One of the greatest dangers of Christianity is when we go out of our way to make sure that others know just how Christian we are.
In our modern practice of the faith, which puts so much emphasis on looking like good Christians (regardless of what is going on inside our hearts), this danger is especially prescient. We want to make sure that other people in our faith communities see us doing good things, so that they will think we’re good people. If they do, it makes us feel better about ourselves.
This problem surfaces in all sorts of areas, and especially the area of giving. Taking care of the poor is such a good and noble thing to do that many of us want to be known for doing it.
From God’s point of view, though, that’s an issue.
Don’t get me wrong — God does want us to take care of the poor. He mentions its importance in scripture over and over and over and over and over again. But He wants us to do so with the right motivations.
Jesus Talks Giving
Today we’re going to explore the motivations of giving as explained in Matthew 6:1-4. In this well known passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the importance of giving to please God instead of to impress men.
1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “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 others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
At first blush, it may seem like Jesus is being a little bit hard-nosed and overly dramatic. After all, poor people get help either way, regardless of whether you give to them in secret or not. And what’s the big deal about people knowing that you’re a giver? We all enjoy the benefits of a good reputation from time to time, right?
The key to all of this, though, is that Jesus knows something about giving that many of us often forget: Giving is important not only because of what it does to the poor, but what it does for us.
Giving and Your Heart
Every decision that we make in life affects a change in our hearts. Everything that we do nudges us a little bit closer to the heart of God, or a little further in the direction of depravity. And in the end, God cares more about the state of our hearts than anything else.
What Jesus is addressing here, then, is not really about the action of giving, but the heart attitude behind it. And he’s nailing the hypocrites on the attitudes that motivate their giving.
If you give so that people will see you giving, you get the reward of them thinking that you’re a good person. That might feel nice, but there’s no eternal value to it. And you’ve made your reputation your primary heart motivation. Helping people isn’t really what you care about; the poor are just a pawn that you use to make yourself look good.
This is what Jesus is speaking out against. The poor matter a lot to God, and our attitudes and motivations matter a lot too. He wants our giving to the poor to be motivated by love. If we’re giving in order to look good, that’s really motivated by selfishness.
Selfishness vs. Love
Keeping our giving quiet helps to protect us from selfishness and pride. If nobody knows whether or not I give, then my choice to give can’t be motivated by reputation — it can only be motivated by compassion, mercy and love.
This is the kind of giving that God wants us to do. It reflects His love for people and is untainted by our longing for praise. This is the kind of giving that makes a positive difference in the world, as well as a positive difference in your heart.
If you’re guilty of giving publicly so that others can see you, take Jesus at His word: Giving in secret won’t earn you the praise of men, but it will earn you a reward from God.
In the end, which of those is more valuable?
Photo by Ben Newton. Used under Creative Commons License.