“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. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, 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. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4 ESV)
In the book of 1 John, we are reminded several times about “practicing righteousness” and in each of these cases this type of practice is a good thing, something we should be doing. For example,
If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (1 John 2:29 ESV)
What is practicing righteousness? I would describe this as the living out of our Christian faith. Colossians 2:6 reminds us,
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,
And Luke 9:23 tells us,
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
When we do these things — when we walk and live and serve as Jesus did — we are practicing righteousness. When we deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily and follow Christ — we are practicing righteousness. We don’t do these things perfectly, after all it’s practice, but our aim is to honor the Lord Jesus.
But in Matthew 6, Jesus give us a warning about how we practice this righteousness. He says,
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…”
In many cases, we are living our lives out in front of others and, therefore, we are seen by others as we “practice righteousness.” And if we aren’t very careful, our practice of righteousness can flip from honoring God to playing to the crowd. In this case, Jesus tells us point blank that there is no reward from God for doing this.
In particular, we are prone to do this as we “give to the needy.” We like for others to see us doing something good and there are few things better than giving to someone in need. To help us steer clear of this problem area, Jesus gives a great instruction:
“…do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…”
Now, obviously, this is an exaggerated example, but it makes a great point. There’s no real way to keep one hand from knowing what the other is doing — duh, there’s a brain in between! — but this should be our mindset. Instead of training ourselves to seek attention when we do something good to help someone else, our mindset should be that we don’t even want the rest of our body to know what is happening!
There’s a great promise that comes along with this too. If we practice righteousness for the reward of the crowd, Jesus tells us there is no reward in heaven. But if we practice righteousness in a way that is Christ-like and Christ honoring, then we can expect something in return:
“And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
To be candid, this is something I struggle with as well. Everyone wants to be seen as a “good guy” and someone that is doing the right thing. Even if we aren’t pulled up on stage and given a plaque we want to be seen in a positive way. But our motives are really suspect and they need to be held in check.