This past week has been encouraging regarding relationships I have with neighbors on my block. Four years ago, my husband and I intentionally (and we think, obediently) moved into a tougher inner city neighborhood. We’ve formed some really great relationships with adults and kids, but haven’t really “done” anything to write home about. No one’s professed new faith in Jesus. No one’s drastically improved in school. No one’s changed their status from unemployed to employed. And no one has gotten off of government funding. To sum it all up, no one’s really that drastically different at all…not even us.
A couple days ago, I was yelling over from my front porch to our next door neighbor, Angela (not her real name). Angela is a single mom of three. It must have been an early start, as she has a sixteen-year-old son and she isn’t much older than thirty. Her two daughters are in third grade and kindergarten, and about as sweet as can be. Angela isn’t making it very easily. She lives in Section 8 housing, which means part of her rent is paid by the government. Her ex-husband rarely shows up and neglects child support regularly. She’s a teacher, and her paycheck just isn’t enough. This week, until her check went through, their refrigerator was empty, they were running on fumes, one of her daughters got sick (which meant she couldn’t work), and she was totally stressed out. I offered to watch her sick daughter the next day. As she described her situation, most of which seemed impossible to change, she also mentioned she can’t afford after-school care. Well, on her list, that was the one thing that I felt like I could do something about . So, we’ve come up with a plan for me to pick up her girls after school once a week and take care of them until she can come home. It might turn into three times a week, but for now she’s got the other days covered with other people. I think it hurt her to admit her need (both for the one day to watch her sick daughter and for the ongoing after-school help), but it really isn’t much of an inconvenience for me and I’m happy to help.
So, why am I telling this story in a post titled: Anonymity and the Gospel? Well, because I’ve probably told this story ten times already since it happened last week. Once at Bible study, when I asked for prayer for the relationship with Angela and her kids. I think some of my request was genuine, but it was in large part an opportunity to manipulate the conversation to make people recognize what I’ve done and think well of me. Then yesterday when I was picking up the girls from school, I ran into someone whose kids go to the same school. She was surprised to see me, and while it would have been WAY faster and easier just to explain that I was doing a favor for a friend…I went into the details. Why? Because I knew the details would make me look good. Pay no attention to the dignity it stole from my friend, Angela. I was striving for attention and accolades, and I shared personal details to make myself appear kind, compassionate, and basically awesome. Last night on the phone I did it again with another friend. Here I am again today, but for a different reason.
What does the Bible tell us about doing good works for attention? Well, here’s one really clear example from Matthew 6:1-8:
Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then, your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Sometimes I think we believe that it is only the materially rich who are reaping their rewards on earth, “where moth and rust destroy.” But, friends, you and I are tempted by a different form of pre-eternal reward: man’s acclaim for our works of righteousness. Every time we strive for attention, subtly manipulate a conversation or Twitter update to communicate something we’re doing for Jesus, we are robbing ourselves of true, eternal reward. It is always interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t say we won’t get a reward if we do our ‘acts of righteousness’ this way. He simply and devastatingly says we get our reward in full; we just get it here (from man), and not here and later (from our Father.)
I’m not good with comparisons, but it would be like being eight years old and being offered a trip to Disney Land but choosing to watch Cinderella on TV instead. They’re both rewards or gifts, but the value of them isn’t even close. If we only knew what we were missing. C.S. Lewis says it this way: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Oh friends, I LONG with you that our ‘acts of righteousness’ would be radical, sacrificial, beautiful and for the most part, hidden. I long that God would receiveglory for what has been done, instead of us. I pray that we wouldn’t strive for attention for what we’ve accomplished but that we’d be pleased to stay largely obscure and less known. Francois Fenelon says it this way:
It is not surprising that you are very ambitious to advance in your spiritual life, and to find yourself in the company of those who have a reputation for being spiritual. No matter what it looks like, these things still flatter your self-love. Do not seek to fulfill your ambitions of becoming more spiritual, or to be counted in the company of those people who are honored for their spirituality. Your aim should be to die to all such ambitions by letting yourself be humbled. You must learn to accept obscurity and scornful disregard while you keep your eyes solely on God…Say little and do much—without wondering if you have been noticed or not.
