Big Idea: Pursue God for God, not to impress others.
It happens to me occasionally. I should know better. I go to Metro and find myself staring at a box that looks like it contains amazing food. I buy it, knowing it won’t taste quite as good as the box appears. I go home, open it, and realize I’ve been tricked again. Never be deceived by deceptive packaging. What’s inside matters much more.
As we turn to what Jesus said today, we discover that the same principle applies to people too. Never be deceived by deceptive packaging. What’s inside matters much more. That’s been the theme of his teaching so far in his most famous sermon, which we normally call The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is giving us instructions on how to live the good life, and he’s spent a lot of time telling us that our insides and outsides should match, especially in the area of relationships. Now he’s going to move to the most important relationship of all: our relationship with God.
Here’s the problem: we think that our biggest problem is our sin. We think that our biggest problem is that we’re not religious enough. What Jesus tells us in this passage is that our religiosity could be a greater danger than our wickedness.
John Gerstner said, “There is nothing that separates us from God more than our damnable good works.” The famous preacher George Whitefield said:
Before you can speak peace in your heart, you must not only be made sick of your original and actual sin, but you must be made sick of your righteousness, of all your duties and performances. There must be a deep conviction before you can be brought out of your self-righteousness; it is the last idol taken out of our heart.
For some of us, this could be the most important sermon we ever hear. Let’s look at the basic principle Jesus teaches, and then at the three case studies he gives to illustrate the principle.
Here’s the basic principle:
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. (Matthew 6:1)
Jesus is not introducing a new topic here. He’s continuing to unpack what he said earlier: that we need a greater righteousness in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (5:17-20). He’s already applied this to other relationships. Now he applies this to our relationship with God.
Here’s the danger Jesus wants to address: Don’t try to impress others with your relationship with God. It’s always tempting to do the right thing for the wrong reason. We can do the right thing (serve and worship God) for exactly the wrong reason (to improve our status).
Jesus is not condemning all public acts of worship. We’re engaged in one right now. He’s saying that our relationship with him must be based not on a desire to impress others, but a desire to give God glory. Both motives have their reward. If we’re motivated by a desire to impress others, that’s all we’ll get. But if we’re motivated by God’s glory, we’ll get the greatest reward of all: God himself.
The lesson he’s teaching: Pursue God for God, not to impress others. It’s possible to engage in all the right behaviors in an attempt to know and love God, and completely miss the point. When the goal is the behaviors, we miss the point. When the goal is God, then the behaviors can be really helpful.
Let me point something out that may be helpful.
In the previous chapter, Jesus said: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Whoa! In the passage we read today, Jesus says not to practice our righteousness before others. What’s going on? How come Jesus says one thing and then another thing a few minutes later?
The answer is: it’s all about motive. Sometimes we’re cowards, and we don’t do what’s right because we’re scared of what other people will think about us. We won’t let our light shine because it may hurt our reputation. Other times, we’re hypocrites. We’ll show off because we want people to think more of us. It’s possible to either hide or show off.
As a general rule, then, we should “show when tempted to hide” and “hide when tempted to show” (A.B. Bruce). It’s all about motive. Make your commitment to follow God public. Let your good works be known by others so that your light shines, even if it hurts your reputation. But let your practices be secret so that you don’t boast about them. You’re not the point! God is the point of all that we do. Let him get all the glory.
Whose approval are you seeking? You have a choice: you can either seek God’s approval, or the approval of others. It’s a binary choice. Jesus says that you have to choose one or the other. Pursue God for God, not to impress others.
Okay, but what does this look like? Jesus gives us three case studies, all touching on common practices back in that day: giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting.
Case Study One: Giving to the Poor
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 6:2-4)
Here’s the pattern, which Jesus will repeat in each of the case studies.
- The wrong way to do it: Don’t give to the poor in a way that draws attention to the giver. Don’t give to get noticed — to get a reward, like the acknowledgement of others, special attention from the head of the charity, or — and this one hits home — a tax receipt. Let’s be honest. We tend to give to get — to get publicity, to earn the respect of others, and to save on taxes. When your giving is about you, you’re doing it wrong.
- The results of doing it the wrong way: When we give for the wrong motive, then we get what we were looking for. We’ll get the thanks from the recipient. We’ll get the tax receipt. We’ll get the name listed on the wall of donors. But that’s all. We can’t expect the benefit of divine approval, because we’ve already received our reward.
- The right way to do it: The right way to give to the poor, Jesus says, is to give in secret. Your giving should be so secret that it couldn’t possibly impress anybody else, because they don’t even know. Jesus uses an idiom to make the point: your giving should be so secret that your left hand doesn’t even know what your right hand is doing. Martin Luther put it well: we should give with “singleness of heart,” and that means that “the heart is not ostentatious or desirous of gaining honor and reputation from it, but is moved to contribute freely regardless of whether it makes an impression and gains the praise of the people or whether everyone despises and profanes it.”
What’s surprising to us today is that Jesus just assumes that we will give to the poor. His question isn’t whether we’re even giving, but whether we’re giving for the wrong reasons or not.
