Righteousness before men

This is the 19th post in the Sermon on the Mount Series.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 6:1

From what I can see of myself and the rest of humanity, I conclude that Jesus made this statement precisely because we have a tendency to try to appear more “spiritual” than we really are.

How honest are you really when someone at church asks you how you are doing?

We can use the excuse that we cannot wear our hearts on our sleeves and tell everyone around us about all of our concerns. Yet there has got to be something better than feeling pressured to respond that everything is fine when it is not.

Pride is the primary motivator to give people the impression that things are good, even when they are not. The desire to be liked and respected can cause me to misrepresent how I am really doing.

Another factor is that there are some (and the church has its share of them) who will indeed look down on the one who is honest about his struggles and failures. My guess is that we all know at least one person who’s speck meter is working much better than their log meter (see Matthew 7:3-5).

When we encounter a lack of grace and acceptance, it really hurts. The first time someone gets slammed for their honesty is perhaps the last time honesty is practiced. If grace is not a part of the group culture, then superficiality will rule the day.

The antidote for this can be found in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

When Samuel was before Jesse’s sons to pick a king for Israel, he was impressed with Eliab, but God had other plans. God told Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance,  but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 26:7). I may fool some of the people some of the time, but I will never fool God.

For the Christian there should be no incentive to try to appear more holy than we are. Our salvation is entirely by faith and we contribute nothing to it. Why then the pretense? If I cannot earn my salvation and there is nothing I can do to lose it, then why would I want to make people think that I am better than I am?

It keeps coming back to pride. Pride is what drives me to put on a pretense of being all squared away. Pride is the reason that I cannot be honest about my failures. Pride is the reason I maintain a willful blindness to my own faults and weaknesses.

MirrorAs indicated above, the antidote is humility, but where does this come from? For me, the best way to foster humility is the reading of Scripture. Scripture is the most accurate mirror for my soul. Through the reading of Scripture I can see how far short of spiritual perfection I fall. Through the reading of Scripture I see the standard by which I should judge myself.

But is also through the reading of Scripture that I learn of grace. God has grace for me, the one who so desperately needs it. I can then channel that grace into the lives of others.

Rather than putting on a pretense of a holiness I do not possess, I can operate in a grace that is given to me for distribution to others. When grace is operational, the motivation to pretense should be at its lowest.

I’ll close with the chorus of a familiar hymn:

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that is greater than all our sin!