Have you ever fantasized about being a hero? One thing I find embarrassing about myself is my propensity to daydream about doing something spectacularly courageous or generous while being seen doing so by others. Or, if I’m going to be truly vulnerable, sometimes it’s more shallow than that. I daydream about impressing others by being beautiful or brilliant. I think this starts out innocently enough when, as children, we imagine ourselves in the roles of exciting characters in stories or movies. This seems to me like a healthy part of childhood. But then it can become more insidious as it morphs into things like posts on social media or even casual conversations that are designed to call attention to our accomplishments or good deeds. For Christians, this is often done covertly so as to appear not only brilliant or beautiful but humble as well.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Matt. 6:1-4 (NIV)
This is in interesting contrast to what Jesus just said in the previous chapter:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Matt. 5:14-16 (NIV)
I’ve been asking myself this week how these two teachings fit together. And I’ve come to the conclusion that good deeds shine the brightest when they are done quietly. We don’t need to strive to be seen. The lamp goes on its stand where it belongs, not as a beacon on the rooftop or in some other odd place where people notice the lamp instead of enjoying its light. In the same way, we do good not for the purpose of being seen doing it but for the joy of participation in good things.
A problem with craving attention is that the craving is never satisfied. If my fantasy comes true, and people admire me, I only ever desire to be admired more. And I go away anxious and unsatisfied. I think this may be what Jesus means when he says public recognition is all the reward we will get in these situations. But when I do good things because I delight in what is good, without the need to be appreciated or admired, my heart feels full and satisfied. I don’t hunger for more and more. I go to sleep at night satisfied and at peace. I think this may be the reward Jesus is promising. One way I’ve tried to grow in this is just to watch out for the fantasy of being seen whenever it creeps in, which it most often does when I’m feeling insecure. I try to take a moment to recognize it for what it is and to ask God to take it away from me and to fill my mind with something of more value. This is how I have come to understand what it means to not let one hand know what the other is doing.
Regardless of whether you struggle more than I do in this area, less, or not at all, I want to invite us this week to grow in delighting in participation in goodness. And I pray we will be free from the illusion that recognition has any capacity to make us happy.
Jesus, teach us to delight in your goodness and your love and in the privilege of participating with you in it. Silence every lie of the Enemy that tries to tell us there is any joy to be had in appearing righteous, talented, or even humble before other people. Fill us with the joy of intimacy with you that comes from doing what you are doing alongside you without looking to see who else might be watching. Amen.
Love in Christ,