The Importance of What We Do in Secret
According to Jesus, it is what we do in secret that matters most. Jesus is not suggesting that the outward is unimportant—far from it. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14).
The answer is emphatically no. Still, it is also possible to have outward works but no inner reality. In this instance, religion is a pretense. Six times in the Sermon on the Mount, alluding to three distinct exercises, Jesus employs the term secret:
- Give “in secret…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:4).
- Pray “in secret…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 6).
- Fast “in secret…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 18).
The Sermon on the Mount is addressing the issue of authenticity. Just how genuine is our relationship with the Lord Jesus? It is altogether possible to practice an outward display of piety—to “talk the talk”—without demonstrating any inner reality of godliness. This is true of every professing Christian, and it is especially true of those engaged in Christian ministry. Authentic Christianity requires an outward and discernible “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:11). But it also requires genuine godly affections and an inner discipline of the heart.
There is a manner of ministry that is more about self-service than self-sacrifice, self-indulgence than self-discipline, and self-promotion than self-denial. There is also giving that is designed for recognition—plaques on walls intended to be read by generations to come, or press releases informing the world of “generous donations”; prayers in pristine Cranmerlike language of the sixteenth century suggesting depths of personal piety; fasting that is shown via open-necked T-shirts revealing a ribbed torso.
But all these outward demonstrations of piety may be no more than mere hypocrisy. The Greek word translated “hypocrites” (Matt. 6:2, 5) refers to the masks worn by ancient actors as symbols of pretense and show. Thus, give with fanfare; pray with pride; fast with notice. This ministry is inauthentic. It is a sham.
Inauthentic ministry was a charge leveled against Paul. The Corinthians said that there was discrepancy between the way he wrote his letters and the way he was in person: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10). It is a serious charge, and in his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul spends almost the entire time defending himself. The critique came from jealousy and therefore bore no legitimacy. But the fact is, the charge can be true—not of Paul, but of us. Leadership calls for genuineness, authenticity and transparency.
True, there’s something of a cliché about the word authentic when applied to Christian ministry (add contemporary, intentional, relevant, and community to that list). If we really need to add the description authentic, we are probably trying too hard and therefore not being authentic at all. Nevertheless, hypocrisy lurks everywhere, not least in Christian ministry, and we ignore it at our peril.
Godliness must be found in the heart if it is to be genuine. The one who prays more in public than in private, or only gives at special events when likely to be thanked for it, or practices spiritual disciplines and lets everyone know just how difficult a spiritual routine he keeps, is more concerned about the outward appearance than a heart-relationship with Jesus.
Jonathan Edwards observed the pattern of the hypocrite with respect to prayer:
Perhaps they attend it on Sabbath days, and sometimes on other days. But they have ceased to make it a constant practice daily to retire to worship God alone, and to seek his face in secret places. They sometimes do a little to quiet conscience, and just to keep alive their old hope; because it would be shocking to them, even after all their subtle dealing with their consciences to call themselves converts, and yet totally to live without prayer. Yet the practice of secret prayer they have in a great measure left off.
There has been a rise in the use of “written prayers” in Presbyterian worship in the last decade. In part, it is a reflection of the desire to elevate worship. Liturgical, written, prepared prayers are certainly preferable to the (otherwise) paucity and emptiness of some extemporary prayers. But written prayers (drawn from The Valley of Vision, for example) may simply mask the emptiness of the heart.
And Thomas Cranmer seemed to understand the danger of wearing a mask of hypocrisy when he included the Collect of Purity in the Book of Common Prayer for the Anglican Church. Cranmer placed it just before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord.
This is a prayer for all seasons.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.