by Lawson Mayo
Matthew 6: 1-18 carries a warning of danger that comes from seeking the
approval of men for the good that we do. To offer alms for the sake of praise,
to pray for the sake of being heard, or to fast for the sake of being seen robs
God of the honour and glory that is rightly His. When we rob God of the praise
that is rightly His, we rob ourselves of a spiritual reward. There is no place
for the "sounding of trumpets" in our lives; no value in "standing" to pray
where many ears can hear; no benefit in fasting if the fasting is done to be
seen of men. Appealing to the favourable notice of others while professing to be
holy does not attract the attention of God.
The best way to avoid the danger of losing one's due reward is to covet the
praise of the Lord. Be not influenced by the approbation of others. Do your alms
in secret. Enter into a private place to pray. Fast without anyone's knowledge.
When secrecy is not possible, such as a benevolent work of the church, public
prayer, or group fasting, there should be a heavenly focus. Projecting our
thoughts on the glory that will flow upward is a safeguard against coveting the
praise of men.
Perhaps the revelation about God "seeing in secret" should be given an extra
measure of consideration. If God sees in secret, He can see the motive behind
the deeds that we do. If He sees the motive, He knows whether or not we covet
the praise of men can so cleverly hide our deceptiveness in the matter of
almsgiving that no-one knows we're coveting the praise of men, but we can't hide
our deceptiveness from God.
Back in the Sixties, we knew a family that did many good things for others.
They took many care-packages to those in need, and with each box of goods they
placed a little note that read "for Christ". This sounds good, doesn't it -- but
the story doesn't end there. They frequently boasted about all the good they did
in the name of Christ. Why? To gain the praise of men. At the same time, we knew
another couple who went about quietly doing what they could for others. Unless
their deeds were accidentally discovered, they went unnoticed. Once, when I
caught them in the act of helping someone, I praised them publicly. Let me tell
you, they immediately placed my head on the chopping-block! My revealing their
good works was an embarrassment to them. They cared not for the praise of men;
they simply wanted to serve their God by privately meeting the needs of others.
Which of these two families do you think will receive an open reward in
eternity: the one that boasted of what they did in the name of Christ, or the
one who boasted not at all? Without hesitation, I can tell you the one that made
the greatest impact on my life.
"It is to our wilful natures, our perverted hearts, and our self-blinded
judgements, that Christ's counsel is given" (Lewis-Booth). As negative as this
might seem, there is something exceedingly touching about the Lord's counsel. It
not only issues a serious warning, it offers a precious promise: the promise of
a divine reward for genuine righteousness. To me, this is reassuring.
Christ covers three points in my assigned passage: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. I'd like to focus on these three points one by one.
ALMSGIVING (Matt. 6: 1-4).
Almsgiving, in the language of the later Rabbis, was called "righteousness"
which might include prayer and fasting, but the usage in Matthew six seems to
mean benevolent practices that mankind offers toward others. Jesus attuned to
the needs of others. He was concerned about the physical needs of those who
followed Him. In meeting those needs, He had their highest good in mind. He
sought no glory for self. He desired no personal praise. He craved not the
admiration of men.
In His sermon, Christ is instructing His followers to give their alms "in
secret" so the Father will receive the glory. Wait a minute! Did we not hear
Christ say, in the earlier part of His sermon that our lights should shine
"before men" that they may see our good works, and glorify the Father? Have we
actually found a contradiction in His teaching? No! What we see here is a
redefining of purpose; namely: to glorify God in all that we do.
In Matthew 5:16, the works were not for self-glorification. They were to draw
mankind out of darkness into the light of Christ. In this passage, Christ is
warning against doing good deeds for self-glory. We are not obliged to do our
works so much in secret that our good works with the intention of gaining praise
and glory solely for self.
The doing of good deserves reward. Even a hypocritical act of kindness should
bring a measure of glory to the giver, as well as a measure of relief to the
recipient. No one is entitled to a higher reward than his motives deem proper,
however. Nothing more than a temporal reward can be expected when our works are
done to be seen of men. The glory that one received is his full reward; there
will be nothing waiting in the day of judgment; no recognition given; no
acknowledgment of the deeds done. There is, however, an eternal reward waiting
for those who give alms "in secret" (not for self-glory, but to glorify God). So
then, what is your pleasure? Which will you choose?
