Confession: this past year I got in trouble with the IRS. Apparently, I never paid my taxes. Let me explain. See, since my second job lists me as “self-employed,” every year I have to pay taxes. So, I used one of those income tax programs, and filed electronically. Though not the same day, I even got a notification that said something like “your federal tax return has been accepted.” The body of the message informed me that I was finished for the year and asked me to review the program. It wasn’t until maybe a month-ish later that I got a letter from the IRS saying that I owed them a large sum of money, and I’d better comply before late fees started piling up. Gulp.
I’d done everything right—or so I thought. The electronic forms all seemed perfectly clear. So it was a bit frustrating that I’d get zapped by Uncle Sam.
Have you ever felt that praying is like that? Have you been concerned that God will ignore you unless you can be righteous enough?
It’s true that “the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective” (James 5:16). But we can’t confuse effect for cause. James isn’t saying: “Prayer is effective if you’re a righteous man.” No; James was speaking in the context of confession and forgiveness. Righteousness isn’t about perfection, but maturity and humility.
Still, we tend to think of God as something of a cosmic IRS agent. We do all the right things, but we still fear that God might do an “audit,” and we come up short. To his early followers, Jesus tells this story:
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)
In the ancient world, widows were particularly vulnerable. Yet in Jesus’ story, even the disrespectful judge had mercy on this woman. Jesus’ point was simple: we all know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The judge caved to avoid the annoyance of the widow. But if an uncaring judge will show mercy, then won’t a loving and gracious Father show mercy all the more?
The gospel teaches us that our wickedness can never be hidden from God. If God did an audit, we’d all come up short. But we can trust that God is merciful. Our feelings of brokenness and unworthiness should push us into God’s presence, not away from it. And so we kneel, confident in undeserved mercy, and a grace that flows wild and free.