Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Non-Judgmental Life - Matthew 71-5

Call it “The Case of the Loudmouthed Bailiff.”

Imagine a courtroom. Here’s the defendant, the jury, the lawyers, the stenographer, the judge, and the bailiff. (A bailiff is the officer of the court).  Before the trial is over, the bailiff blurts out.  “What’s the point? This guy’s guilty!” 

What would happen? There would be pandemonium! It would probably lead to a mistrial and the bailiff losing his job. The determination of guilt is up to the judge and jury--not him. It wasn’t his place to have an opinion.

What the bailiff did would be bad, but what we do is worse. The bailiff usurped the position of an earthly judge and made his own judgment, but we usurp the authority of God when we judge other people.

What does it mean to be judgmental?

On an action level, it means to choose one above another. We choose to listen to one, but not to another.
On a word level, it means to rebuke or correct—not just sharply rebuke, but at all. 

On a thought level it means to form opinions about another, thoughts, words or behavior.

To judge another without permission is to overstep the boundaries between people. It puts us in a superior position to them, and causes us to meddle in their business. We need to look to the problems of ourselves, and not the problems of others.

There are people who have a right to judge—judges, policemen, counselors, parents, teachers, confessors, bosses, and others. They have been appointed to lead us. We also have friends, mentors and confidantes who we want to judge us. 

When we ask someone to hold us accountable, we are giving them permission to judge. But to judge without authority or permission is to step out of bounds.  Just knowing the truth doesn’t mean we have the right to beat others over the head with it. 

Judging others requires self-discipline. A judge must not make up his mind until all the evidence is in. He can’t judge by evidence not shown in trial. He can’t judge a defendant because he looks mean or because he’s done something wrong in the past. The judge can only judge while on the job. Once he steps down, he isn’t supposed to judge, nor let his judgment affect his life. If we lack the self-discipline to refrain from judging, we shouldn’t judge at all.  What a judge does professionally, we shouldn’t do as amateurs.

Judgmentalism usurps the right to judge others. It desires control over others’ thoughts, behavior and attitudes. Whether we usurp that right in order to gloat over them or to help them makes no difference—it’s still crossing the line. 

We used to have an expression at the Christian college I attended “Judge not, but discern to your heart’s content.”  Christians know it’s wrong to judge, so we don’t call it judgment. We call it “discernment”, “righteous indignation.”

People will often cite Bible verses to support their right to judge. The prophets are often mentioned, for example. But prophets were appointed by God only to deliver His word. As such, they were held to a higher standard than those who they judged. If they were wrong in any of their judgments, then they were put to death--or at the very least run out of the fellowship. Unless you declare yourself a prophet, don’t judge, and if you do, prepare to be judged by your own standards.

In the New Testament, we read about discipline within the church. But church discipline was not a haphazard practice of people rebuking each other. It refers to church discipline, not the haphazard practice of everyone judging everyone else. A spiritual person doesn’t judge another unless they have no choice, and then only with much prayer and humility. Ask yourself honestly, do you find personal satisfaction in judging others? If there is even the slightest feeling of self-satisfaction or superiority, you should not do it. To do so crosses the line. What passes for rebuke these days is mostly just meddling.

Something within us wants powerfully to judge others. If we don’t judge others, then we even judge ourselves. Paul writes in I Cor. 4:3, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.”  We judge ourselves and others because we think we have to deal with the problem. But other people’s problems are between them and God. We don’t have to solve them—just pray for them. We don’t have to solve our own problems, either—God is the one who will work out our personality problems. 

Twice in two chapters, Jesus talks about the eye. In 6: 22-23 he said, “The eye was the lamp of the body, and that if it is not singly fixed (focused), the whole body is darkness.”  If our eye has a two-by-four in it we can still delude ourselves into thinking that we discern the problems of others. This isn’t discernment, its self-deception. Our eye is not on God, but on everyone else.

 Christians are not more judgmental than others. It is a universal trait among all people. It is much more common among unbelievers than believers, because Christians at least have had Jesus warn them not to judge. Who tells an atheist that it’s wrong to judge? Atheists and unbelievers judge freely, since they must answer to no one. But we Christians are under God’s authority.