We are not prohibited to do good before men; neither are we obliged to reject
the praise that well-doing will procure. But there is a bast difference between
giving God the glory, and coveting glory for one's own self. Intent of the heart
is the life and soul of an action; this is the message that Christ is conveying.
In our text, Christ is correcting the manner in which charitable duties were
being performed by the people of His day In the giving of alms, they had more
regard for self than for God. This is seen in the "sounding of trumpets" as they
went forth to do their good deeds. Their desire for applause had transformed
their almsgiving into an act of hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy! That's what Christ is talking about! According to its original
significance, the "hypocrite" referred to actors who assumed the role of a
feigned character. The applause they received, for a performance well-done, was
their full reward. So it is with those who seek glory for self in the giving of
alms; the "applause" they receive is their full reward.
PRAYER (Matt. 6:5-15).
In His sermon, Christ makes it clear that self-righteous acts are
inconsistent with the spirit of true righteousness. To avoid the appearance of
self-righteousness, He recommends "secret" prayer. "When thou prayest, thou
shalt not be as the hypocrites: for they love to pray . . . that they may be
seen of men . . . but thou, when thou prayest, enter into they closet, and when
thou hast shut thy door, pray to the Father which seeth in secret" (Matthew
6:5,6). This is Christ's advice.
A "closet" is a quiet is a quiet place that closes out distractions; it's a
place to be alone with God; a place of solitude. Christ knew the effectiveness
of solitude. He often sought to be alone in His talks with God, and so should
we. Secret prayer will deepen our relationship with God, it will strengthen our
faith; it will increase our love for Christ, and it will bring an "open "
reward. When we look back to the prayers we have prayed and the answers we have
received, we can clearly see the meaning of "open" reward. Sorrow that has been
lifted, achievements that have been made, illnesses that have been overcome,
blessings that have been showered upon us, deliverance from temptation, courage
to press on; these are "open" rewards that can be traced to acceptable prayer.
Some people think that long prayers and repetitious words are beneficial in
gaining the attention of God. Not so! Sometimes short is best. Peter prayed a
short prayer that was effective: "Lord save me" (Matt. 14: 30). And what of the
publican's prayer? Standing afar off, not lifting up so much as an eye to
heaven, he offered a brief prayer: "God be merciful unto me a sinner" (Luke 18:
14), and Christ said that the publican "went down to his house justified". Why?
Certainly not because his prayer was long! No, humility of heart was what caught
the attention of God. Prayer need not be long to be effective, but it must be
sincere. It must come from an humble heart.
It should be noted, however, that long prayers and persistence in coming to
God with repeated requests is not wrong within itself. Christ spent whole nights
in prayer, and in Gesthemane He prayed three times using the same words. What
Christ condemns is the mouthing of shallow words and phrases such as one might
hear in a Pentecostal service where there is a constant wailing of "Lord, Lord,
Lord". Such a prayer that goes on for long periods of time falls into the
"repetitious" category that Christ was condemning. Another example of long,
repetitious prayer would be the rosary prayer where the counting of beads,
coupled with a constant chant is ritualistically repeated again and again. You
know what I'm talking about: the "Hail Mary, full of grace" type of prayer that
are uttered around the world in our age. Mechanical weariness, ceremonial form,
ritualistic repetition that the heart cannot follow ceases to be prayer. Praise,
sincerely offered, supplication, intercession, thanksgiving: these are the
facets of prayer that Christ offers as a guide.
In prayer, we should come to God like children to a father, offering our
adoration and making our request known in the simplest of ways; leaving our
cares with Him to do with as He sees best. We should remember, however, that
there is no concealing of our faults from Him, as from our earthly parents. He
knows all, He sees all, He understands all (Matt. 6: 8). One cannot truly pray
to God as "Father" unless he has been born into God's family through obedience
to the Gospel. This may seem fundamental to us, yet many in the world claim God
as their Father with our being subject to His will. Submission to the whole will
of God is mandatory (1 John 5: 1-3). One who does not surrender his life to
Christ can have no part with Him.
