Monday, July 29, 2013

An Audience of One- Matthew 6:5-6

photo by flickr user KAZVorpal

It's been at least a few months since we have heard that word, right? Tim Tebow is a man who is either loved or hated and if you read and listen very long at all, you will realize that the bulk of the incredibly strong feelings toward or against him is his very public faith. His prayers on the football field have even led to a new word: "Tebowing" which of course refers to being on one knee in a prayer stance.

I found the picture above when looking for images for this post and the caption underneath it said "Pic of Tim Tebo going against this passage."

...apparently it was not posted by one of Tebow's fans.

I have absolutely no intention of saying what I think of the man in relation to this verse...because I don't know him. And to be honest...the verse isn't about him. It's not even about you. When I read it, it is only about me. 

The picture above omits verse 5 in which Jesus says, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full."

Clearly, Jesus had a right to make this statement about others because he knew every man's heart (John 2:25). But guess who doesn't know anyone else's heart. Me...or you. Or anyone else walking around on the the earth these days.

The problem, though, is that if I am not allowed to look at anyone else's prayer life to understand what this verse means, then I have to look at my own...and sometimes that is painful. Maybe that is Jesus' entire purpose in the statement. There are times for public prayer. The early church spent much time in prayer together. We are definitely called to let our lights shine. I can't comprehend what that means unless, to a certain extent, my faith is on display as a witness to God's glory and His redemption and grace in my life. But when public prayer...even the prayers around the dinner table with just my family...are the bulk of my prayer's a pretty good clue that something is amiss in my relationship with God.

Unfortunately, we always tend to think that we "should" pray more. And "shoulds" typically just lead to guilt when they are left undone. And guilt can only motivate for a very limited amount of time. But what if we viewed Jesus' comments here as an invitation into a private one-on-one conversation with the Lord of the Universe!? Would anyone ever have to convince me that I needed to make time to go to the White house because my favorite president really wanted to sit down with me!? Would I ever have to be guilted into rearranging my schedule in order to have back stage tickets to visit with my favorite artist or actor or a locker room pass to speak with my favorite athlete because that person heard about me and really wanted to spend some time with me!?

Let's all say it together... NO!!! We would be ecstatic at the opportunity and couldn't wait to get there!

May we each forget about how everyone else is praying and remember that the LORD of Lords and the King of Kings desires an audience with me. And He is willing to meet me wherever I want to meet Him. In fact, He seems to even prefer such ignoble places as the smallest room in my house when no one else is listening or watching, because prayer is about me and Him. Not me and you or me and anyone else. Because when I forget that and yet I continue to pray before meals, or before ballgames, or before the congregation, then I have become one of the hypocrites that Jesus is referring to and whatever praise someone may or may not give me for a beautifully worded about all the results I will see from it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Secret Service- Matthew 6:2-4

Photo by flickr user gammaman
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Matthew 6:2-4
 Jesus has already addressed the overall principle of not doing good things for man's praise but for God's rewards and now he addresses three different areas that this specifically applies to, the first of which is giving to the needy. Before even addressing the principle of giving in secret, it is well worth pointing out that Jesus very clearly says, "when you give to the needy;" He never says, "if." It is a very safe assumption that if one is living a life that is pleasing to God there is going to be a heart and a willingness to help those who need help. That help can, and often does, come in many different forms and fashions, but you will not have to pray for opportunities to help someone very long before you have an opportunity to give in a financial way.

Coffman makes a great point about giving in his commentary on Matthew. "One's obligation to be mindful of human need and suffering is not totally discharged by the support, however generous, of any church budget." There is undoubtedly much good done through the local church office. However, I often wonder how much clearer the church's light would shine in this area if it were shining through individuals helping with needs as they see them in the community instead of the main source of benevolence being funneled through the "professional office." Either way, though, we are definitely called to a life of giving. Jesus takes for granted that the service of giving will be a vital part of any of his disciple's lives.

Now we can come back to the principle of being careful not to give with the purpose of human recognition and honor. I have heard of people in the past who have taken this teaching so literally that they hide their hands under a cloth while putting money in the collection plate in order to literally not allow the left hand to know what the right hand is doing. I hope we can agree that this is probably not what Jesus meant here. In fact, I think we would agree that it is not even necessary to be absolutely secretive about what we are doing. It is the heart and intent of the giver that Jesus is addressing and the inner motivations can be tainted even while following a very strict protocol of secrecy. After all, if people see me purposefully trying to hide my giving in obedience to this command, then they will think I am really a devout and good Christian! (Do you see how warped my mind is!?) However, if you are like me and do struggle with the recognition factor, then perhaps sometimes it is necessary and helpful to hide the giving that is done, if for no other reason than to train our hearts and minds to seek God's attention instead of others until we can give and do freely while only be conscious of His eyes.

