"All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived," writes the Holy Apostle to Timothy. Thus it was in Russia under the Communist Yoke, and thus it is in America today--though the persecution we are likely to suffer in this post-Christian culture is much more subtle than what occurred in the former Soviet Union...and is, for this very reason, much more insidious, because it is so easy to be complacent, to be lulled into a false sense of security and righteousness.
The fact is, if we were truly living the radical faith our Lord commands in the Gospels, we truly would suffer persecution from the "evil men" of this age. When persecution does arise, however, it is the proud and self-righteous who are the first to fall, to accommodate themselves to the evil forces that strive to pervert the essential goodness of God's creation. So it was that the Pharisees exalted themselves above other men, thinking themselves to be righteous and holy, yet they were the very ones who conspired to put to death He Who is the source of all holiness and righteousness.
The Pharisee in the Temple wasn't praying at all--he was merely patting himself on the back, congratulating himself for being such an upright, virtuous person. The Publican, on the other hand, was painfully aware that he was a sinner, and so he sincerely repented, casting himself down and beseeching God's mercy. For this reason he was justified: having abased himself, he was exalted.
For those who struggle to take up their cross and to follow Christ, suffering and persecution is inevitable in this vale of tears--and truly, only those who endure unto the end will be saved. But unless we are strengthened by the grace of God, all of our efforts will be in vain. And it is only to the humble and contrite that this grace is given. In this respect we should strive at all times to imitate the Publican, that having been humbled, we may in the end be exalted to the heights of heaven.