"Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1)
Jesus is in the middle of His most famous sermon. He has just finished spinning His listeners’ heads by telling them that if they have gotten sinfully angry at a brother, they have committed murder and if they have lusted in their hearts for a woman besides their wives, they have committed adultery. Now He’s telling them to be careful about “practicing [their] righteousness before men.” It’s important to note that Jesus’ caveat is not for all public practices of righteousness, but those done specifically “to be noticed by men.” He uses some pretty vivid images in the warnings that follow, like sounding a trumpet before you when you give the poor. I can see a comic strip of this very act—a haughty member of the religious elite generously giving his money to a beggar (whom the religious wonder boy barely looks at) while heralds who came straight out of a medieval king’s castle—tights, pantaloons, funny hats, and all—blow their long skinny trumpets to announce that a donation has been made. The venerable philanthropist humbly receives congratulations from the spectators who have gathered and then goes on his way. Comical, right? Thank goodness I don’t do anything like that.
Jesus presents two more pictures of this type of self-righteous hypocrisy: praying with loud, verbose, over-the-top, spiritual prayers just to impress an audience; and letting everyone know about your fast by totally neglecting your appearance and looking as haggard as possible. Once again, I’m safe. Jesus is talking to other people, not me. Phew!
It’s easy to read Jesus’ warnings and dismiss it as I did because we see it as a hyperbolic caricature. I’m sure many people in His original audience did what I did—think about that other guy Jesus is talking about. Passing the buck is a universal temptation, but I can’t do it anymore. Jesus is talking to me with these warnings. Is He talking to you too?
Confession: I am a lifelong, chronic fearer of people. No, I’m not a paranoid conspiracy theorist, assuming that everyone is out to get me. I don’t fear people like that. My fear manifests itself in a much subtler, more socially acceptable way: I really want people to think I’m awesome. If you don’t struggle with this, you’re going to think I’m nuts. But if you’re one of the other 7 billion people on earth who do struggle in this way, I think you’ll be able to relate.
We tend to think of it as a high school or even middle school problem. I taught junior high and high school for a dozen years, so I’ve seen it countless times: a student trying to figure what to say, do, or wear to fit in with the right people. Asking, Which attitude should I adopt? The rebel or the angel? Should I study hard and do well so that people think I’m smart? Or should I slack off so that people don’t think I’m a nerd? Yes, it happens in schools all over. But I’m here to tell you it’s happening in churches too.
Look with me at a few elements of most of our Sunday mornings and see if you find yourself in any of these people-fearing scenarios.
This is a tricky one. I recently looked at a church’s website that included in its visitor section, the answer to the question “What should I wear?” To be clear, I don’t think this church did anything wrong in including this, and their answer was not a dress code. It was there to put prospective visitors’ minds at ease because what’s worse than walking in to a church and feeling like you dressed wrong? “Everyone else was wearing suits and dresses and I was wearing jeans!” Or, “Everyone else was in shorts and t-shirts and I was in a dress!” Even at church, it’s normal to want to wear “what the people are wearing.” We dress to fit in, or maybe we dress to impress. Maybe I want others to think that I’m a certain type of Christian (not too conservative, not too Reformed, not too fundamentalist, liberal, worldly, etc.). While there’s nothing wrong in wanting to look nice for church or dressing like others in the congregation, I know that in my own heart these things can be easily twisted into caring more about the opinion of people than the God I’m supposedly there to worship. There are probably a host of other temptations in the appearance category, but let’s move ahead.
When I first began attending the church that I currently attend, the half-hour fellowship time on Sunday morning was pretty much the most dreaded thirty minutes of my week. It was roughly akin to my junior-high (or, let’s be honest, college) self, holding my lunch tray and anxiously scanning the cafeteria for a friendly face who would let me sit next to them. As a newcomer at church I would gravitate to the three people I actually knew and hope that they weren’t gone or already engaged in conversation with someone else. Otherwise, I’d try to make an escape to sit down in the sanctuary and wait awkwardly for the service to start. Now that I know more people, you’d think I’d be looking for new people with the same panic-stricken look on their face that I used to have. But no, I still try to find a friendly face of someone who will let me talk to them. Instead of using that thirty minutes as a ministry to get to know people I don’t know well or introduce myself to newcomers, I usually look for a friend and stay where I’m comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, friendships at church are a wonderful gift of grace from our loving Father. He loves to see His children interacting with each other and investing each other’s lives. However, it also probably breaks His heart to see us excluding some because we’re too nervous to go talk to a stranger. How about you? Do you venture out of your comfort zone to talk to visitors, newcomers, or just someone you don’t know well? Why not? Perhaps the answer is that you—like me—fear people a little too much.
The Worship Service
The temptations don’t stop once you get into the sanctuary. We’re fools if we think that our enemy doesn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve for the hour specially set aside to worship the one true God. I don’t know what it is for you. Maybe it’s a fear of singing too loud because you don’t want to seem too emotional. Or you’re nervous about your less-than-stageworthy voice being heard by the person in front of you. Or you’re nervous about someone finding out how much you put in the offering plate because even the widow with two mites had more to give. Or maybe you’re hoping that whoever counts the offering is impressed by your generosity. Maybe during the sermon the pastor says something applicable to you, and you hope no one else is thinking of you too. Or maybe you hope they do think of you. Maybe it’s your week to serve in some capacity and you’re both worried and thrilled about the number of eyeballs that will be on you. You hate the congratulations after your special music number, but if no one says anything you’re hurt. Or maybe you dread the moment you might be called upon to pray because you’re afraid you won’t say the right things and people will think less of you. Or maybe when you pray in front of others you secretly hope that those listening are impressed with your eloquence. The list is endless. However, rather than go any farther in this painful exercise, let’s return to Jesus’ words:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1)
He doesn’t say not to practice righteousness in front of other people, but to be careful. The answer is not to never give, never pray, never fast, or never attend church. The answer is to recognize the temptation that resides in each of our hearts.
Friends, we all struggle here, though perhaps some more than others (and me more than most). While I don’t have space to fully expound upon the solution, I can’t finish without touching on it. We must lift our eyes to Someone bigger, Someone worthy of our fear, awe, reverence, and worship. When I’m concerned with the applause, approval, or adulation of people, I have dropped my eyes. I have exchanged the glory of the Most High for a Happy Meal toy. No, God doesn’t want us to ignore people and pretend that they aren’t there. He calls us to love them as we worship Him. Biblical counselor and author Ed Welch puts it this way:
“God’s Word consistently urges us toward love for God and love for other people. As we follow this path, we find that we are no longer dominated by an idolatrous fear of others.”
Fear God. Love others. Cling to Christ.
 Edward T. Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small, pg. 205.