Reverence is an essential factor in one's prayer life. This is seen in the
manner in which Christ opens the sample prayer. Listen to the words: "Our Father
which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name" (vs. 8). Can you hear the respect,
the reverence, the praise? Can you see that this is an acknowledgment of
submission, a statement of allegiance and a confession of faith? Can you
understand the indication that God is not only personal and loving, but that He
is majestic and holy?
When the Lord gave His disciples this form of prayer, He meant for its
precepts to rule their lives. Praise and adoration was to be a part of their
daily walk; submission was to be uppermost in their minds. Praise and adoration
and submission should be a part of our daily walk too; yet how quickly we
forget. No sooner do we express our praise and adoration, than we begin our
self-willed demands: Heal this one . . . Heal that one . . . Give me this . . .
Give me that . . . I need . . . Î want . . . on and on we go. Shame on us! Every
prayer we utter should carry the submissive phrase: "Nevertheless, not my will,
but Thine be done."
In our prayer life, whether private or public, there must be a deep respect for God, and a willingness to conform to His will. "Whatsoever we do in word or deed, should be done in the name of the Lord" (Colossians 3:17). "In the name of the Lord" means more than praying in His name, it means living in accordance with His precepts and promises, so that our petitions might be acceptable.
FASTING (Matt. 6:16).
Under the old law, fasting was mandatory only once a year: on the Day of
Atonement (Lev. 23: 27-32). Its purpose was for the expression of grief for sin
that had been committed by the Jewish people. The Pharisees, however, fasted
twice a week for the purpose of impressing the people with their "holiness".
Jesus condemned such hypocrisy. He said "When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites,
of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto
men to fast". Then he added "Verily I say unto you, they have their reward".
There it is again: an empty reward for actions that generate self-glory.
Fasting, like almsgiving and prayer, must be sincere. It's an action to be
seen of God, not of man. It should be done in secret for some spiritual purpose
such as expressing godly sorrow for sin. With this thought in mind, can you now
see how fasting in the church should be altogether private? Sin is a sorrowful
thing, and should be repented of, but the Gospel is glad tidings, and should be
presented in all of its glory to mankind. To don a sad countenance, to disfigure
one's face as was the custom of the Pharisees to show their holiness, is not the
image that Christ would have us project to the world. Maybe this is why He said
to "shine" as lights of the world. Have you ever seen a discouraging light? Of
course not. The purpose of a light is to guide, to lead, to direct, not to
The purpose of fasting should not be limited to expressions of sorrow,
however. There are many spiritual reasons for which one might choose to fast.
Christ fasted before He faced the tempter (Matt. 4: 2). Paul fasted as a part of
his Christian walk (2 Cor. 6: 4-5; 11: 27). Early Christians fasted as they
ministered to the Lord (Acts 13: 1-3). The church fasted when it appointed
elders (Acts 14: 23). Thus, fasting is a definite part of the New Testament
pattern, but it was not to be done in an attention-getting manner. Fasting
should not be done for the purpose of "appearing" holy: no sackcloth for
clothing, no ashes on the head, no long faces, no sign of mourning. Fasting is
personal; it is private; and, when done in accordance with God's will, it is
productive. I suggest that it's a subject we might want to study; a discipline
we might want to try for the purpose of drawing nearer to the Lord.
Paul said that we should not be "menpleasers" (Gal. 1: 10; Eph. 6: 6; Col. 3:
22). To have "friendship" with the world is enmity with God (James 4: 4). To
covet the "flattering" words of the world worketh ruin (Prov. 26: 28). God "knoweth
the secrets of the heart" (Psalm 44: 21); yea He is a "revealer of secrets"
(Dan. 2: 28-29). He will openly reward deeds that are done in the right spirit.
