Spiritual Showing Off
Matthew 6:1-6 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. 5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Matthew 6:16-18 “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Introduction and Background
Religion and theatre have always been closely connected. On one level the early Greek plays were always morality plays involving the gods and the first European plays were Christian oratorios and Passion plays. One another level the priests of nearly all religions soon learned how to turn on a good performance to impress the crowds and bring in the tithes and offerings. From Zeus to Zoroaster any religion that wanted popularity had to know how to please the multitudes.
However there is a very, very fine line between acting and deceiving - and sometimes even between liturgy and lying. In fact the word “hypocrite” means “under the mask” or ‘mask-wearer” and originated as a technical term in Greek acting, but quickly came to mean someone who was a fake.
Jewish religion with its immense Temple, elaborately dressed High Priest and thousands of sacrifices at major festivals was made for drama – and attracted actors. And some of these spiritual shows reached comic proportions of self-aggrandizement. Like politicians visiting disaster zones – but only with five hundred reporters and a helicopter and an assured spot on the prime time news.
After the exile in Babylon the returning Jews became very, very pious and acts of piety, such as those of the Maccabees who stood firm against a wicked Greek ruler - became a fast track to genuine social status. This attracted imitators and this imitation at times turned into humbug.
Even today there are some people who desperately crave an audience for their spirituality. For these people if the show is not “on” then the performance is “off”. Their spirituality is wholly and solely for human consumption. Jesus says that ‘such people have their reward’ – they carve fleeting human attention, and that is all the reward they will ever get.
God Is Watching Us And Cannot Be Fooled
Three times Jesus uses the phrase: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (4,6,18) And twice Jesus refers to ‘your Father who is in secret” (6,18). In other words God is secretly watching us and knows all of our secret behavior and all of the thoughts and intentions of our heart!
God is watching us and cannot be fooled. No amount of spiritual pretense can con God into loving you even one little bit more. God knows all your up and downs and loves you anyway. Spiritual acting is thus completely futile, and only humility, repentance and contrition will impress the Lord.
By the way it is an immense spiritual relief once you figure out that it is absolutely useless trying to impress God with your spiritual performance. I will return to that thought later, but hold on to it.
First let us look at some Scriptures about how keenly God is observing our ordinary human lives:
Psalms 139:1-4 LORD, You have searched me and known me. (2) You know when I sit down and when I stand up; You understand my thoughts from far away. (3) You observe my travels and my rest; You are aware of all my ways. (4) Before a word is on my tongue, You know all about it, LORD.
Jeremiah 23:24 Can anyone hide himself in secret places so that I shall not see him? says the Lord. Do I not fill the heavens and earth? says the Lord.
Romans 2:16 in a day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.
Hebrews 4:12-13 For the Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing apart of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (13) Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight, but all things are naked and opened to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
Malachi 3:16-18 Then those fearing Jehovah spoke together, each man to his neighbor. And Jehovah listened and heard. And a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who feared Jehovah, and for those esteeming His name. (17) And they shall be Mine, says Jehovah of Hosts, for the day that I will make up My treasure. And I will pity them as a man has pity on his son who serves him. (18) Then you shall again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between him who serves God, and him who does not serve Him.
God watches and records our lives, our actions are noted and written in books, every detail of our life is recorded and even the very hairs of our head are numbered. This can only mean one thing, that God is intensely interested even in the most ordinary of people. We are so precious to Him, that He sent His Son to die for us and that He sends His angels to minister to us (Hebrews 1:14).
There is even a special class of angels called “heavenly watchers” that observe the deeds, and particularly the attitudes of people. They are referred to in chapter 4 of the book of Daniel.
Daniel 4:13-17 I saw in the visions of my head on my bed, and behold, a watcher and a holy one came down from Heaven. (14) He cried aloud and said this, Cut down the tree, and cut off its branches; shake off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals get away from under it, and the birds from its branches. (15) But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, even with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field. And let it be wet with the dew of heaven, and let its portion be with the animals in the grass of the earth. (16) Let his heart be changed from man's, and let the heart of an animal be given to him. And let seven times pass over him. (17) This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones, so that the living may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He will, and sets up over it the lowest of men.
So these heavenly watchers and holy beings that can decide even the fate of kings who get too big an ego for the patience of Heaven to tolerate.
In the New Testament there are a few passing references to the lives of Christians being watched over by the angels:
18:10 Take heed that you do not despise one of these little
ones. For I say to you that in Heaven their angels always behold the face of
My Father in Heaven.
1 Corinthians 4:9 For I think that God has set forth us last, the apostles, as it were appointed to death; for we have become a spectacle to the world and to angels and to men.
1 Corinthians 11:10 For this reason the woman ought to have authority on her head because of the angels.
1 Timothy 3:16 And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among nations, believed on in the world, and received up into glory.
1 Timothy 5:21 I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that you guard these things without prejudice, doing nothing by partiality.
Hebrews 12:1 Therefore since we also are surrounded with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily besets us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
So we see that God, and His holy angels are watching us and that our actions and attitudes, both are important. This intense scrutiny means that we can never ever fool God. There is no use pretending, God knows it all, records it all, has it all on tape. I think the comedy hour in heaven must consistent of watching the most outrageous religious hypocrites in action, those who think they fool both God and man. The right approach to God is to have total transparency and humility. He knows all your mess and He wants to help you with it.
The Fear Of Man Is A Snare
Proverbs 29:25 The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever who trusts in the LORD shall be safe.
Religious hypocrisy comes because people fear the crowd and try to please it. When we fear the opinions of others and mold our lives for human approval we become severely compromised as human beings. We wear clothes we do not want to wear, go to movies we do not wish to see, do subjects we know we will dislike at college, take on a career path that does not fulfill us and even marry people we know we should not marry. People even take drugs, engage in hazardous sexual practices and take stupid safety risks – all for human approval. However our inner personhood is only kept safe by following God’s will. If we trust God and listen to our conscience we will truly live the safe and blessed life.
God Looks On The Attitude Not On The Acting
1 Samuel 16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
The religious hypocrite has perfected the outward appearance, the ingratiating smile, the holier than thou accent, the long robes and so forth. They have a big white handkerchief and a chorus of acolytes and singers, the lights flash, the trumpets blare - but God is generally totally unimpressed.
God does not look at the outward show but at the inward person, at their attitudes and intentions, and especially at their humility, love, faith and hope. When God finds someone with a good heart He blesses them mightily.
2 Chronicles 16:9 For the eyes of Jehovah run to and fro throughout the whole earth to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him.
Don't Blow Your Own Trumpet
(2) So whenever you give to the poor, don't sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They've got their reward!
Sometimes a phrase from the Bible enters the English language such as being “my brother’s keeper” or “laughter is the best medicine” or “by the skin of your teeth” and “blowing your own trumpet” comes from this verse in the Sermon On The Mount. This refers to rich people being carried through the streets on the shoulders of their slaves, with another slave going in front blowing a trumpet so all could come out and receive the coins thrown around by the lavish patron of the poor.
Blowing your own trumpet has modern equivalents such as insisting that the hospital wing be named after you, or sending out a press release every time you give - or the political pork barrel circus at election time. Anyway such people have their reward, votes, acclaim, temporary esteem but they cannot use it as “credit” when they get to Heaven – because they expended their entire reward in the here and now.
A particularly onerous kind of giving is patronage where a whole community comes to depend on the largess of a few large donors. This creates political and moral imbalances and creates dependency, flattery, deceit and all sort of gamesmanship.
Keep Your Giving A Secret - Even To Yourself!
(3) But when you give to the poor, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, (4) so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Instead we are to give quietly and secretly, hiding it even from ourselves, so that our “left hand does not know what our right hand is doing”. This can be done through blind trusts, foundations, and via anonymous giving. You keep your sacrifice to yourself and let God bless you later on. Now you still have to do your legal reporting and your tax returns and you may have to tell your spouse where the money went. That is just being honest and is right and proper, God will not reduce your reward for that. The idea is that you give humbly and secretly and not for human approval. Treasure in heaven comes when we learn to break the addiction to human approval and do things for God’s secret approval.
