A wise preacher once told me that illustrations of the preacher’s failures are more effective than illustrations of the preacher doing good things. For this reason–and many more, I try to avoid using myself as a model of virtue in my conversations and public communication. I am of the mind that when we teach, preach, or simply talk to others about the power of God in our lives, we should try, as often as we are able, to avoid telling stories about ourselves that cast us in a positive light. Admittedly, this isn’t easy. More often than I would like to admit, I find myself “tooting my own horn.”
But being self-forgetful is not enough. The Desert Fathers knew that you could be tight-lipped about your deeds, but internally quite proud of them at the same time. While one may not be outwardly proud in the way he tells his story, inwardly there can be a smug sense of superiority over others.
Sometimes when Christians talk to others about the good things they have done for Christ, good things do happen and genuine transformation takes root. At other times, the effect on others is not so good. Sometimes people feel guilty for not being as obedient as we are. Then, out of guilt, people will try harder to obey God in the power of the flesh. In other instances, people give up. They tell themselves that they will never be able to live as obediently as we do. And in other instances people sense in their gut that we are self-deceived and spiritually proud. In short, attempts to motivate people to a deeper level of obedience by telling them about our own obedience may backfire. I have a suspicion that different personality types and learning styles factor in this as well.
I have to be very cautious when it comes to judging others’ motivations. Yet, I know that when I speak of the virtuous things I say or do, I tend to do so in the subtle attempt to gain approval from others. Or, I do so in order to feel good about myself. Or, I do so to say, “Look at me, listen to me, see how I have my spiritual life together.” I know my own heart well enough by now to say that the motivations behind the retelling of my accomplishments doesn’t always spring from a pure heart. I am functioning out of what Thomas Merton referred to as the “false self.” The “false self” finds its significance in what it has, what one does, and what others think of us. The “true self” is beloved of God, accepted, and delighted in by the Father. Hence, there is no need for self-promotion; we are already approved by God in Christ.
If I am correct in what I have said thus far, this seems to align with what Jesus spoke of concerning the “rewards” we receive when we practice our righteousness before others. Jesus knew that people displayed their piety to be seen by others, and to be praised by others (Matt. 6:1-6; 16-18). Jesus calls for a spirit of “anonymity” when it comes to religious devotion.
When he says that, “they have received their reward” he means that the approval that people receive in the here-and-now is the only reward that person will receive; there won’t be any coming from God. This is sobering! Especially is this so when I think of the many times that I have told others about the things I have done for Christ for the wrong reasons. Carson captures the point of Jesus’ teaching: “Righteous conduct under kingdom norms must be visible so that God may be glorified. Yet it must never be visible in order to win man’s acclaim. Better by far to hide any righteous deed that may lead to ostentation. To trade the goal of pleasing the Father for the trivial and idolatrous goal of pleasing man will never do” (Carson, “Matthew,” EBC, 8:162).
I know that not everyone will agree with what I have written. I am sometimes misunderstood on this issue. However, I want to tease out this topic a bit more in Part 2. Stay tuned . . .