Living the Will of God - Closet Christians: How Secrecy Leads to Spirituality: Matthew 6 Sermon Note
1 Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (NRSV)
Theme: World-transforming, Kingdom living is cultivated in secret and rewarded by God.
According to Jesus, those who become kingdom disciples are the most essential people on the planet, preserving what is good, saving the world, revealing the light of God’s presence to all of creation. Starting in chapter 6, we see how Jesus is transforming us for this vocation. That is, growing beyond our human tendency toward self-promotion, self-acclaim, and self-centeredness so that we can become truly Kingdom-focused and the true salt and light for the world.
Here is the strategy: World-transforming, Kingdom living is cultivated in secret and rewarded by God. Through acts of charity and ministry, times of prayer and spiritual discipline in private, unnoticed by the world, we are transformed.
1. Cultivated in Secret
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Wait! Didn’t Jesus just say a few paragraphs earlier, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”? Isn’t our purpose to reveal God’s presence in the world? To do good that gets the goodness of God noticed? How are we to “let our lights shine” and “beware of practicing (our) piety before others” at the same time? Aren’t those two verses in contradiction to each other?
No. Not if we read the Bible carefully. The text doesn’t say Beware of practicing your piety before others” period.< Instead it says, Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. The problem is not in being seen, but in the motivation of doing good in order to be seen by others.
If we come to church for the sake of business contacts, our reputation in the community, or to impress our parents
or some girl in homeroom, we are missing the point, Jesus says. If we give or serve or talk publicly about our
faith so that it will look good on a resume, a college application, or community P.R. that is all we will get.
Schools and hospitals and charitable organizations by the thousands have figured out that if you’ll post the
names of the givers in a prominent place, more people will give. Put up a poster, put their picture on a plaque,
name a building after someone and you’ll get way more “alms” for your cause then if you simply ask people to
give for God’s sake.
Yes, it’s natural to want praise. It’s natural to want recognition. But there is a warning built in here. Our desire for praise and recognition from people can in the long run keep us from actually making a difference in our world. What happens when our good deeds are NOT praised by people? What if we love our enemies, when the people around us want them punished? What if righteousness demands forgiving someone that the world deems unforgiveable? What if we live out our faith in a cause that is unpopular, unrewarded, even costly to career or resume?
Jesus has told us that as his Kingdom followers our crucial responsibility is to be the light of the world—even if that means that our very acts of goodness and piety are like shining a light in eyes that have been accustomed to the darkness.
If we are to be those who help God to preserve and save the world and reveal his presence at work in the world, then we will have to be changed. We will have to stop operating with our old nature and will need to become people of God’s new Kingdom nature.
And first we need to be freed from our need for human praise above all things.
We need the spiritual discipline of secrecy, the practice of “Closet Christianity.” This isn’t to say that we should never pray publicly or claim our charitable giving on our tax returns, or that we can’t ask for support from a friend when we are trying to practice spiritual disciplines, it just means that the life-transforming power of giving, praying, and spiritual disciplines comes when they are practiced for God’s notice alone.
For me as a pastor, it means that my spiritual life can’t be limited to what I do on Sunday mornings, but that I prepare for my public role in the long moments when I am alone with Christ in the early morning, or when I respond to God’s spirit in secret acts of generosity.
Slowly over time in the intimacy of those moments, practicing our “righteousness” before God alone, we learn to love God’s rewards more than anything else—including the praise of people that most of us so desperately crave. World-transforming, Kingdom living is cultivated in secret and rewarded by God.
2. Rewarded by God
…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus understands that we need praise and recognition. Notice that he doesn’t tell us to rid ourselves of all desire for praise and recognition. He doesn’t tell us to do good for no rewards, with no desires or needs. That is more like Buddhism than Christianity. Jesus doesn’t try to abolish our desire for reward, but instead, redirects us to seek rewards only from God. This is how we overcome our tendency to strive for human reward: by seeking God’s reward alone.
Notice also that these verses are about “giving alms” or practicing charity. Notice that there is nothing necessarily wrong with giving for the sake of recognition. Indeed, as I said before far more gets done in the world by giving recognition for acts of giving then by not. But, what Jesus is saying is that if you give for the sake of being seen, recognized, and rewarded by others, that is all you will get. That is your reward. You want your name on a building, a plaque, or a banner? Fine. But that is all the reward there is.
If, however, you do your acts of charity in secret, you will be rewarded by God. But what is that reward from God? Notice that it is not a promise of FUTURE reward. It doesn’t say, “Then you’ll get your reward in heaven from your Father,” but instead that “your Father in heaven will reward you.” The point is not when we get our reward, but from whom. And for the Christian, there is no better reward then the approval of God himself.
As N. T. Wright has written, “Simply knowing God better is reward enough.” The reward that we are to desire, to seek, to work for and earn by our righteousness is nothing more or nothing less than knowing God, being close to God, having more and more of the character of God in our lives.
Tod Bolsinger joined Fuller Seminary in 2014 as vice president for vocation and formation and assistant professor of practical theology. He transitioned to vice president and chief of the leadership formation platform in 2017. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1993, Dr. Bolsinger served as senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church from 1997 to 2014. Prior to that he was associate pastor of discipleship and spiritual formation at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.
Other sermons in this series on Living the Will of God: