Dallas Willard and Richard Foster have spoken wisely regarding the need for the spiritual discipline of anonymity or “secrecy.” In The Spirit of the Disciplines Willard states that the discipline of secrecy occurs when, “we abstain from causing our good deeds and qualities to be known.” In effect, we place “our public relations department entirely in the hands of God.” The purpose this discipline serves is, “to help us lose or tame the hunger for fame, justification, or just the mere attention of others.” The consequent goal is of this practice is that, “we learn to love to be unknown and even to accept misunderstanding without the loss of our peace, joy, or purpose. . . . Secrecy at its best teaches love and humility before God and others.” In effect, Willard and Foster remind us of a virtue that the ancients highly esteemed and that Jesus taught his disciples. Simply stated, “Don’t praise yourself; let others do it” (Prov. 27:2) (NLT).
Over the years some of my brothers and sisters in the Lord have disagreed with the thoughts I have just shared in these posts on “secrecy.” A recurring response goes something like this: “How are people going to grow spiritually without effective modeling?” In other words, the use of the virtuous self in sermons and testimonies has a positive effect in stimulating spiritual growth. Another response is: “I am not promoting myself, I am just giving testimony to the power of God in my life. God, who works through me, is the one who gets the praise, not me.” Or, “Paul told different churches, ‘imitate me as I imitate Christ’; Paul had no shame in speaking of his virtues.”
The sincerity behind these explanations cannot be questioned. And, there have been times when people have told me about their virtuous actions was actually edifying. But I believe that when we use ourselves as models of spirituality in our testimonies, teaching, and conversations, an undesirable consequence is false guilt. I am concerned that it perpetuates a morality, “an ethical respectability which has its motivational roots in the flesh rather than in the illuminating and enlivening control of the Holy Spirit” (Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 92). In short, the use of the virtuous self in communication can produce a “surface righteousness which does not spring from faith and the Spirit’s renewing action, but from religious pride and conditioned conformity to tradition, as a form of godliness which denies its power” (Ibid.). More than challenging people to be conformed to the image of Christ, we are inadvertantly challenging people to be conformed to us. I do wonder sometimes when we speak of our virtuous selves, that our examples are really reflections of our personalities, preferences, and giftings.
Let me make an observation in this connection. I have noticed that people who speak of their good deeds are often action-oriented people. Lesser do I see reflective people speaking of their virtuous selves. I am not making a judgment of what is right or wrong. I am only making a statement here about the role personality types play in this discussion. Am I off the mark here?
I will be the first to admit that I still find myself wanting to tell others about my virtuous self. Perhaps this blog post is the most vivid illustration of this! Still, the Lord knows my heart and the hearts of his people when they speak of their virtues. So, I will leave the judging of motivations to him. Hopefully my actions, if they are at all visible to others, will speak loudly enough for themselves.
In the meantime, the true test of the authenticity of motives awaits a future day. We presently find ourselves aligned with Paul in his assessment that, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4). We are to therefore avoid the despair of assuming failure in advance of the Day of Reckoning and avoid the presumption of assuming total success in that Day (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 23).