T. Nathan Trice
Compassion is cool these days. During the last “Giving Tuesday,” Facebook and PayPal partnered to match personal charitable donations. According to a spokesman for Facebook, “within a matter of seconds,” the match limit had been reached: Americans had contributed $7 million.
We are comparatively generous with our time as well. The US government estimates that 25 percent of Americans volunteer time for charitable causes at an average of fifty hours per year, particularly for collecting and distributing food to the poor. Giving and serving on behalf of the needy is widely valued in our society, and as Christians we should be glad for this.
But the sheer popularity of showing compassion also creates complexities for Christians seeking to minister to the poor in a Christ-honoring way. In a society like ours, the motive of self-promotion can easily enter into otherwise noble acts of service. The pride of the Pharisees, who practiced their righteousness “before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1), is a real temptation for every Christian who engages in something that both the church and the culture value and admire. Especially on social media, our ministry to the needy has never been more easily turned into a way of grooming our image or promoting our personal brand. Our service quickly becomes service only for the selfie.
How, then, are Christians to heed the admonition of our Lord: “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” (Matt. 6:3–4)? What does that mean for our efforts, individually and collectively, to minister to the poor?
The sheer prevalence of ignoble motives in ministry could give some of us a convenient justification for neglecting generosity and service. We might find ourselves so averse to the mere “do-goodism” of much of our culture that we fall into thinking that no service is better than hypocritical service. But this is an alternative that our Lord will not allow. In the very context of rebuking the Pharisees for their grandstanding forms of benevolence, he says to his disciples, “When you give to the needy,” signaling here—as everywhere—that all true disciples will indeed have a heart for helping the poor. Withholding our time and money from the needy is not an option, no matter how dubious the motives or methods of many around us.
I would offer the following simple suggestions to those who are rightly “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), but who are conscientious about avoiding the spiritual exhibitionism of the Pharisees and their modern-day
When taking opportunities to serve, avoid the awareness of others as much as possible.
When Jesus says, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” he’s certainly using a vivid illustration of secrecy. It would take some pretty careful and clever effort for one hand to “hide” something from its twin. Surely there is hyperbole here, but we need to appreciate our Lord’s point. He is calling his disciples to steer in the opposite direction of the Pharisees, who sought to gain as much attention and admiration as possible by their good deeds. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to fight the “photo-op” motive for doing good by a simple and sensible route: seeking intentionally to minimize others’ awareness of our good deeds. When we serve in ways that we never expect others to be aware of, we best preserve ourselves from spiritual pride.
This needs to be a lifestyle. Instead of ensuring that any service we’ve been involved in inevitably comes up in conversation with others, like someone with the habit of dropping names, we should cultivate a certain amount of reserve. Though we may post without hesitation about the funny things our kids do, a picture of “me at the soup kitchen serving breakfast at 5:00 a.m.” should be deliberately omitted. (In fact, maybe the camera should just stay in our pocket.)
Jesus certainly wants for his disciples to be willing to do their good deeds apart from others’ notice, but I can’t escape the conclusion that he actually wants them to prefer it as a way of guarding their hearts.
When you are called to share about your service, make it an extension of the ministry itself.
It seems clear, in light of broader biblical teaching, that our Lord’s call for giving to be done “in secret” allows for multiple exceptions. When the apostle Paul became invested in a benevolence project of collecting funds for the saints in Jerusalem, he was eager to spread word of his initiative far and wide (Rom. 15, 1 Cor. 16, 2 Cor. 8). Apparently there are times for making benevolence projects very public, even ones in which we ourselves are involved.
The Committee on Diaconal Ministries has recognized that not only is it edifying for the churches of the OPC to be made aware of mercy ministry initiatives underway, but that reports with pictures and even videos of such ministry are a potent way of stirring up increased involvement in ministry. Congregations whose short-term mission groups report back to them experience this blessing in a profound way.
How then can we make others aware of our ministry without becoming self-promoting in ways Jesus warns against? I would suggest that we should seek to make our reports of ministry a form of ministry itself. We have probably all heard ministry reports that were as much about the minister as the ministry, but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many ways of deflecting attention away from ourselves and our service, and toward the great need to be met, the great blessing of taking part in the ministry, and the wonderful ways God is bringing glory to himself through his people. With prayer and preparation, our words about ministry can themselves be a ministry—“to stir up one another to love and good work” (Heb. 10:24), rather than a way to seek recognition for our efforts.
When serving, be wholly content—even motivated—to be seen and rewarded by God, not others.
It is fascinating to me that our Lord’s warning against doing good in order to be seen by others is not founded on the notion that a deed is only good in proportion to its altruism—that is, only good if it is done with no thought of personal gain. Rather, Jesus says we ought to be motivated by our reward, our personal gain. If his disciples do good to be seen of men, they will have no reward from their Father (Matt. 6:1). Yet, Jesus tells them, if they do their good in secret, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v. 4). Such rewards are gracious and not merited, to be sure, but they are genuine expressions of the Father’s pleasure in his children’s service. And they are part of the reason these beloved children should give to the needy: God sees!
I see this as an appropriate Christian version of an “ulterior motive” in ministry. Of course, the immediate motive is love for our neighbors and a desire for their good. But in all that a Christian does, there is another motive, one that Jesus commends: being “seen by God.” This is not a crass self-love that undermines our acts of love for others. Rather, it is a love for God that complements our love for the needy. It’s the God-honoring desire to be seen as well-pleasing in the sight of the one for whom we do all that Christian obedience requires.
Christians are not supposed to want to be absolutely invisible in their sacrificial service to others. Rather, they are called to be content—indeed, motivated—by the confidence that God sees and rewards such service. In the place of pride, their motive is a faith in God’s watchful eye, a hope that he has a reward for those who do good, and a love for him in it all. We do serve to be seen—not by men, but by our Father in heaven!
In a society where giving and serving are among the most impressive things we can put on our résumé or Twitter feed, let’s be mindful of our Lord’s cautions. But let’s also be mindful of his encouragement. We can’t keep our ministry to the poor secret from God. And he loves what he sees as we follow the example of his Son, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28).
The author is pastor of Matthews OPC in Matthews, North Carolina, and president of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. New Horizons, February 2019.