Not long ago I went to a college football game at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. During half-time, 4 groups of people were brought out to highlight some accolade or accomplishment and, I think, to receive some kind of award (if the award wasn’t simply the recognition itself). One was a marching band member who gave bone marrow to someone, another was the home football team (Go Gophers!) because they served in a local soup kitchen, another was several financial donors who had given large sums to the university, and there was even a sports journalist who had been covering Twin Cities sports for a really long time, so he was brought up to celebrate a significant work anniversary.
I’m always struck by how these types of things are received in large, public venues. Of course, we clap and appreciate what these people have done. As we should. Especially the bone marrow donor! But there’s often a sense to which they poke back at us too. If we haven’t done what others are being recognized for, we might start to feel the tiniest bit of shame or guilt creep up within our hearts. Comparison games run amuck. And if we have done them, then we might wonder why we’re not out on centerfield ourselves, getting the same recognition.
Of course, there are more personalized, self-initiated, and therefore more devious forms of this, what we sometimes call virtue signaling, or simply wearing our acts of charity on our sleeves. Social media has exacerbated the problem to the moon and back. But whatever the source, it’s quite the predicament. If we’re honest, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, chances are we prefer our accomplishments to lean more public than private. And yet it doesn’t do a lot of good for us. The more we brandish our acts of righteousness, the worse versions of ourselves we tend to become.
This is why Jesus’s spin on all of this in Matthew 6 is so refreshing. And shocking. In it, he instructs his disciples and the listening crowds to not be like the hypocrites who give in order to be seen by others. He calls them “those who live out of the synagogue,” or the law-center of religious and social life. Instead — and this is the kicker — we shouldn’t let our left hands know what our right hands are doing so that our giving is done in secret (Matt 6:1-3).
At first glance, the teaching appears simple enough: check your arrogance at the door and let your acts of charity be done privately. And that is certainly the point. At least part of it. But, I’m just as interested in what Jesus says before the privacy clause, about our hands. Because, if you think about it, there’s more going on here than privacy toward others. There’s also a privacy toward self that Jesus desires. “I want your hands themselves to be oblivious to what’s going on,” he says. This type of ethical living is on another level, better yet, another planet. It supersedes the moral because the moral application to Matthew 6 would be to simply try harder at being private with our acts of generosity. But, that doesn’t cover the private-to-self dimension of what Jesus is actually going after. Again, he wants a type of self-forgetfulness that can only come when we’re not focusing on the good work itself. Because the instant we do, our left hand starts bragging to our right hand, and we start feeling a little better about ourselves on the basis of morality alone.
There’s a lot of grace in this for us. These big ethical markers (or seemingly so) of Jesus’s kingdom aren’t simply standalone ethics, they’re impossibilities — who can actually be that forgetful and blind-to-self apart from cutting off one of our hands entirely? See, these things lead us to focus on something other than our works, that is Christ crucified, the one whose left and right hands were stretched far apart and pinned to a bloody cross, and who gave to us the riches of his grace by dying in our place.
Tim Keller calls this a “grace over goodness” way of living. When our attention is on how much we’ve been loved, we realize we don’t always have to know what we’re doing as Christians. We don’t even need to know what ‘good’ is (though we might). We certainly don’t need the recognition, because, again…what for? Instead, forgetting ourselves and remembering him, like a branch to a vine we trust Jesus will be the one to bear fruit in due time. And because it’s God we’re talking about, he will surely do it. Even better: if we’re in Christ, he already has.