A pat on the back for a job well done is appropriate, and a word of praise is
encouraging, but if our good works are done for the purpose of the pat and the
praise, they are done in vain. We will have our just reward: empty glory that
Notation: The word "openly" that is found in Matt. 6: 4, 6, 8 isn't found in
many versions other than the King James. Actually, in the Greek/English
interlinear, using Nestle's Greek New Testament and King James English, the
passage is clearly without the word "openly" in these three verses. While this
in no way detracts from the reward that God offers for righteousness, it does
seem to suggest that the reward will come later, i.e. in eternity rather than in
this earthly life. However, Jesus taught in John 10: 10 that blessings offered
to the obedient can be enjoyed in this life as well as in the life to come, thus
giving the assurance of receiving some of God's reward even now. One can
certainly enjoy the fullness of life in Christ and "openly" reap the benefits of
well-doing in this lifetime! Almsgiving, prayer and fasting can bring rich
rewards to those who give and pray and fast according to God's will. This is the
encouragement that our text offers.
Let us make a personal application. As Christians, we should spend more
private time with God. Our relationship with Him should be the most important
relationship we have. All that we do should be done to His glory, for His cause,
and in His name; whether it be meeting the needs of others, spending time in
reflection and prayer, or fasting for some specific purpose such as expressing
Godly sorrow for our sin.
But in our rush-rush world, finding time to be alone with God can seem
disastrous. What will we have to leave undone? How can we adjust our day? These
are real questions that deserve real answers: before we answer them, however,
let's think for a moment about the use of our time.
Business, family, God: these are important relationships that vie for our
time. Of the three, which is the most important relationship? Business
relationships are important, family relationships are important, but the truly
important relationship should be our relationship with God. If we can agree on
this, our problem is solved. We will do whatever is necessary to keep our
relationship with God alive; to improve it; to enrich it.
Far too often, our lives are filled with "busy work" that robs us of precious
time that we could spend with God. Far too often, our hearts are not centred on
things that are truly lasting; they are good, they are wholesome, they are
beneficial -- but not truly lasting. Maybe what we need to do is to give up
something that is good for something that is better. Maybe we could let go of
some of our "busyness" to make time for doing that which the Father would have
us do. He must surely miss communicating with us when we go for days at a time
without prayer. He must surely grieve over the lack of time we reserve for Him.
He must surely mourn over the priorities we set, the time-robbing activities
that we value, the quickly spent moments that we reserve to be alone with Him.
Just south of where I used to live in the States, is the great country of
Mexico. In Mexico, every one takes time for a siesta every day. Everyone! The
young, the old, the common labourer, the grocer, the chemist -- even the
president of the country takes time for a rest in the middle of the day. What a
waste of time! What and indolent people! Not at all! These South-of-the-border
people have created a relaxed way of life for themselves. They don't rush-rush,
hurry-hurry, work-work all day long. They take time to enjoy life, and somehow
everything gets done; nothing that's truly important is left wanting. Why can't
we be more like these? Instead of sleeping, however, why can't we spend an hour
or so with the Lord?
I once read that Martin Luther prayed for over an hour each morning. When he
had extra work or additional burdens with which to deal, he would pray for three
hours to gain the help he needed to do that which was required. Apparently, he
considered this to be a profitable use of his busy day. Perhaps time-management
is a theme that needs to be revived. Maybe we should start making lists, setting
priorities, and deleting the insignificant in order to make time for the truly
important. What is important? What is vital? Surely it's our relationship to
Our delight should be in the law of the Lord; and in the law, we should
meditate day and night (Psalm 1:2). Morning study will give us a precept, a
thought, a verse, or even a phrase that we can reflect on throughout the waking
hours; a few moments spent in the morning can be amplified into hours of
contemplation throughout the day. A few moments of morning prayer can supply
strength for jobs that must be done.
Such a practise is well and good, but what about special time alone with God;
quiet time; unlimited time; uninterrupted time; time to spend in your "closet"
with God? Do you have a closet, a private room, an inner chamber; a place where
you can pray in secret? You should know! If you don't have such a place, find
one; then, pray. Unload your heart, share your burdens, expose your pain,
express your joy, in secret; let God supply the "open" reward in His own way.
Consider these five suggestions: (1) Give yourself plenty of time to spend in
private prayer with God. (2) Find a comfortable "closet" in which to pray. (3)
Pray for specific things. (4) Keep the lines of communication open with those
for whom you pray. (5) Select a time that suits you best.
In the words of an old, old hymn:
May our almsgiving, our prayers, and our fasting ever be done in accordance
with God's will; having this confidence: that God, seeing in secret, will reward