Secretly Godly

These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.

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.

Matthew 6.1-4

‘You are all hypocrites.’ That is probably one of the strongest and most commonly cited objections to Christianity. How should we answer? Well, first of all I think we can quite simply agree. It really is true. Second, I would want to direct such a person to Jesus. While his followers are often hypocritical, Jesus was consistent. His life and his teaching were one. And not only that, but it was him who voiced the most crushing critiques of hypocrisy, particularly here in the Sermon on the Mount.

Here in this next section of the Sermon, Jesus speaks about three huge areas of concern for just about any kind of religious person: giving, prayer, and fasting. Certainly the Jews of the day understood these to be some of the most important religious duties. Christians would see them in much the same light, and so would later Muslims (since these three duties constitute three of the five pillars of Islam). And so it is of great concern for us to understand what Jesus has to say here.

1. The appearance of godliness is not necessarily godliness

We all know that motives matter as much as actions. It’s not just the what but they why. If someone buys you a gift, the reason they buy it matters (to show love? to control you? to bribe you? to encourage you?).

How much more is this true of our acts done for God. He sees our hearts with perfect, penetrating vision (see 1 Samuel 16.7). 

The particular motive that Jesus highlights is the desire to be people-pleasers. Be careful, he says, about doing righteous acts before others ‘in order to be seen by them’ (v.1). Do people’s opinions of you loom large in your mind? Are you a performer, playing to an audience? Does your outer life differ from your inner, hidden life? Do you feel stressed when you are not enjoying favour from others, or elated when you are?

Jesus calls this kind of religious devotion ‘hypocrisy’. He uses the Greek word hypocritēs which was the word used of actors in Greek plays. Sinclair Ferguson points out two things we need to know about these ancient actors. First, they would perform to a chorus or choir. As they performed, the chorus would answer by singing a commentary on the action. And so the very word hypocritēs means ‘one who answers the chorus’. In the same way Jesus is pointing out that for the religious people, ‘their eyes were fixed on the chorus of men’s opinions about them’. Second, these Greek actors did not wear makeup, they wore masks. The connections are obvious: how easily we put on a religious mask and pretend to be sincere.

Jesus lampoons this kind of religious devotion. ‘Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you…’ (v.2). The image is pretty ridiculous (and probably an exaggeration). But are we any different? I’m not so sure. These days we can quite carefully manage our public image by editing our social media profiles. If I post some lefty article on Facebook with a compassionate message I can get all the kudos of being a compassionate person without actually doing anything real or costly. If I volunteer with some charity or ministry for the disadvantaged you don’t know whether I’m doing it out of love, or simply to get some recognition in a very public way as a seemingly kind person. The examples are endless of the inventive ways we can portray ourselves as loving and compassionate without necessarily being so. What about sponsored charity runs / parachute jumps / eating competitions? I’m not saying they’re necessarily badly motivated, but seriously, when you’re doing something fun in the name of compassion, how sincere is that?! I don’t know. And of course, whenever we do any kind of generous act but fail to take notice of those in need who are nearest to us (especially family and church) we are guilty of hypocrisy.

The bottom line, then, is that it is fake religion.

2. What you are in secret you are in reality

In each of the three examples Jesus uses in this chapter — giving, prayer, fasting — he keeps repeating certain phrases.

On the one hand he uses negative phrases to criticise fake religion. He keeps repeating ‘in order to be seen by men’ and ‘they have received their reward’.

On the other hand he uses positive theological encouragements to right devotion: ‘your Father who is in heaven/secret’ and ‘your Father who sees in secret will reward you’.

What is the basic point Jesus is driving us towards? I think he is highlighting the difference between living by sight and living by faith. To live by sight is to live for what you see now, what will gratify you now. It is a short-term way of life. And naturally, living for the approval of others and the reward that gives when people love and admire you is a most tempting way of living by sight.

To live by faith, however, is to live as though God is real. Your secret devotion is the essence of faith because there is no other possible reward than what you trust God will give you. Jesus wants his people to believe that God is there, and that he sees, and that he will reward. Secret godliness is the proof of your faith, but if you don’t show devotion to God in secret then you are only proving that you don’t really believe in him at all.

(But let’s be clear on something. By advocating secret acts of devotion, Jesus does not mean only in secret, but rather that the secret validates whatever public devotion you have.)

3. Generosity of heart is a good indicator of your faith

If you want to know what kind of Christian you are, how you live in secret is surely the best measure. But what should we be doing in secret? Jesus answers that here in this chapter in three ways: giving, praying, and fasting. (We’ll look at praying and fasting in the coming weeks.)

Giving is one of the most powerful demonstrations of a true and sincere faith in God. Some people think that we, as Christians, are under no obligation to be generous. They reason that since the commands to give came under the Old Covenant and the Law, then since we are under grace we do not have to give. But that is to twist grace to mean something different altogether.

The Old Testament does call for deep compassion and generosity (see Exodus 23.10-11 or Deuteronomy 15.7-11) and the same kind of criticisms that Jesus levels against the religious folk here were voiced by the prophets long before him (see Isaiah 58.6-7). But Jesus does not regard all of this as the old way; on the contrary, he wants his people to be even more godly! Remember how he puts it: ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5.20).

If anything, the call to generosity is even stronger under the New Covenant, under grace. Why? Because as Christians we look back and see God’s incredible generosity to us in giving us Jesus, and we also look forward and know that God will continue to bless us in ways we do not deserve and could never earn! This is put very succinctly by Paul in Romans 8.32: ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’ The kindness of God that we have experienced, and that we know we will continue to receive despite our failures, is profoundly transforming. How can I withhold generosity when I have received so much?

How then should we give? Jesus says, ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’. In other words, do it secretly. 

This does not mean that we can never perform public acts of devotion or generosity (we could get a bit silly about the whole thing). Nor does it provide an excuse for people who are just terrible with finances, and generous for the bad reason that they have no idea how much money they have nor how much they are giving away. And most importantly of all, this should not be used as a cover-up for being miserly. Some twisted hearts might reason that since they are not allowed to give publicly, they can get away with not giving in secret either! That is to become worse than the religious folk Jesus was criticising.

Instead, giving secretly provides a double-protection. First, it protects you from putting people above God. You know that the only reward is going to come from your delighted Heavenly Father. Second, it protects you from feeding your self-righteousness. John Stott writes, ‘We are not to be self-conscious in our giving, for our self-consciousness will readily deteriorate into self-righteousness’. In other words, we are not even to allow ourselves to ruminate upon how generous we’ve been. Just do it, then forget it!

In living this way we are demonstrating a sincere and genuine faith in the God who is there, who sees, and who rewards.