We should not judge specifically:

A person’s behavior if it has nothing to do with us. But unless their behavior reaches over into the boundaries of our life, what a person does in their own life is none of our concern. 

I am very traditional about sexual ethics, and about God’s stand on it. I believe it is basic Christian ethics that sex is only within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. This is based on my understanding of God’s word. But I am not placed here to judge others behavior. If you do not accept God’s word as true, or if you are not a committed Christian, I have nothing to say to you about your personal sexuality. We are all sinners, myself included.

Instead of judging behaviors, let’s model Godly behavior. Don’t criticize homosexual sinners while we live as heterosexual sinners. We need to live faithfully in the light we have been given. Don’t criticize drunks and practice unrestricted gluttony. We criticize the cruelty of ISIS and remain indifferent to the needs around us. Don’t judge, but model a better way of life.  

A person’s motives. This is “mind-reading”—assuming we can know the motivations of another heart. People say, “He said he was sorry, but he didn’t mean it.” Or “Did you see the look he gave me?” We cannot know what another is thinking, so we shouldn’t judge what we cannot know.

Instead of judging motive, admit to your own.  We may feel anger, but that doesn’t mean we know why. The reason for our anger may be entirely within ourselves. We do not know if anything that the other person does causes our anger. We are responsible to God for our anger. The assumption of causation is judging.

Assume wherever possible that others have the best possible motivations. If they say, “I meant no harm,” believe them. You have no right to assume internal motivations that we cannot know.

A person’s past. People change all the time. We should accept people for who they are now, not who they used to be. 
If we are hiring for a job, we look at resumes and check references. We need to look at the past experience of a potential hire. If you are looking for a husband, you need to check their past. If you are looking for a business partnership, you have better look at their past. But honestly, how often are we in such positions? A person’s past makes no difference in most cases, and the more we know a person, the less important their past becomes. Give people the blessing of allowing them to demonstrate they have changed.

Instead of judging a person’s past, accept them just as they are, as Christ did. They may have been terrible people in the past, but they don’t live in the past, and neither do we. We live in the “now”. 

Jesus spent his time with prostitutes, turncoats, and terrorists. These were his friends. Jesus had a way of seeing the best in people’s lives, and encouraging that, rather than seeing the worst they ever did and dragging it back up. To him, forgiveness was total and complete.

A person’s worth. Contempt is worse than condemnation. If I criticize your behavior, at least I am talking to you. But contempt is treating them as worthless, and cutting off communication. It is effectively saying that a person will be no good and never will be any good. Are we God that we can see into the future? Can we predict that the eventual worth of a person will be once the final scales of life are totaled?  

Instead, we should be hopeful for change in people. Jesus changed people who were driven crazy by demons like the demoniac among the tombs, consumed by greed like Zacchaeus, in bondage to lust and addictions like Mary Magdalene, raised in religiosity like Nicodemus--yet He never gave up on them. How can we assume that anyone we meet is not capable of being of worth in the end?

Alcoholics Anonymous has been called the most successful behavior modification program in history. The genius of the approach is its reliance upon grace. It doesn’t judge, it just helps. 

If you ever attend a closed meeting of AA or any of its affiliates, the first thing you will be asked to do is to stand in front of them all and say, “Hello, my name is Bill, and I am an alcoholic.” This simple admission is the hardest thing to do, and it also is the most healing thing to do. When we have done it, we are set free from judging anyone else.

I have often wished that we did the same thing in churches—in fact we do. When someone joins the church, the first question we ask is, “Are you a sinner? “And they answer, “Yes.”  We should proclaim it every week, so we will remember it.
Jesus has forgiven us of all our sins through His perfect sacrifice for us. He didn’t judge their actions, motivations, past or worth. He just gave them an example to follow, an opportunity for new life, and most of all non-judgmental love.

We should always and forever do the same for those we meet.  

