Saturday, January 23, 2010

Assuaging Cowardice and Vanity (Sermon on the Mount)

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven... Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

~Matthew 5:16; 6:1 (TNIV).

To be seen to be doing or not be seen? This is the question Jesus addresses; direct to our motives. We can only achieve both these things above with the right motive.

We have a problem with praise and appreciation. It so plagues us. At the “lonely” end, all sorts of personality disorders are beckoned. At the “rich” end, the excesses of praise leave us conceited and paradoxically more empty (and spiritually blind to real need) than ever. How many of us truly get enough praise? How often are you left scratching your head for lack of recognition for something you’ve done? For me it seems daily! (Even if in a small “felt” way.)

John Stott highlights that the two seemingly contradictory verses of Jesus’ above target two sins—cowardice to hide a good work and vanity (pride) to parade it.[1]

To be seen or not seen? It depends on the motive. For at one extreme we’re bashful and don’t want attraction drawn to us, simply because of some sort of Tall Poppy Syndrome. At the other extreme our pride has us; receiving the kisses, the applause, the spotlight and autograph hunters. If we do good things and we respond in either of these ways we have some things to ask of God—that he might purge cowardice and vanity from us, vanquishing the vast poles of spiritual imbalance from us, one day at a time, indefinitely.

One thing all of us have to resolve in our own individual ways is how to cover for lost glory. Michael Eaton highlights this in his book.[2] We recover this sense of belonging from God himself—and yet this is a stern discipline we need to work at. It comes. We don’t store the treasures in heaven; we receive them from heaven. Heaven, in this context, is now. Heaven is in our hearts. God ministers to us there! The reward is a spiritual reward of momentary, unreserved wellbeing. It’s a priceless gift of his grace; something we can’t “earn.”

Good things done, free of the need to be seen, thanked or acknowledged, is the way to an inner freedom of peace and joy rarely known personally to humankind. And yet, we experience the direct opposite of envy when we consider a Nelson Mandela or a Mohandas Gandhi or a Mother Teresa, and compare ourselves (unfairly, I might add). This occurs much more than we’d like. We need to even the balance.

Our good works will be seen no matter our motives to be seen or not. Our Father in heaven sees to it that circumstances allow for people to see the good things we do if we do them consistently enough. There’s a “faith” requirement.

Besides, probably the halcyon of gleeful human experience is to be so kept in God that we are forever both comfortable with the ‘secret life,’ yet we’re totally at home with serendipitous delight when the Father is glorified in everyone’s works, and we’re happy with our own special place in all of that.

© 2010 S. J. Wickham.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (The Bible Speaks Today) (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p. 126-27.

[2] Michael Eaton, The Way that Leads to Life: The Radical Challenge to the Church of the Sermon of the Mount (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1999), p. 109.

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