But it is better to confess like a child.

    I find this to be somewhat different between Americans and some European Orthodox (Americans are all Woody Allen – too introspective). There is a “model confession” in the second book of The Way of a Pilgrim that I may post at some point. It is brutal in its honesty. It begins, “I do not believe in God…”

  11. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    I too find it difficult to confess to a priest and am asking God for healing in this area of my life. I used to practice confession to a spiritual director, but when I moved away I wasn’t able to find another and made the mistake of trying to confess to my bishop. (I was an Episcopal priest at the time.) Little did I know that he would use my confession against me. I have had to struggle with trusting a priest ever since.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodox priests are far more practiced in hearing confessions – since we hear them all the time. A good Confessor should say much less than the person confessing (according to my Archbishop and I like his take on confession). He should also be able to refrain in his heart from judging anyone whose confession he hears – it is a great sin. A priest is not a judge, only a witness. Generally, your parish priest should be your normal confessor unless he blesses you to go to someone else (a your priest he is responsible for your soul before God – so we should keep them somewhat informed on the state of our soul).

    Fr. Sophrony used to teach that on Mt. Athos, when an Elder heard a priest’s confession, he never said a word, just the absolution, and then took of his Epitrahelion, handed to the priest and asked him to read the prayer of absolution over him (the Elder).

    I have experienced this – it is quite humbling.

  13. Allen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you, for this post! I am reminded of a passage in a George MacDonald novel. One of the characters comments (John 8) only One remained with her, when the others who were wanting to cast stones departed; and the One remaining did not cast any stones at her. Christ does not cast stones at sinners, but shows greatest mercy. As you have written, let’s rush into His arms of mercy.

  14. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you for your comments above concerning confession to Orthodox priests. I began the practice of confession while I was still Anglican. The difference in the priest’s response surprised me. I expected my orthodox priest to comment more than he has, although he answers any questions I have and has been very instructive, he is on the “quiet side”. Upon reading your comments about Mt. Athos, this makes sense to me.

    Also our priest has reminded us that he is responsible for our souls before God and so I try to remember to keep him in prayer in this regard also.

    And one more thing, our priest has always said to call him and seek to discuss anything with him that we need to. I have taken the opportunity to set up a time to discuss and ask questions concerning my and my family’s spiritual life outside of the confession. Although our priest is very busy, when a time to sit down together is scheduled, he behaves as if there are no others around. I am profoundly grateful to him for this and God has blessed us so very much in Orthodoxy! Thank you also for your posts.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    May God bless you and the priest who so well serves you and your family. Did my heart good to start the day reading your comment. Thank you.

  16. zena ezechiels Avatar
    zena ezechiels

    Dearest Father Stephen

    I like the publican am a sinner. However, I identify completely with

    the sinful publican and do confess faithfully in prayer to God when I

    erred. I dont findit difficult to confess , only very difficult not to sin, again


    though I try. I constantly lose my temper, scream, and can’t forgive

    others , when I tried to do all I could to help them and then they failed to

    make amends I am a Greco Orthodox Ukrainian. You article has helped me

    to understand more and hopefully to put in practice true forgiveness to

    those who failed me and those I failed and become a better Christian.

    Thank you Father Stephen for a wonderful article and thank you for your

    Orthodoxy Article and Being a Priest of God. in our Church.

    Zena Ezechiels

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