Monday, June 19, 2017

Buried Treasure: Matthew 6: 19-24

I was raised in the city. But every year, we went to visit my country cousins in Hartwell, Georgia. It was a fun time—for them. They loved to put me doing farm work, and laughed when I did it wrong.  Once, I rode with them on a manure truck spreading “fertilizer” over a hayfield. They told me how to use a pitchfork --“Always use an overhand sling!”  When most of it came down on my head, they thought this was hilarious. 
One thing I learned that day was that farmers have a great respect for manure. City folks have no use for it, my cousins had a whole truckload of it.   The stuff makes wonderful fertilizer. In some countries, bat manure used to be almost as valuable as gold. Fortunes have been made and wars fought over bird manure. If you know how to use it, even manure can be a treasure.
A treasure doesn’t have to be gold or silver. It can be whatever we treasure. For a farmer, it can be manure; for a carpenter, it can be old logs; for a scholar, it’s a stack of dusty books, for a drug dealer it’s a suitcase full of poison. Whatever we find value in becomes a treasure to us. 
You can tell a lot about a person by looking at what they collect. If a man is collecting manure, he’s probably a farmer. If he is buying a lot of books, he’s probably a scholar. If he is buying crack, he must be a drug addict. The treasures we seek reveal the nature of our heart.
Treasures come in two kinds—primary and secondary treasures. Primary treasures are the things we actually desire, and are usually intangible like health, joy, well-being, love, or a sense of security. These are the things which give meaning to our lives.  
Secondary treasures are the things we want in order to get our primary treasures. Farmers really don’t want manure, but they collect it, so that they can get good crops, and feed their families. A scholar collects books to gather the knowledge in them. A junkie steals money to buy drugs, so he can ease his own pain. Money is a secondary. It’s like manure—its only value comes when we spread it around. This is true of most of what we call treasure in life. We only seek it because we want something else.   
But here’s the problem--we spend so much time collecting secondary treasures that we forget what our primary treasures are. We keep collecting money, but we don’t know why. We gain knowledge for no reason. We keep partying to ease our pain, but we have forgotten the pain we were trying to ease. The things we seek for some reason become an end in themselves. The treasures of the heart are buried under a pile of secondary.    
We have forgotten the hidden treasures of the heart. But if we would be happy, healthy and whole, we must rediscover them. These buried treasures are the basic values, hopes, and dreams that are behind all we do in life.  
The spiritual life is like a treasure hunt. We must dig down deep inside of us to find out the one thing that really gives our lives purpose and meaning.
In the movie City Slickers there is a scene where Billy Crystal asks an old cowboy, “What is the meaning of life?  He answers “One thing.”
“What’s that?” Crystal asks.
“That’s for you to find out.” He replies.
 Our buried treasure is one thing. It is never two things. Jesus says in verse 24,
 “No man can serve two masters. He will either love the one and hate the other, or love the other and hate the one.”
 In order to be whole, we must seek a single thing, and find it. A person with two treasures can never be happy, because he or she will be double minded. Something must come before everything else. 
  So how do we find out what that one thing is, that buried treasure? Here are some things Jesus says are key to finding our buried treasure.
1. Your true treasure is what you choose over and over again.
We can always find our buried. We can find it, because we buried it! Over a period of a lifetime, we have been slowly putting away what is most important into the very core of our existence.
Jesus says our treasure is what we “lay up.”  “Lay up” means to conserve, hide away, or put into savings. It’s in the “progressive imperative” case—not a one-time choice, but something we choose consistently, over and over. The really valuable things we don’t choose once, but we must choose daily.
How do we spend our money? Most people spend money for today with no thought for tomorrow. They make a one-time choice to buy something silly, and have nothing left for the future. 
But if the things we treasure are larger than a new dress or a new television, then we must save for it. We must regularly choose to lay up part of our paycheck, to buy something more valuable. Every day, over and over, we choose a new house over a fancy meal, or latest video game. Savings start with a choice, but becomes a habit.
How do we spend our time? You can sit and watch YouTube cat videos or binge-watch your favorite show, but at the end of the day you wonder where your time has gone. Or you can spend time on something more worthwhile like studying, exercising, devotions, or making friends. Wasting time is a one-time choice. Using time wisely is a regular habit.
 How do we spend our energy?  If you only have a little energy, what are you doing with it?  You can burn it fighting, fretting and grumbling, or you can invest it in exercise, which makes more energy. We choose to spend the little energy we have making more energy on a habitual basis.
Whether you do it consciously or not, you are laying away your treasure in what you consider important. The problem is that what we invest our time in is not worth having. It breaks down too fast. We are like people who lays away raw fish and then act surprised when we discover they smell. We have laid away the wrong treasure, so it is gone before we can collect it.
2. Your true treasure is either earthly or heavenly---but not both.
Do not lay up your treasure on earth---but lay it up in heaven?
 Just laying up time, money, or energy isn’t enough. All of those are the treasures of the earth. Invest in heaven, not on earth. Spiritual things last. Earthly things don’t last.
 Every day, when you get out of bed, you choose whether you are going to dedicate this day to the pursuit of God or to something else. Laying up buried treasure is what we do when we choose to put God first in our lives on a daily habitual basis.
Everything on earth—fame, fortune, wealth, health, friendship, security—will never last. Moths eat clothes. Rust destroys iron. Thieves steal our possessions. Our smart phones and computers will all wind up in a landfill somewhere. There is no assurance that any treasure on earth will last. 
Jack La Laine and Charles Atlas were body builders who were incredibly physically fit, who owned gyms all over the country. They both made fortunes selling physical fitness, based on their own magnificent bodies. They are both dead now. The bodies that they treasured ceased functioning. Einstein and Isaac Newton were great geniuses. But now, those massive rains have ceased to function. Vanderbilt was an incredibly rich man--you visit his magnificent Biltmore estate. But he’s dead, and owns nothing today. Elvis and Michael Jackson will sing no more. All their greatness died with them.
If you want a treasure that will last, lay it up in heaven. Make a choice of a daily in the pursuit of godliness. Make the pursuit of God your meaning in life. Nothing—not family, not security, not status or prestige—will ever be worth more than Godliness. It is the only thing that survives forever.

