(If you’re not much of a reader but are interested in this topic, this series has been condensed into a 43min sermon that I was privileged to share with my church family in Manchester earlier this year. Click here.)
“Beware of practising 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.” – Matthew 6:1
Thanks for coming back if you’re following along with this series! Be sure to check out the Intro if you haven’t already 🙂
Matt 6:1 is really a verse that hits home with me. I spent a lot of my younger years as a Christian (I’m 26 and became a Christian aged 12) trying to impress people with my spirituality. I realised that it wasn’t normal to be a teenager who went to school and played sports like everyone else but loved Jesus and so this got me a fair amount of positive attention in Church circles. You probably know how much you want to encourage young kids that you see growing in their relationship with God. Sadly, for me this led to a bit of a superiority complex and I spent a lot of time feeding off that encouragement in an unhealthy way.
In my mind I became a Super-Christian! People assumed I had a vibrant prayer life and an unshakeable faith. They thought I read the Bible everyday and heard God speak to me all the time. Truth is, I thought about praying a lot, I felt guilty about not reading the Bible more and I probably would’ve heard God more if I’d played less video games! Although I’m still on a quest, having lived for people’s approval for a while, I feel like I have a few things to say.
Firstly, it’s REALLY easy to project a great image of your walk with God to others while you and the Father are like strangers. One of the problems with being praised by people can be that we believe things about ourselves that are actually not true. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the much needed encouragement from brothers and sisters that draws you into greatness. I’m talking about believing your own hype.
Fake it till you make it doesn’t cut it in the kingdom.
Social media and the internet often expose just how regularly we look for approval as they provide a huge platform for us to do it BIG! We can let everyone know which Christian conference we’ve been to and just how #POWERFUL it was when we can’t remember the last time we told someone about Jesus. We can post pictures of the mission trip we just went on but keep quiet about the movie we shouldn’t have watched last night. We can tell people about what the Holy Spirit said to us in the shower this morning and leave out the fact that we haven’t spoken to Him all week. We can post a blog about…erhem…erm…never mind. We might be inundated with likes and comments about how admirable we are, about the obvious call of God on our lives or how our Facebook post came at “just the right time” and this can cause us to believe we have a life with God that we really don’t.
Maybe you’re not big into posting statuses. Maybe you post fewer statuses so that everyone will believe you “have a life” and are really busy or important. Maybe you’re the teacher’s pet. Maybe you take hours to assemble the perfect outfit before leaving the house. Maybe you have to hit the gym on the regular so you can fill out your t-shirts. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all probably relate in some way to this need for approval. I don’t think it’s intrinsically evil to desire acceptance but I do think it can become dangerous if unchecked. Ask the Holy Spirit where you go for approval.
It’s great to encourage each other and to share the things God is doing in our lives and we really should but the readily available public approval can easily (in my experience) turn into an unhealthy need or addiction. We can begin performing seemingly spiritual acts in order to be recognised by others (some of which Jesus talks about in the rest of Matt 6) e.g. giving to the poor, praying a great, eloquent sounding prayer, putting on our “special voice” to prophesy or making sure everyone knows just how much we’re serving behind the scenes. With all this activity surrounding us we can look very spiritual and committed. We may even be given positions of leadership as a result. However we know that
“God sees humbled hearts, not just busy hands.” (Luke 16:15)
Jesus shoots this everybody-look-at-me lifestyle straight out of the sky with one word. He says beware. It’s not a threat, it’s a warning. Jesus is saying “Guys, seriously, there’s something WAY more valuable for you to desire than the praises of people! There’s something way more thrilling and satisfying than the cheering of crowds or a pat on the back! There’s something way deeper and you were made for it! Don’t miss it!” Jesus knew what it was like to live FROM the Father’s approval instead of FOR the approval of others (Philippians 2:5-11). I do believe we are made to be loved, valued and approved but primarily by God and then by people. There are rewards that the Father wants to give us but they’re hidden in the secret place, away from the eyes of others. In the place of humility. In the place of hiddenness. In the place of prayer.
So why is this important? Obviously Jesus isn’t saying never do anything righteous in public because He’s just told us in Matt 5:16 to let our light shine so our good deeds can bring glory to God. When we live in the secret place where our goal is for everything we do to be to the praise and glory of our Father, our external deeds have a way of pointing people to God. People are far more spiritually discerning than we think. When we allow our lifestyle to become completely or even mostly external, we can either lead people to ourselves or put people off God altogether because our hollowness can be heard and our pride stinks to high heaven! It’s far easier to be used by God when I’m not trying to get all the attention.
Here’s a final question to think about:
Is God’s approval in secret enough for you or do you need the praises of people in public to feel valuable?
I’m not talking about hiding away in a prayer closet forever. I’m talking about deeply valuing the voice of God over our lives. I’m talking about living to worship Him with our actions and lifestyle. I’m talking about carrying the secret place with us in our hearts and attitudes. I’m talking about the difference between Icebergs and Cruise Ships. But that’s for Part 2!
Thanks for reading!