How do we know that God is changing our hearts? One of the best ways to know is by looking at our wallets. When God changes our hearts, the way we use our money will change. We’ll give to his kingdom and to the poor, not because of the tax receipt or because of how it will impress others, but because that’s where our heart is. When we see what Jesus has given us, we will become givers as well.
Randy Alcorn says:
Our use of money and possessions is a decisive statement of our eternal values. What we do with our money loudly affirms which kingdom we belong to. Whenever we give of our resources to further God’s kingdom, we cast a ballot for Christ and against Satan, for heaven and against hell. Whenever we use our resources selfishly and indifferently we further Satan’s goals.
Friend, one of the best ways to take action on this is to plan to give. Build in giving as part of your budget, both to the poor and to the church. Don’t do it for the tax receipt. Do it out of love for God. I promise you that it’s worth it. Jesus says, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
If you want to know more, we’re going to talk more about this in two weeks. It will be very helpful for all of us.
Case Study Two: Prayer
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. (Matthew 6:5-6)
- The wrong way to do it: Don’t pray to impress others. This is something that happens when we pray publicly, in a church service or small group, or even when a couple of friends pray together. I don’t think there’s ever been a time that I’ve prayed publicly that I haven’t had to wrestle with this.
- The results of doing it the wrong way: When we pray to impress others, we’ll impress others, but that will be it. Our prayers won’t matter to God.
- The right way to do it: Pray in secret. Jesus isn’t saying that we shouldn’t pray aloud in public. He is saying that most of our prayer should take place in private, and that even when we pray in public our focus should be on praying to God.
Let’s be honest: there’s not a person here who doesn’t struggle with prayer. I love what Lloyd-Jones said: “There is nothing that tells the truth about us as Christian people so much as our prayer life. Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer.”
If you struggle in prayer, welcome to the club! You’re in very good company. Our problem may not be that we’re doing it hypocritically; our problem may be that we’re not doing it at all.
If that’s you, at least you have the chance to start by doing it the right way! Pursue God through prayer. Simply spill your guts to God. We’re going to look at this a little more next week.
Don’t pray to impress others. Pray because you’re pursuing God. Pray simply. Pray like a child. Don’t worry about it being fancy. Just worry about it being honest. God wants to hear from you.
Case Study Three: Fasting
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. (Matthew 6:16-18)
A minute ago I said that our problem isn’t that we’re doing things hypocritically; our problem is that we’re not doing these things at all. This is especially true with this one. Fasting isn’t something you hear about a lot. “Christian fasting is a believer’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes” (Donald Whitney).
- The wrong way to do it: Don’t fast to impress others. The Jewish people would fast on the Day of Atonement, the New Year, and the Pharisees would fast on Mondays and Thursdays. Some of them turned it into performance art by wearing sackcloths and looking gloomy so that everyone knew what they were doing.
- The results of doing it the wrong way: I guess you’ll get noticed by others, but that’s it.
- The right way to do it: To practice basic grooming when you fast so that you’re not fasting as a performance, but fasting to pursue God.
Okay, let’s wrap this up.
I said at the beginning that we think our greatest problem is sin. Jesus helps us realize here that our greatest problem isn’t what we normally think of as sin: gambling, drinking, sleeping around. Those are problems, but there’s another problem that’s just as serious.
Here’s a big problem: that we can do religious things and completely miss the point. We can go through all the motions — attending church, praying, giving, serving — and completely miss the point. It’s not that these things are wrong. It’s that they’re a means to an end. The means is God. Whenever we pursue these things but don’t pursue God we’re putting our souls in danger.
Let me close with a goofy story. A man was standing at the gates of heaven waiting to be admitted. To the man’s utter shock, Peter said, “You have to earn a thousands points to be admitted to heaven. What have you done to earn your points?”
The man replied, “I’ve never heard that before: but I think I’ll do alright. I was raised in a Christian home and have always been a part of the church. I have Sunday school attendance pins that go down the floor. I went to a Christian college and graduate school and have probably led hundreds of people to Christ. I’m now an elder in my church and am quite supportive of what the people of God do. I have three children, two boys and a girl. My oldest boy is a pastor and the younger is a staff person with a ministry to the poor. My daughter and her husband are missionaries. I have always tithed and am now giving well over 30% of my income to God’s work. I’m a bank executive and work with the poor in our city trying to get low income mortgages.”
“How am I doing so far?” he asked Peter.
“That’s one point,” Peter said. “What else have you done?”
“Good Lord…have mercy!” the man said in frustration.
“That’s it!” Peter said. “Welcome home.”
Do you get it? We will never be able to achieve God’s approval by trusting anything else but what Jesus Christ has done for us. When we get this, we’ll be able to give, pray, and fast, not to impress, but to help us in our pursuit of God.
Pursue God for God, not to impress others.
Lord, may we trust in Jesus alone for our righteousness. We repent of our good deeds. We put our hope in Jesus alone.
Now may we serve you, not for our sake, but for yours alone. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.