3. You find your treasure when you find where your heart is. 
For where your treasure is, that is where your heart is.” 

What does Jesus mean by “heart?” Forget the Western understanding of “heart” as the seat of the emotions. “Heart” in ancient thought is more than just what we feel. Heart” refers not only to the emotions but to the focus of our inner being. It includes the mind as well as our feelings.

In this passage Jesus talks about the focus of our eyes—being singly fixed on something. That is closer to what He means by “heart.” You know your treasure, because you are always looking right at it. You may not feel it, but it is right before you. 

Children think of feelings as something that cannot be changed. If they hate vegetables, they think they will always hate vegetables. If they like cartoons, they will always like cartoons. But as we grow in maturity we discover that our feelings are always changing. Feelings are probably the most changeable thing about us. We can’t change our height or our eye color, but we can change how we feel about things. the time. If we only go by feelings, then we will never develop any good habits.

Just keep your focus on the God, not the things of earth. Keep Him before you by choosing habitually to pay attention to Him. 

Focus on God to achieve what we want in life.  Primary treasures can be realized in more than one way. If you want happiness, then trust God for it instead of money. All you need you can achieve it by focusing on God first. 
The human eye is not as good as we think it is.  There is only one small part of our vision—the focal point—that we really see well. Our heart has a focal point as well. It is there where we find our buried pleasure. The focal point of our lives is like the “X” on a treasure map. It is where we find our buried treasure. But to keep that focus, we need to keep our minds riveted on Christ in worship, prayer, and devotion. 

Pay attention to Jesus, and keeping Him at the center of our focus. That’s what it means to lay up our treasure in God.
·         Studying Him. Read His Word and learn about Him daily.   

·         Seeking His Presence. Spend time working on your relationship with God.   

·         Obey Him first. God must be our master. Put the service of Him above all others.

What is your treasure? Real treasure is what you have buried within you. It’s time to dig it up and see how it is doing.

 Let God be the treasure that your heart craves. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Lord's Prayer - Matthew 6: 7-15

This passage, seems to contradict Himself. He begins by saying that we should not use “vain repetitions” in prayer, then He gives us the most repeated prayer in history. If Jesus is against repetition, why does He give us a prayer to repeat?

