When I was younger, there was one person’s seal of approval that mattered. I suspect I am not alone in this and to some extent I suspect it remains true today. Whether it was the school reports, my first and only successful attempt at woodwork, my exam grades, my choice of girlfriend (and eventually wife), our new house and a new car, I wanted to know that they approved.
Teachers could give top grades and say well done. Friends could give their seal of approval to my decisions and choices but in the end what I really wanted to know was did those things pass “the dad test”?
I want you to notice as we come to Matthew 6 how relational this is. We can get caught up in the negatives of who we are not meant to be performing for and miss the big positive. “Your father sees.” The word “Father” dominates the chapter.
God’s happy people who keep his law do so by loving him because he is their heavenly father who loves them. Do you have that assurance? Do you know that God your father loves you, that through Christ you are right with him and that he chooses to be pleased with you?
This is important as we ask the question …
Who are you being righteous for?
Jesus warns his disciples of the danger of doing your good deeds – or literally doing your righteousness – in public. This may seem a little strange, a stark contrast with his warning in chapter 5 that we should not, indeed cannot, hide our light. So how does this work? Well, as with what we saw in chapter 5, the issue is the heart and motives, why am I doing what I am doing. In chapter 5 we were warned not to try and hide away because we can be so easily frightened of what men will think that we don’t want to be publicly seen to have faith. Here we are warned not to push ourselves forward because on the other hand, we want people to publicly see that we have faith. We seek approval. We desire to fit in. We want the praise and support of others because we focus in on ourselves and need their praise and approval to feel good about ourselves. This is the problem with being a man-pleaser. Martyn Lloyd Jones says
“Ultimately the only reasons that we want to please men around is that we may please ourselves.”
Again, we can put the focus on “Don’t do things to please others …or we can remember that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” In other words, I don’t need to seek pleasure in popularity, praise and approval. I have a heavenly father who chooses to love me and bless me.
Jesus now highlights several examples of how we should do this.
In Jesus’ day, it was common for wealthy donors to turn up to put their offering in with great fanfare. Others when parade in front of them and blow trumpets to signify their arrival. It’s kind of the 1st century equivalent of one of those supersized cheques or getting your name listed as a platinum donor. And by the way, I have been to seminars about how to care for our biggest donors as though these are (and should be) sensitive souls who need their egos stroked. It may be that my failure to do donor care properly has stopped the big cheques from flying into the Chapel’s accounts but do we really want to be in the business of robbing people of their heavenly reward.
You see, that’s the point. We can choose between God’s well done and man’s well done, between limited, finite reward now or eternal reward.
Jesus describes these public displays as hypocrisy. The origins of the word hypocrite are found in the theatre, a word to describe an actor who puts on a performance. The word began to have a more general meaning to suggest a double life. The hypocrite puts on his mask to the outer world, appearing to be one thing on the outside whilst the inside was quite different. I sadly remember a friend who put on this mask of happy confidence and sacrificial gospel work. He even changed his job to free up more time in the summer for children’s camps and each week he was there enthusiastically leading the kids work. Then one Friday night, he came home from running the children’s club, packed his case and walked out on his wife and children.
The risk of putting on the face is not just that it makes me look good to others but also that feeling good masks the real danger and sickness in my own heart, even to myself. So, notice that it is not just the approval of others that is the danger. I am not to let my left hand know what my right hand is doing. On one level it is easy for me to stay anonymous and hidden from sight when I give whilst at the same time I get a sense of pleasure, value and virtue from knowing that I am doing good. Indeed, my concern for secrecy may itself become a righteous deed which I compliment myself on.
We sometimes use what has become known as The Lord’s Prayer as a form of words in our services. Some churches have this as part of their weekly service and others have set it beautifully to music. I have no problem with this. Liturgy can in fact help us to learn to pray and give us words to say when we are struggling. We have used liturgy in our evening and morning prayer services on Facebook and a little bit as we have resumed gathering at the chapel whilst singing remains forbidden. However, notice that this not actually the purpose of the prayer’s inclusion here.
Rather, Jesus makes two points which the prayer is designed to illustrate
- We don’t need to perform our prayers publicly to be seen by others for their approval
- We don’t need to be repetitive in order to force God’s hand.
Instead, we know that:
- The Father is the one who counts. He is the one who sees and hears
- He is able to answer our prayers. In fact, he already knows what we need before we ask.
- The basis for answered prayer involves our changed heart and changed relationship to him. It’s those who forgive who are forgiven.
In other words, we have an audience of one. It’s God who matters because as our loving heavenly father, he is both willing and able to answer our prayers. By the way, I believe that the point about forgiveness is not so much, here is what I must do to experience God’s goodness as much as it is that our heart attitude of forgiveness signals that we know grace. It is evidence that we belong to the family.
Similarly, fasting is a helpful spiritual discipline but once again, it is not to be a public performance. Now, if some people can put on the mask of happiness, contentment and success, others can talk about the importance of not wearing masks in church and yet this too can be a way of wearing a mask. The mask that says “I want you all to know how much I am suffering, how persecuted I am and how hard life is” may give the appearance of honesty but in fact it is another thing that distracts us away from a healthy relationship with the Lord and with truly getting to know one another.
Finally, I’ve included the bit about building up treasure in heaven not on earth here. You see once again this is about where my heart is and who knows/who sees. Who was it who said
“There’s no point having lots of money if you can’t show it off to everyone else”?
It could be any one of numerous lottery winners, popstars or football stars embarking on buying their mansion, expensive jewellery and fast cars. We know that money cannot buy us love or happiness, but it at least seems to buy us popularity, approval and company.
So, once again, this is about the most important relationship and where that true seal of approval comes from. Am I focused on how I am seen here? Or is my concern for that heavenly relationship. Incidentally, if we are heirs, then I wonder if the treasure is less about earning/building up the value of my eternal reward as it is about becoming more and more aware and alert to the inheritance I have already been guaranteed through the Holy Spirit.
I want to bring us back to the point we saw at the start. What is it that will make the difference? How will I avoid the temptation to seek out the approval of others to make me feel good about myself. The answer is that it is when I realise that through Christ I have this incredible relationship with God. I have a Father who knows my name.
 Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 330.
 John Piper.