Why would Jesus tell us to practice our righteous acts such as giving and prayer in secret? It’s a crucial test of the heart.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1 ESV)
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck outlines four main stages in a person’s spiritual development (The Different Drum, 187-200). The first is chaos, in which a person is totally unregulated—internally or externally. Think of someone like a rebellious teenager or a drug addict. The second is institution. Some external organization—like school, the military, or maybe church—steps in to provide structure from the outside. But the more a person internalizes this structure, the more they don’t really depend on the institution. So, third, they become critical—pointing out the flaws in the institution and perhaps leaving it altogether. Yet, although this internalized structure can help them lead functional lives (sometimes spectacularly so), there still is a transcendent reality that calls to them. So, fourth, they can choose to respond to this from a more personal, mystical place.
Peck notes that every major religion is a major religion precisely because it can function on both the institutional and mystical levels. Like a good psychiatrist, Peck doesn’t say that any one stage is better than the other. They are all just places where a person might find themselves on a particular path.
I’m not sure Jesus would agree.
“If the second half of Matthew 5 is an exploration of God’s heart, Matthew 6 is an exploration of your heart.”
If the second half of Matthew 5 is an exploration of God’s heart, Matthew 6 is an exploration of your heart. Where is your heart? In Matthew 6:1-6 and 6:16-18, Jesus talks about the “hypocrites” (elsewhere, he makes it clear that he’s still talking about the scribes and Pharisees; see Matt. 23:13). The term “hypocrite” comes from the Greek theater—something any decent-sized Graeco-Roman town had. The hypocrites were the actors. If the actors put on a good show, they got their applause, and that was it. Everyone went home (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16).
Greek actors literally held masks over their faces to indicate what role they were playing. So, for a hypocrite, there is always a disconnect between the mask you see and the person underneath. What’s external and what’s internal are two totally different stories.
“What’s external and what’s internal are two totally different stories.”
For the hypocrites in Matthew 6, the disconnect in the actor is revealed by a disconnect in the audience. It is the very essence of a religious practice that the point is, ostensibly, to connect with God. But all the practices Jesus mentions in Matthew 6 have good potential for a human audience. Throw your money in the temple jar just right, and you could make a pretty substantial racket. Make sure you’re in a good crowd at the regular times for prayer (cf. Acts 3:1), and plenty of people will notice. Everyone knows that the serious religious people skip breakfast and lunch on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:11-12; Mark 2:18)—not to mention the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31)! Make sure to look extra miserable.
But why would someone do that? If the purpose of a religious act is to connect with God, why would they make it a show for other people, instead?
Because they never moved beyond the trappings of the institution to an internalized, heart connection. They are functioning on an institutional level and have never actually met God at the mystical, personal level.
“They never moved beyond the trappings of the institution to an internalized, heart connection.”
They are done for the purpose of being seen by others (Matt. 6:1). Maybe, like the ancient Pharisees or the occasional modern politician, their purpose is to gain status within a group. Or maybe, like most folks, they are just a way to signal belonging. The show demonstrates your credentials as a card-carrying member of the group. Nowadays, we call this “virtue signaling”—putting on some little display that doesn’t cost you much but that also doesn’t accomplish anything other than showing that you share the values of the group.
But wait. In this very Gospel, Jesus anticipates public gatherings of believers (Matt. 18:15-20). Corporate worship is important (Heb. 10:25), which means that we will do religious things around other people. So we have a dilemma. Is it a show or not? How can we tell actual devotion from a well-constructed performance? It’s a matter of the heart. So, when it comes to other people, you usually can’t tell which it is. “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
“How can we tell actual devotion from a well-constructed performance? It’s a matter of the heart.”
Maybe that’s why, while Jesus uses the plural “you” in most of the Sermon on the Mount, he switches to the singular in 6:1-6, 16-18. Each individual person must ask themselves, “Is my faith expression sincere?” To determine that, Jesus proposes a thought experiment:
Think of any religious activity you engage in.
Now, take all the people away.
Does anything change in what the practice means?
Does anything change in your motivation to do it?
“Now, take all the people away. Does anything change?”
This may be challenging for us. It was mind-blowing in Jesus’ day. People processed life on a communal level. If Jesus wasn’t clearly saying that his disciples’ most important faith expressions were done privately, in secret, no sociologist would believe that anyone in the ancient world could think like this.
But that’s how Jesus challenges us to think.
This “thought experiment” is reality in places where Christians face strong persecution. They have to practice their faith in secret. Their only rational options are authentic faith or no faith.
Here in the United States, this thought experiment became an actual social experiment during the pandemic. We were explicitly asked to perform our religious acts in secret. As Francis Chan urged, we could have taken this as an opportunity to examine our faith and ground it even more deeply in our heart.
Some did. Some didn’t.
“If our faith practice doesn’t come from the heart, it’s more like a very religious-looking form of ‘practical atheism.’”
But if our faith practice doesn’t come from the heart, it’s more like a very religious-looking form of “practical atheism.” “Practical atheism” is when you say you believe in God but are functionally equivalent to someone who doesn’t. True atheism was almost unheard of in the ancient world. Even today, around 80% of Americans say that they believe in God. This “belief” just makes little or no difference in many of their lives.
External religious performance is not the difference Jesus is looking for. It doesn’t say anything about your actual belief in God. The ancient Pharisees demonstrate that “practical atheism” can reside even in someone who puts on a spectacular religious show. What happens if you take away their audience? Their theism vanishes like smoke.
Your hidden religious actions do say something about your actual belief in God. Performing your religious deeds in secret only makes sense if God is real and if your relationship with him is more important than anything on this earth.
“A good way to make sure you have faith which is founded in your heart is to start with exactly what Jesus says. Engage in some spiritual disciplines. Alone.”
A good way to make sure you have faith which is founded in your heart is to start with exactly what Jesus says. Engage in some spiritual disciplines. Alone. Put priority on the relationship that is just between you and your heavenly Father. Ground your faith there (Luke 5:16). Giving, praying, and fasting are a great start, but there are lots of other disciplines. For guidance, check out anything by Richard Foster.
From that internal foundation, you can safely take your faith public. That’s because what people see or don’t see doesn’t really matter to you. You’re not doing it for the purpose of being seen by them. Phyllis Tickle literally wrote the modern-day book on regular, timed prayer (The Divine Hours). Once, she was in a store with a friend when her alarm went off. It was time to pray. Her friend was mortified. Public prayer may have gotten you street-cred in 1st century Palestine. It doesn’t in a 21st century place of business. Phyllis didn’t pray because of the people around her. She prayed in spite of them. Her faith practice flowed from her heart, so the presence or absence of people was irrelevant.
“Her faith practice flowed from her heart, so the presence or absence of people was irrelevant.”
Why? Because no one can see your heart. Only God can. Therefore, whatever you do in your heart is, in fact, something that is done in secret. The one who sees the heart sees that you are offering your heart to him. And your heavenly Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.