Not long ago, my wife and I received an anonymous letter with a rather large sum of money included. I can't tell you the joy we felt that day. I would give anything to be able to thank whoever sent the letter to us, but the fact that they went to great lengths to conceal their identity actually made the gift that much sweeter because there was absolutely no way they had any motivation other than love. Coffman lists 5 reasons why giving in secret has much to commend it and that gift sealed these reasons in my heart and mind:
  1. It assures purity of motive in the heart of the giver by removing the temptation to hypocrisy.
  2. It protects and honors the privacy of the recipient, a privacy that is indispensable to his recovery and rehabilitation.
  3. It protects the benefactor from a proliferation of calls upon his generosity.
  4. It provides a noble basis for the development of true love and friendship between the helper and the person helped. 
  5. It honors this specific commandment of Christ.  
I'd like to challenge each of us to attempt some "secret giving" over the next week or so. When you have had fun with it...get back on the blog and post a comment to tell us about what happened...Just be sure to post the comment anonymously of course:) That way, we can all be encouraged by your giving, and you can have the joy of knowing that the only person who knows that it was you who did whatever you will do is our Father in heaven. And then we can all praise Him together and be encouraged to look for more and more ways to give and love.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Playing to the Crowd- Matthew 6:1

I have always had a hard time walking in front of crowds. I have been told from time to time that I walk funny. I'm not sure if that is what started my "awkwardness" while walking in front of people, but, to this day, I can't walk through a gym without feeling like people are watching me, and then I immediately feel like I am walking funny and the harder I try to walk "normal," the more I feel like my gait is getting messed up!
Pretty silly, right?

At first glance, it is, but that self-consciousness is actually a pretty dangerous thing for me because I constantly have this sense that I'm on a stage. I used to do a lot of theater. Being aware that people are watching when you are putting on a show is a good thing. It helps you remember to perform well so people will enjoy the show and applaud. But my mind has trouble flipping that switch off so I can simply just live honestly when I am not on stage. Constantly having the sense that people are watching you when you are not on a stage is a bad thing. It causes you to remember to perform well so people will enjoy the show and applaud.

In chapter 6, Jesus turns from what it means to live righteously to what it means to practice religion. Isn't it funny, that when we talk about what it means to be a Christian, we usually start with the "religious" stuff like church attendance, prayer, Bible reading, etc. and then, we talk about the difference it makes in our day to day lives. It's worth a pause before we move on to notice that Jesus starts with how we treat and love people and only then moves on to talk about how we do "religion."

I'm just thankful that Jesus doesn't condemn me for having trouble turning my "stage mentality" off. He simply says to switch the audience that I am playing to. If my audience is people, then whatever praise they give me is about all I will get. But if I can center my thoughts on "performing" for an audience of One- the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords- then I will have reward in heaven, not just the reward of the praise of men.

For the Jew, the primary tenets of religion boiled down to three things: alms-giving, prayer, and fasting. Jesus addresses each of those individually based on this principle of performing for God and not man, and we will look at those in more detail in the coming weeks. For now, I want to give us a few questions to help us think about what our current motives are.
  • When you are planning for "going to church," do you decide on your attendance based on people expecting you to be there or based on a desire to gather with the saints to build them up, to be built up, and to gather before God's throne in worship?
  • Do you feel shame when you forget to bring a contribution to put into the plate on Sunday morning, but have no trouble driving or walking past individuals who are holding a cardboard sign? (I'm not making a blanket statement about what should or shouldn't be given or done, I'm just trying to get the conversation in your mind going.)
  • Is personal prayer and study done (or left undone) more out of a sense of duty and/or guilt based on what a Christian ought to do, or out of a desire to spend time with God and hear from Him through His word?
  • Does all of your serving of others only happen when there is a group with a plan, or are you constantly looking for ways to serve individually and spontaneously each day?
  • When you are worshiping with the church, are you more conscious of being heard and seen by the people around you (am I off/on key? am I singing too loud? am I assuming the correct posture? do I blend in well enough to avoid attention?), or are you picturing falling down at the feet of God and praising/petitioning Him with no thought of how others might judge you?
This is not a scientific test. It's really based on some of my own struggles and meant to just get us thinking. Perhaps if we don't like the answers we come to on some of these, it would be good to spend time asking God to help us change our thought patterns so we can realize that He is the only audience that matters in any situation of life.

