I had a friend in college with red hair and freckles who avoided the spotlight, rarely offered an opinion, had a serious, somewhat-obsessive crush on an American Idol contestant, and wouldn’t go rollerblading with us because she feared getting hurt. She lived in the dorm next door, and we all thought she was cute and shy and all things introverted. We laughed at the way she would blush at the slightest off-colored comment or sexual innuendo, and we teased her about
acting looking twelve.
And then one day I saw her on the front page of the campus newspaper in a tennis uniform with a fierce look on her face as she took a mighty swing.
I had known her for almost an entire school year, and somehow the fact that she was the star player on the women’s tennis team had never come up. After a little digging, I learned that she had won state championships in high school. I learned that she had taken on the entire men’s tennis team one day, “for fun,” and dominated the match. I learned that she was not able to go rollerblading because an injury would cost her A LOT in terms of her tennis career, not because she was a chicken.
I learned she was really great at something, REALLY great, and she had never felt the need to bring it up around her new friends at college.
This is just one of many examples I could give you of a time I unexpectedly learned someone was exceptional at something. There was the time I opened my high school yearbook and discovered my brother’s dorky friend had won the National High School Rodeo Championship the year before — I didn’t even know such a competition existed! Or another time I discovered my friend had a foosball table and after several questions learned he had been competing at the national level for years. Did you know skilled foosball players can do incredible tricks with those little bar-side tables? Neither did I.
It’s amazing how often we think we have a person sized-up and later discover we were missing a huge part of their identity puzzle. The above examples are all related to a competition or sport of some sort, but more often this happens when we “size-up” our brothers and sisters in Christ based on what we see on the surface. We can fall into the sinful habit of evaluating another Christian’s worth in the kingdom or their spiritual maturity by the ways we see them publicly serving in the church or the things we hear them talk about, or even based on their public activity on social media websites. We can sadly conclude that someone isn’t serving the Lord faithfully with their life simply because we do not SEE the things they are doing for the Lord and His Kingdom.
Today I was reading in Matthew and came to chapter 6:1-4:
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. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Now, there are many righteous acts that one practices before an “audience” of people — preaching and congregational song leading, just to name a couple of the most obvious, or even blogging — and as long as those acts are motivated by the Lord and not the desire to be seen and praised by others we should not hold back from serving the Lord in such ways. There are also many ways we serve the Lord that are just more visible to the body, often because we are serving WITH others in the body. In no way do I believe these verses discount the value of our righteous acts that are seen.
I tend to think, however, that the Lord does much of His most important kingdom work through the things we do in secret or in the presence of very few people. If I believe that, and I do, I think it should have an impact on how I value the work I do in secret and the satisfaction I get from serving the Lord in secret.
It also should have an impact on how we evaluate other believers — or dare I say convince us we need to STOP evaluating other believers. While there is a call for mentorship and accountability among God’s people, we need to be careful about requiring other Christians to give a report of their righteous acts before we affirm them as “good Christians” in our minds.
We also need to be careful to never assume another believer is not serving the Lord and God’s people faithfully and sacrificially simply because we have not seen it with our own eyes or heard a report of what they are doing in secret.
We all live in a world in which we learn at a very early age that praise and approval from other people is a confirmation of what we have done well. We are required to compete with others, perform before others, and report our accomplishments in order to advance in education, land a job, receive a promotion, and earn a plethora of praises and desirable rewards. We are engulfed in a well-respected merit system in nearly every aspect of our lives.
We internalize this “merit system” as we mature, we fail to reject it in favor of God’s merit system, and it has a depressing impact on the body of Christ.
When I come to the beginning of Matthew 6, I am reminded that I do not need to earn the praise and approval of other people to know that I have done well. I am reminded that I am under no obligation to inform my left hand of the things my right hand has been doing. I am reminded that the righteous things I do in secret are seen by a my Father, and they will be rewarded with heavenly “prizes” that this world can not understand or recognize.
When I come to the beginning of Matthew 6, I am also reminded that I should not dismiss my meek, red-headed friend, because she could likely be a fierce, disciplined, strong competitor who does not feel the need to boast in her gifts in exchange for my pathetic praises. Who am I to assume anything about anyone based on what I see? If I am someone who expects others to sound a trumpet, there is a good chance I am one who likes to sound my own trumpet and I am just like the hypocrites in the synagogues and the streets.
I’ve attempted to sound the trumpet in the past, and I’ve learned it’s a lot of effort for a miserable reward. I do not care to exchange heavenly rewards for worldly praise, and I do not care to pressure others to make such an exchange.