I have suggested that we should dream of ways to make much of Christ in the way we use our economic stimulus checks that will be arriving soon. That raises the question how we do that if our generosity should be done in secret. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6.3). Here’s what I think the Bible says about that.
Jesus warns of two dangers when it comes to what unbelievers think of us.
One danger is to be so private that we have no goal to awaken in unbelievers an admiration for Jesus by the way we live.
To this danger Jesus says,
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
And Paul says,
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. (Philippians 4:5)
So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. (1 Timothy 5:25)
And Peter says,
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12)
This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (1 Peter 2:15)
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1-2)
The other danger when it comes to what unbelievers think of us is that we desire to be seen for the wrong things and with the wrong motives. Not all good deeds should be seen. And none of those that should be seen should be motivated by the craving for our own recognition and praise.
To this danger Jesus says,
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them. . . . But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. (Matthew 6:1, 3)
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. (Matthew 6:5)
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. (Matthew 6:16)
Some righteous acts can be done in secret. That is good. It proves that God, not human praise, is our reward. But other righteous acts cannot be done in secret. For example, the personal helpfulness that Jesus commended in Matthew 15:35-36:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
The people you help personally know you are helping them. The Good Samaritan could not hide his compassion for the battered man he was helping, or from the innkeeper to whom he gave the money (Luke 10:34-35).
One of the greatest means of grace to others is done by the way we talk to them. And all of this verbal encouragement and blessing is heard by them or it does no good. We either do it in a Christ-exalting way or we don’t.
The tension between these two dangers calls for wisdom and humility. Our aim is that people would “glorify God,” not us (Matthew 5:16). On the one hand, we know that reputation matters: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). On the other hand, we know that people-pleasing reveals idolatry: “. . . not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22).
The great issue here is our heart. We have all heard people going on and on about how they mean for God to get the glory as they do their public ministry, but it sounded hollow. The very words seemed part of the act. Yet public ministry is inevitable and good. The focus should not be on techniques of self-effacement. The focus should be on our hearts. What do we really crave? Really. Have we been broken by our sin? Are we overflowing with thankfulness for truly all the good we don’t deserve? Do we really stand in awe of Christ? Is his reputation a happy burden to us?