I always wonder if I’ve been noticed. I remember one pitiful moment when a friend was asking me about how my work was going—was I still working part time? And I TOTALLY manipulated the conversation, very subtly, of course, to slip in the fact that we’re adopting from Rwanda. Aren’t we great? Sick. Sick. Sick. Richard Foster says:
Self-righteous service requires external rewards. It needs to know that people see and appreciate the effort. It seeks human applause—with proper religious modesty of course. True service rests in hiddenness. It does not fear the lights and blare of attention, but it does not seek them either. Since it is living out of a new Center of reference, the divine nod of approval is enough.
I like how he mentions that true service doesn’t fear the lights and blare of attention. Some of us/you are going to be in positions of God-given influence. But, we should be cautioned to not let the attention injure our souls and rob us of eternal reward. I’m not suggesting we never tell people about the work we’re doing, but I’m suggesting that we ask God to examine our motives when we’re doing it. How much of it is to encourage someone, glorify God, and obey him…and how much of it is to make myself look good?
Just because we struggle to do these things with pure motivations, does not mean we should just quit trying. God doesn’t give us that option. But, let us seek hiddenness and allow our impure motivations for service to become more pure. Foster says “nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness. The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service. It pulls for honor and recognition. It will devise subtle, religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered.” Join me, friends, in moving towards anonymity and hiddenness, not to impress one another, but to have pride and self-love rooted out in us.
From someone who struggles deeply with this issue, who likely has done nothing anonymously in my life, please pray and ache with me that we would be people who would be content to be unknown. Content to obey God whether it brings us attention or not. Able to confess sin and admit temptation. Pray with me that these ‘acts of righteousness’ we’re all doing will be tested later and found to be gold. Suitable for eternity.
Amen. Soli Deo Gloria.
AWESOME post! I have been thinking about and struggling with this very thing lately! I love your desire to “be content to be unknown”…this is my prayer as well. It’s all about God getting the glory and He gets it more often when we die to self and just let Him have it. Praying that I will act in a way which gives me an eternal reward rather than a lesser one on this earth. Oh how my pride and desire to be recognized often gets in the way and keeps the glory from the One to whom it’s due. This all resonates with me immensely and I appreciate your timely, articulate thoughts very much! Looking forward to more!
This is much needed encouragement! Add in there some sickening sacrificial martyrdom, and you have a steaming stew of self reighteousness.
I find this discipline particularly difficult at work. Even though I teach in a Christian school, the pressure to contribute in some way and the competitive spirit of some of the faculty tempts me to self aggrandizing. If only I cared more about how my Savior views me than my colleagues.
Thank you for the timely reminder.
Thank you for this challenging article. I read it for the first time 12/11/09 – it is exactly what I am dealing with personally – the “need” to be noticed.
I wonder if you could add the titles of the Francois Fenelon and Richard Foster books from which you quote – I would like to read those also…
Thank you for your comment, Mary! You can read more from Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline (the quote comes from the chapter on service) and Francois Fenelon’s book The Seeking Heart.
My church is going through a series by Jack Frost teaching us on the importance of singleness of heart towards the love of the Father, called the Father’s Embrace. In last night’s video he shared how God convicted him while attending a denominational function and he found himself trying to position himself near the bishop hoping to get more words of public affirmation. After the revelation, he and his wife went to their car and repented. He said he felt like he was walking around IV tube looking for people he could suck life out of. This morning in my quiet time, I repented of the same sin. It is so easy to become distracted and seek after lesser things and not be aware of it or even worse being aware of it but disguising it with religious sounding rhetoric. Thanks for the post. I used your CS Lewis quote on my Facebook status.