I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.
Matthew 6 includes one of the more provocative statements and approaches to personal holiness anywhere in the Bible. Coming out of the “You have heard it said… but I say…” section in chapter 5, chapter 6 transitions to a series of statements that include, “…they have their reward. But you…” The whole sequence hammers home the cost of public practice of holiness for the eyes of men. The cost, it turns out, is that one gets exactly what one was seeking–but that turns out not to be much of a prize at all.
The adulation of men, in the final reckoning, is a short-lived thing that satisfies no one. Our hearts were made for something deeper, truer, and richer than the admiration of other people: we were made to be satisfied by God’s delight in us and our delight in him. When we please God, we have grounds for real joy. When we simply earn the admiring looks of other men by performing all our good deeds to be noticed… well, we have our reward. We get the attention we want from people, but miss all the real joy in those good deeds–deeds God intended to proceed from our love for him, and which, when they come instead from a desire to be loved by people, become just one more form of idolatry.
And idolatry, it must be said, is a very great part of what got us all into this mess in the first place. So to the man who embraces his man-pleasing ways, and especially to the man who uses “holiness” and good works as a means to earning the favor of other people, God says, “Okay. You got your prize. But that is all there is for you so long as you are pursuing the affections and attentions of other people over and above me.”
It doesn’t satisfy.
All the more striking is the placement of the “Lord’s prayer” here, right in the middle of this section. Matthew seems intent on hammering home that no part of our spiritua life–prayer included–is excluded from Jesus’ critique. The prayer he offers is simple, to the point, and without the flourishes that too often characterize my own ways of approaching God. More, this prayer is to be offered in private, in the closet, where only God hears. Who else actually needs to hear our prayers? Can anyone else answer them? Can anyone else do anything about them–except find us worthy of admiration?1
This is particularly hard-hitting for me, because I have sometimes wondered, “Did others agree with what I prayed?” when, during times of corporate prayer there was little verbal affirmation of my own prayers. (I have wondered such things the most when there was verbal affirmation of others’ prayers but not of mine. Ever “Amen” suddenly seemed a mark for or against me, depending on who was praying when it came out.) Yet, plainly put, that is simply this same idolatry: wanting my prayer to be affirmed by the people around me. I ought instead strive to please God in the way I pray, and rest confident that he hears and responds.
- This is of course not an argument against corporate prayer. It is, instead, an argument against prayer for attention, which can happen in many ways and many places, including corporate prayer… but one could, in fact, very easily make a big deal out of going in the closet for long periods of prayer, simply to earn the admiration of other believers. You already have your prize. ↩