Here's what I want to ask you to do for the next several weeks. Sometimes, I think we just have a lack of imagination and a lack of role models in genuine living. I'd like to ask you- not the other who read this to start commenting anonymously for the next couple of weeks about ways you are practicing religion and ways God has used you to serve. Since you will post it anonymously, the praise will go to God and not to you...which is the whole idea in the first place of our light shining before men..."so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Let's give each other reason to praise!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Be perfect!? Really!? - Matthew 5:48



"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."


- Matthew 5:48

Be perfect? How is that possible? We know that we still sin even as Christians. In fact, if we claim that is not the case, John says we are liars (I John 1:8-10). What's more, we typically don't even like those people who seem to think or act like they are perfect! And yet, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus tells all of his follower to be perfect just like their heavenly Father is perfect.

What are we supposed to do with this? One option is to ignore it and chalk it up to hyperbole assuming Jesus didn't really mean perfection...perhaps he just meant something more like maturity or completion. If that were the case it sure would relieve a lot of pressure on us. But that doesn't seem to make sense in light of the comparison to God's perfection which is perfect.

Another option is to read it as it stands and do our dead level best to actually be perfect. But you already know the guilt and pharasaism that comes along with seeking righteous perfection. I think most commentators understand it to be something more of a hybrid. Take Coffman's commentary for instance:
No one can say that Christ did not set a high standard for man to follow! To be perfect as God is perfect, what a challenge this is! At the outset, every candid student of the holy Scriptures should admit and understand that there is not the slightest possibility of his ever graduating from this school, "Magna Cum Laude"! nobody, but nobody is ever going to be perfect; and yet, it is the genius of the Christian religion that perfection is required of its adherents. A contradiction? no, only a paradox. The goal or ideal is necessary that man may continually know that he is unworthy of salvation, that he can never in a million years merit it, and that any real perfection he might eventually attain must be the free gift of Christ. (emp. mine)
 I have to say that I almost  agree. This would have been my thinking for many years up till now, but I am in the process of slowly seeing things a little differently. If Coffman is correct, then we are either going to be constantly burdened by guilt, or we are going to feel free to continue in the "minor" sins, because after all, no one can actually be perfect! I think both of those are off base and lead to a life that is still in some ways a slave to sin.

What if Jesus' call to perfection which sums up this section of the sermon on the mount-- in which he has talked about anger being equal to murder, lust being on par with adultery, absolute honesty, and loving your enemy to the point of personal sacrifice--is the exact same thought that he began it with? "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven," he said. And if you recall, we talked about the only way our righteousness will ever surpass theirs is if our righteousness is found in Christ who actually did achieve perfection!

You may think I'm picking at details that don't really matter and arguing semantics, but here's why I think a different understanding of this perfection does matter in a huge way.

If we understand that our righteousness and our perfection is found in Christ alone, then we will not be in danger of the sin of pride and self-righteousness. But we will also steer clear of the danger of thinking, "I can't ever achieve the ideal so why should I try"...or "I can't ever achieve the ideal and therefore I constantly feel guilty." We will understand that, as Coffman says, we are unworthy and we will "never in a million years merit" salvation. However, we will most certainly not "eventually" attain perfection as a free gift, because we will recognize that we have already attained it as a free gift! And since we are already perfect, then we are free to stop trying to be perfect and we can simply begin living as if we are perfect.

It's the difference in saying, "I need to try hard live perfectly in order to be worthy of God" and "God has made me perfect and worthy, so how will I live if I believe that I am those things."

I don't pretend to know Greek and can't say much from expertise on this, but my New American Standard Bible has a note in the margins that says the literal translation of verse 48 is "Therefore, you shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (emp. mine)

Maybe it's time we stopped trying to be perfect and simply started living as if we believe that what God says is true and that we are already perfect.

"And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified (made righteous) in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."  - 1 Corinthians 6:11

"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."  - 2 Corinthians 5:21