Should I do good deeds in public or in private?

In response to a question about my message last week, called “The Surface and the Substance” (listen to the podcast here), I shared some thoughts yesterday about the importance of following Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:16, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

We discovered that at the core of this teaching, Jesus is saying that the call of the disciple is to live in such a way that we draw attention to the goodness and glory of God, not to ourselves.
(Read the full post here.)

The tricky part, though, is how to balance this with what Jesus also said, instructions found in Matthew 6 that seem on the surface to contradict the previous passage. 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… 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.”

At first glance it appears that Jesus is saying, “YES, do good things in front of other people”, and at the same time is saying, “NO, don’t do good things where people can see them.”  To resolve the tension, let’s look a little wider and consider the whole section in Matthew 6…

“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. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Matthew 6:1-6 (emphasis added)

Look at the highlighted sections.  Notice a trend?

The sections before this passage (the second half of Matthew 5) are about making oaths, “turning the other cheek” and loving enemies, and the common thread in all of them is the same one that runs through this passage as well: it’s about the heart.

The heart of a disciple doesn’t desire glory for self, but glory for God.  The heart of a disciple doesn’t want to do things in front of people “that THEY may be praised”, but that GOD may be praised.  A disciple doesn’t pray beautiful, eloquent prayers with the desire “that THEY may be seen”, but that GOD may be seen through them.

Jesus is simply saying that if our hearts are leaning toward wanting attention and glory for ourselves, better to keep our good deeds under the radar than risk stealing from God.  That’s what it is, you know. When we do things in such a way that tries to show the world how great we are rather than how great God is, it’s stealing His glory.

On the other hand, in those seasons when our hearts are truly desiring that His glory be shown, not ours, that He be praised, not us, that people speak well of Jesus, not just His people, then those are the seasons when He calls us to do things in such a way that declares with our actions the same thing we should declare with our words: God is great, and God is good, and the glory belongs to Him.

–( selah )–

Now, this is all well and good to think about in theory, but isn’t it true that sometimes knowing the state of our hearts isn’t quite so black-and-white?  My friend brought this up in our conversation, after understanding the principles but needing something more practical.  If doing good works in public or in private is a balancing act of the heart, what are some concrete ways to help us know what to do, whether it’s time to be “salt” or pursue secrecy?

Join us tomorrow as we finish out the series, and if you have any ideas, things that work for you, or just comments in general, leave them in the comments section below!

(TO BE CONTINUED…)
– Click here for Part 1
– Click here for Part 3