The Praise of Man
Giving in Secret
The last two posts looked at the sermon on the mount to consider Jesus’s prescription for the restoration of men and women on the earth. First we looked at his words on anger and murder, then his words on lust and sexual sin, and we noted the extreme freedom that his viewpoint brings to those who have ears to hear and want something better than what passes in the world for happiness and fulfillment.
Next in the sermon on the mount Jesus discusses divorce. In light of what he says about lust, this one should be easy. Then oaths: If you are a truly honest person, you don’t need them. Then retaliation: Don’t retaliate, because you are free from anger. And, love for enemies: Having this will free you from anger and the need for retaliation. After this, in Matthew 6, Jesus moves into subtler territory and gets at the heart of a prevalent issue in the human condition: Doing things, even religious things, to collect the praises of man.
First, he addresses the subject of giving. Most people have a hard enough time making themselves give away any money at all. Often, ministries and charities make use of our fallen nature to manipulate us to give, and that usually revolves around other people knowing what you give. Whether it is in a church where the pastors make it known that they see who gives what, or it is a philanthropist getting their name on a hospital wing, most know that people will tend to give more in public than they will in private. Why is this? There can only be one answer to this question: Because we are giving what we are giving to be seen by men, rather than God. Jesus saw the problem with this and called it out in verses 1-4 of Matthew 6. He said, to paraphrase, that we should not let anyone see us giving to the needy. If we “practice our righteousness before other people,” then we will receive the reward we are clearly looking for, the esteem of others. When we have received that, then there is no more reward to be had by God.
This is tragic, because Jesus died to set us free from the shame brought on by sinfulness, first seen in the garden (Gen 3:10). It is this shame that compels us to practice righteousness in order to be seen. These righteous acts are like the fig leaves covering Adam and Eve. The reward that Jesus desires for us is freedom from this shame. When we are free, then we are free to give in secret.
The reward that the Father will give us is that of freedom from the bondage of needing the approval of others that we have been seeking to cover our shame, or our sense of worthlessness.
Rather than fig leaves, Jesus is the animal skins that the Father so lovingly gave to Adam to cover him by his work, instead of Adam’s. Jesus says to us by his coming and his death for us that we have no need to hide behind the approval of others. When we as Christians give in secret, we reinforce the truth and starve out the lie. That reinforcement strengthens us at the core, bringing us more peace, more joy, more stability in Christ, more of the good kind of pride, better fellowship with God, because there is less hiding. The reward of the praise of man is a cheap substitute that will not pay off in the end and keeps us from the real prize.
Praying in Secret
All the very same principles apply in the area of prayer. If you want to see someone put on a show, put them in a corporate prayer session. I am a pastor, and I weekly battle the temptation when praying at the end of a sermon to “perform” the closing prayer. I don’t even realize when I’m doing it! It’s easier for me to notice when others are doing it. Granted, it takes a great deal of freedom to become the kind of person who will pray in front of others in the exact same way that he or she prays alone. You don’t have to want to put on a show for that to be what happens. I would say that for 99% of us, it is the default. But Jesus shows us here that by refusing to participate in the normal way of doing it, praying, at least partly, for show, and instead just pouring out your heart to God when you are praying with others, or even praying only alone for a while, we will receive a reward from God in the way of answered prayer, and as with the giving in secret, in the way of a strengthening of faith and character.
Next, after teaching them the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples that they must forgive others or they will not be forgiven by their Heavenly Father. This is some strong language. To fail to forgive others keeps you in the bondage of sin and hell, and proves that you’ve yet to understand and accept God’s forgiveness, either because you don’t think you need it, or you don’t think he is kind enough, or loves you enough to forgive you. If you are holding any unforgiveness, stop everything and deal with it. God will help you.
Briefly, fasting is a spiritual discipline that can be helpful in learning to abide in Christ. It is also super impressive to the churchy crowd that is impressed by that sort of thing. Knowing this, Jesus warns against the hypocritical tendency of religious folks to fast and make it clear to everyone how miserable they are because they are so holy and are not eating. Once again, what is at issue is the bondage of needing to put on a show, for whatever reason, to impress others. The more you will engage in these sorts of practices without telling anyone, the more you will be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
The rest of the sermon on the mount deals less with living for the attention and praise of man, and more with an inward heart towards God. We will discuss it further in the coming days.