The Lord’s Prayer isn’t just for saying, it’s also a model of what prayer should be. Jesus really isn’t opposed to us repeating a prayer, but prayer for the wrong reasons. It’s not the repetition of prayer that matters, but the attitude of the heart when we pray. 

Many people treat prayer like a vending machine which doesn’t have any prices listed. We want a candy bar or pack of gum so we start pushing the button, but nothing happens. So we put in more quarters. When we run out of quarters, we borrow some off someone else. We have this idea that God will give us anything we ask if we just pray enough prayers to get it. If we still don’t get it, then we find someone else to pray for us. We think if we pray long enough, God will have to give it to us.

There’s plenty of Biblical support we could muster to defend this view. Jesus says in Luke 11: 9, “Ask and keep on asking, seek and seek on seeking.” Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” In Luke 18 there’s the parable of the unjust judge and the widow who pestered him until he gave her what she wanted. There’s the parable of the man who came asking for bread at midnight in Luke 11. There are literally dozens of texts that can be misused to support the idea of heaven as a giant vending machine that gives us exactly what we want.

God is certainly capable of giving us exactly what we want—there’s no problem with God’s hearing. The problem is that we don’t understand what prayer actually is. Prayer is not asking, from God, it’s being with God.

 Suppose you have a friend who never calls you unless he wants a favor. If you don’t do it right away he keeps pestering you until you do. Asking favors is not friendship. Friends are people who like to be around us. If we want a friendship with God, our prayers will be more than just “asking sessions.”  They are conversations that involve listening as well as speaking. 

The prayers Jesus warns us about are self-centered not God-centered. They are about what we want, not what God wants. 

In response to this, Jesus gives us an example of the kind of prayer God wants to hear. It isn’t just a prayer, but a prayer sequence to follow. We don’t have to repeat it, but we should use the sequence whether we are praying for ourselves, one person or the whole world. This sequence has five steps.  

Step 1--Know Who you are talking to. “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.”

Jesus reminds us of two important facts about God. First, He’s our Father. He takes a personal interest in us as we do with our children. We aren’t just a part of a group—He knows us personally and loves us always.

When my children sang in a choir or chorus, I could pick out their voices from all the other children. Our Father can pick out our voices from seven billion souls on earth. What’s more, He has a unique and special relationship with us. He knows our needs before we ask.

Some people worship God like He’s a celebrity in a parade. We wave to Him and call out His name, but we don’t expect Him to see us. He does see us though. He looks for us because He is our Father. He sees us among seven billion souls and waves back.

Second, He is Holy. He is the ruler of the universe. We have no idea how powerful, fantastic, and mighty He is. Before you rush into prayer, take a few minutes to contemplate that. He is more than our “Dad”—He’s the ruler of the universe! 

What if you had a chance to talk to Einstein, Shakespeare, Jefferson, John Calvin, or even Stephen Hawking? Would you do all the talking, or would you listen to them? We would let them talk, because we know they are geniuses. So, why do we monopolize the conversation with Almighty God?  We should approach the throne of God without talking, but listening, learning and yielding. Why should we tell God His business on how He should run the universe? We need to seek His will, not our own.

Step 2--pray for His Kingdom to come. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is a prayer that God will exert His will universally. At creation, the world was under God’s rule. But when the Fall occurred, and sin entered and humanity rejected Him. The world fell out of His kingdom. In Christ, God is restoring His kingdom again. The prayer, “Thy kingdom come” is a call for God to restore that rule everywhere. 

Our usual pattern of prayer is to begin with what is personal—prosperity for our family, personal health conditions, and so forth. But we should start by praying for things that seem farthest from our personal lives—the universal victory of God. It’s about His will, not ours. 

This sequence forces us to look at the world differently. The problem with the world is not that it doesn’t conform to our wishes, but that it isn’t conforming to God’s will. Prayer brings the world in line with God’s perfect will. 

Prayer is an exercise of the imagination, not just a sequence of words. Imagine something you pray for—your church, for example. