Indeed, we are back with more from Jesus’ most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount. We’re in Matthew, chapter 6. Here are His words. Let’s read them and see if we can get what He’s telling us.
Matt. 6:1-18 - Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Lest we get off on the wrong foot here, I hope you don’t think Jesus is anti-prayer, or anti-giving, or anti-fasting. Note that He doesn’t say, “If you pray or fast or give,” but “When you pray and fast and give.” See the difference? Good! As Christians, citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, we ought to be engaged in these things. These are activities theologians refer to as "spiritual disciplines," and that’s just a fancy way of saying these things contribute to connecting with and enjoying this new found relationship we have with God. We could add other things to this list, such as loving our neighbors, meditating on God’s word, and worship—anything that gets us into that spiritual dimension of life where we can engage God and He can engage us. Apart from these activities, it’s going to be almost impossible to deepen this relationship with God because we will not be coming to know him better and better along the way. Note the benefits of this highlighted in 1 Timothy.
1 Tim. 4:7-8 Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
Like a runner who’s preparing for a marathon, or you and I just trying to get into shape, days will pop up that we just don’t want to hit the pavement or the gym. That’s why they call it training, not entertainment. We purpose to train, we make time for that training, because we’ve a goal at the end of it—to set a personal best in the race, or maybe just to not look like a beached whale at the beach. If we want to develop a best-friend relationship with God, we’ve got to train, to discipline ourselves to do the things that get us there.
Well, if Jesus is not down on prayer, fasting, and giving, what’s His point here? It has everything to do with our motives, what’s going on at the heart level. What audience are we playing to? Are we doing these things to look good to other people, or are we doing these things to deepen our relationship with God? Jesus pretty much has us figured out, and he knows that our craving approval from other people can actually invade the activities designed to gain approval from Him. Here are some questions, drawn from a book by counselor Ed Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small, to help us spot whether we’re doing what we do to be seen by other people:
- Do you crave compliments? Sometimes even fish for them? You know, you say disparaging things about yourself, hoping others will kind of disagree with you and say wonderful things about you? And when you don’t get compliments, are you hurt? Are you afraid you might be exposed as an impostor? You’re pretending, hoping to keep up appearances to win the approval of people, and you’re just afraid that people are going to find out about the real you.
- Are you overly concerned with how you look, what you weigh, or how you are dressed? Do you ask questions like this a lot: Does this look good on me?
- Do you often feel unappreciated? I do all these things and no one notices. No one ever says thanks.
- Do you show favoritism? Are there certain people, if you could just get in with them, you’d feel better about yourself. But other people, who really can’t do anything for you, you just kinda neglect and overlook them?
- Are you over-committed because you’re afraid to say, “No?” You don’t want to disappoint people. And so you always find yourself saying “Yes," and your schedule is always booked.
If we’re saying “Yes” to any of these, people may be our primary audience. Ouch! I just got zinged. How about you?
Jesus then proves that no one is totally useless: at the very least, they can serve as bad examples. He pings on the scribes and Pharisees, his favorite target, for giving, fasting, and praying to be seen by other people doing them. And He tells us not to fall into that trap. Now, this does not mean that no one can ever see us doing these things. There’s a difference between giving to be seen giving, and being seen giving. You get the difference? Jesus prayed, and was totally focused on communicating with God. But his disciples were watching him, saw something that made them want to do it, too, and asked Jesus to teach them. Jesus drew everyone’s attention to the poor widow who was giving—“Hey, look at that woman over there!” Her giving wasn’t tainted because someone saw her doing it. Jesus was pointing out the difference between her heart and those of the Pharisees, who made a big show of giving to show everyone how spiritual they were. It’s all about what’s happening inside the heart. So, we can think we’re doing something really spiritual, and it can count for absolutely nothing with God. Now, that’s a bummer.
Three times in this passage, Jesus warns us that if we’re doing spiritual things to show off to other people, then our reward ends with the praise of other people. God basically gives us what we really want, deep down. If it’s to look good before people, God gives us that, and nothing more. Could the reason that we don’t experience more answered prayer, more spiritual breakthroughs, more quantum leaps in our life with God be because what we really want is approval from people more than the approval of God? Maybe God gives us just what we really want.
So, how to keep ourselves honest as we live out the Christian life? Number one - zero in on the greatness of God. Once we have a good picture of God, it’ll pretty much put man in his rightful place. Read through Isaiah, chapter 40. Better still, hop on our website, click on the media button, and then the message archives. Scroll down to a series called How Big Is Your God—four messages that will help you contemplate the magnificence of our God.
Number two: Beyond what we do in public, spend time with God alone, in secret, away from any prying eyes, away from any temptation to play to the crowd. One of our problems is not only wanting the approval of other people, but also trying make ourselves feel better about us. That is what’s behind Jesus’ comment about not letting the left hand know what the right hand is up to. Don’t let our pursuit of God mask our pursuit of feeling better about us. It has to all be about connecting with God. A. W. Tozer says it this way: God waits to be wanted. God is wanting to spend time with you alone. You ever taken someone you really like to some special place, and all she does is spend time taking pictures of everything to send to her friends, and the time actually spent with you is very limited? Yeah, now you know how God feels.
You want a great and deepening relationship with God? Spend time in the things that get you there. This works the same way with, say, money. You want some money, right? How do you get some money? You engage in the things that lead to some money: Study, get good grades, get a job, work hard, be indispensable. Amazingly, you get paid.
The key thing here is this: What do you want, really want, deep down? If you want the adoration of people, you’ll get it, and that’s all you’ll get. If you want a deeper relationship with God, you’ll get that. But you can’t have one eye on rewards from people, and the other eye on rewards from God. Choose wisely.