To Instagram or not to Instagram? That is the question. Specifically, should we Instagram our good works? We have sharp listeners sending us sharp questions, and today’s sharp question comes from a sharp listener named Stephen who lives in Texas. Here’s the question. “Pastor John, hello! You recently tweeted this — ‘“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth.” Proverbs 27:2. And don’t mess it up by retweeting the praise. Of course every one notices.’ I wholeheartedly agree with you. I retweeted it, as a matter of fact. But I also see a lot of social media photos of Christians doing good deeds, say, helping with hurricane relief. My question: Where and how do we draw the line between letting our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (that’s Jesus’s command in Matthew 5:16). And yet being careful to not practice our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them (that’s Jesus’s command in Matthew 6:1). Any thoughts on how to balance these two truths on social media?”
Let’s put the texts in front of us, and then I’ll try to make some distinctions.
Round of Applause
First, Jesus lays down this warning and principle in Matthew 6:1:
“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.”
That’s a kind of aim to be seen, which is evil. He says you shouldn’t do it. Part of the evil of the aim to be seen is that it signals you are not content with your Father’s reward. You need to add to it. You crave human praise, and so God’s reward is not sufficient for you. You need to supplement it by a little human adulation, and that’s what makes it so evil. Then Jesus gives us an example of what he means with regard to doing good to the needy in the next verse.
“Don’t aim to be praised by others by sounding a trumpet or tweeting or Instagramming your good deeds.”
He says this: “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you” — don’t tweet your soup kitchen picture at Thanksgiving — “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.” They received their reward not from God, but from men; obviously, God’s wasn’t enough. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” — in other words, do it so quietly that your right hand is able to make the gift to the needy and your left hand was hanging out the other side and didn’t even know what happened — “so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees and secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2–4).
So there’s the warning and the principle. Don’t aim to be praised by others, and therefore, avoid behaviors that look like that, like sounding a trumpet or tweeting or Instagramming your piety and your good deeds.
I have a real problem with people who simply say, “Praying for all the hurt people in Las Vegas.” Well now, if you want to call people to prayer, yes. If you want to quote a Bible verse that would encourage people to pray, yes. But I just don’t get it when people say, “Hey! Hey everybody! I want to tell about ten thousand people I’m praying.”
What? Okay. I don’t want to be too hard, but I just don’t get that. It just seems so contrary to this text: “When you pray, go into your closet.” In fact, it says to make a concerted effort that your righteousness, your generosity to the poor, not be seen by others, but be done in secret.
Now, here’s the counterpoint that Stephen is referring to in Matthew 5:14–16 that creates the problem. It is a real problem. I don’t presume to have all the answers here, but here’s the problem. 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.”
So, here’s a few observations. One, there are many practical good deeds that simply cannot be hidden, especially for whom you’re doing the deeds. You can’t stop and help somebody change a tire without them watching you do it. You can’t risk your life during a public act of terrorism to rescue a child without the crowd seeing what you’re doing. You can’t join an emergency sandbagging effort to prevent flooding without being part of a hundred people who are doing the same thing.
My guess is that this is what Jesus has in mind. He’s mainly talking about public good deeds of mercy and justice that you can’t hide because they’re public. I suspect, in fact, that Paul is thinking about those in 1 Timothy 5:25, when he says, “So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” I’ll bet he’s pondering this.
In other words, there are many kinds of good deeds which simply, by their very nature, can’t be hidden. But there are some that can be hidden. If you go online to click and give whatever amount you want to give, there’s a little button that says, “Give anonymously” — a real test, right?
By their very nature, some can be hidden. Paul says they’re going to be found out later. Somebody’s going to know, and he’s okay with that. I think so should we be because later it will probably have more possibilities of bringing glory to God rather than bringing glory to you. People will realize you never did try to draw attention to it, and yet you were doing it, and it came out at your funeral.
Second observation: Matthew 5:16 makes clear the goal in all our good deeds is never merely the temporal, material well-being of the person we care about. This is so important for people who are into social justice and other kinds of wonderful things, but don’t care about God getting the glory.
“Christians are never merely public do-gooders. We want people to know and love God.”
He says, “The eternal well-being of the person in worshiping, being part of the worshiping family of God, is the goal of all of our good deeds to them.” We want their temporal needs to be met so that their eternal praise would go to God. That’s the great goal. Christians are never merely public do-gooders. We do not want to be known as merely public do-gooders. We want people to know God, love God, serve God, glorify God, be saved and with God forever.
This is the great passion of mercy ministries and justice ministries. If it’s not, we are probably being politically correct in order to win the praise of whatever group we happen to prize at the time.
Third observation: We all know that there is a way to act publicly that gives the impression that you crave the approval and the praise of other people. This certainly comes to the fore in Twitter and Instagram and other social media outlets.
We know this is merely human. It’s not godly. Nobody is going to think of glorifying God when they see us do it, right? I’m not the least inclined to glorify God when some Christian toots his own horn about all the good things he’s doing.
I’m just kind of rolling my eyes, thinking, “There goes a few more millennial people who look at all of us Christians and say, ‘Well, I’m done with that because that’s just purely human.’”
Let me sum up Matthew 5 and 6 like this.
1. We should be deeply content with the reward of God — knowing him, loving him, treasuring him as supremely satisfying and glorious.
2. We should not crave the praise of man because God himself is not enough for us, which is what craving signifies. You can taste it when somebody’s angling and craving for other people to approve what they’re doing.
“We should be deeply content with the reward of God — knowing him, loving him, treasuring him as supremely satisfying.”
3. We should avoid ways of showing our piety or showing good deeds that aim at getting praise from other people. Now, that’s tricky. I don’t presume to say that’s black and white always, but that’s our aim.
4. We should genuinely love people, which means both doing good things to help them practically, materially, temporally — and passionately desiring that through those good things they would come to worship God and give glory to him.
Now, that doesn’t answer all the questions of what we’re supposed to do with our Twitter account or our Instagram or our camera or our video or our blog. It doesn’t answer every question. But it does set up significant checks. This is what I pray: “Fill us with spiritual desires, not vain, egoistic desires.”
Let me say one other thing. I’ve just got to tack this on here from Matthew 5 for Stephen and others to consider. Read the flow. Go back and read the flow of thought from Matthew 5:11–16. Not just Matthew 5:14–16, but Matthew 5:11–16.
Notice that the salt of the earth and the light of the world are very likely not just good deeds in the abstract that people can see, but rather they are good deeds done in the face of the disapproval, criticism, and persecution mentioned in Matthew 5:11–12.
The saltiness of the salt and the brightness of the light is not good deeds in the abstract — lots of unbelievers do good deeds — but the deeds done joyfully for Christ’s sake in the face of opposition and persecution. That is what tastes salty and appears bright and causes people to glorify God — not just our good deeds.