Pretentious Praying In Public
(5) "Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They've got their reward!
We have probably all been in prayer meetings where sister so-and-so arose and prayed an eloquent prayer and it felt like it was purely for public consumption and went nowhere near the throne of God. Or we have turned on the TV and seen some evangelist bible in hand, on their knees, with eyes rolled towards Heaven and praying this wonderful dramatic prayer that had the spiritual anointing of hair oil.
Prayer is good, and we should all pray, but prayer is not a performance, nor is it theatre and it is certainly not a way of winning public approval. Prayer is holy reverent communion with God, not theatrics, antics and white hankies.
That said, there is certainly a place for public prayer, and for congregational prayer, which is reverent and humble, straightforward, plain and unadorned, and which is meant to truly lead people into the presence of Almighty God. The Lord’s Prayer, which follows this verse is an example of a plain, concise, straightforward public prayer and we shall look at it in some detail next week.
Private Prayer Pleases Papa (God)
But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your
Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
God is very pleased when we get alone with Him in private and share our heart with Him and pray to Him from the depths of our souls. In fact that this verse implies that private secret prayer is MORE likely to be answered by God because “your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. Jesus often went alone to pray with His Father in Heaven e.g. after a long day of ministry in Galilee:
Matthew 14:23 And when He had sent the crowds away, He went up into a mountain apart to pray. And when evening had come, He was there alone.
And two verses later we see that it was after this time of prayer alone that Jesus was able to walk on the water!
Matthew 14:25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea.
It is good to have a small space that is our “God space”, a chair in the garden, a spot by the kitchen sink, wherever you can, have a sacred corner where you can talk to God alone and lay out your prayer concerns without any one else watching.
Look At What I Am Going Through For God!
(16) "Whenever you fast, don't be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They've got their reward!
people just have to let others know they are fasting or dieting or
exercising or whatever. “Look at what I am going through for
God” is what their message is! If we are sacrificing in some
way for God we should keep quiet about it, suffer in silence, and let
God reward us in due time. Now this does not mean that you do not
tell others who need to know – for instance your wife who cooks
the dinner! But generally don’t make a big song and dance about
it or seek attention over it.
Act Normal While Being Spiritual
(17) But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, (18) so
that you don't show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The idea of the oil and the washing is to appear normal and even attractive. Jesus wants people to look normal while being spiritual. Christians should be truly spiritual but just look like “average Joes”.
In fact Jesus never advocates goofy, weirdo Christianity.
The “anoint your head and wash your face” principle applies also to us missionaries, who can sometimes appear bedraggled and poor and quite unusual. I strive to blend in with wherever I am at and to look as normal and as attractive as possible.
The principle of “act normal while being spiritual” also applies to exaggerated styles of worship where people turn on a ‘performance” rolling on the floor or crying out in a loud voice so as to appear that the Holy Spirit is upon them. This just discredits Christianity and is to be avoided if at all possible. God is a God of order and not of confusion.
14:11 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and
he who humbles himself will be exalted."
The hypocrites who do all these things are always trying to exalt themselves. God says they will be humbled, and they often are. But the folk that pray in private, act normal while being spiritual and who do not let their left hand know what their right hand is doing, are humble folk, and such humble folk will be exalted and their acts of righteousness will be rewarded.
1 Thessalonians 4:11 and that you try earnestly to be quiet and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you,
1 Timothy 2:2 for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.
1 Peter 3:3-4 Do not let your adornment be merely outward arranging the hair, wearing gold, or of putting on fine apparel, (4) rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.
Christians are called to live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and reverence. We are to do our work and live before God with a gentle and quiet spirit. Holiness creates quietness as we realize that God is in Heaven and we are on earth and that our role is simply to take our place in the vastness of God’s work in the world.
Jesus values the quiet humble diligent people of the world who just knuckle down and live godly lives and who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Spiritual show offs get zero reward, but humble quiet Christians are precious in the sight of God.
This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at firstname.lastname@example.org.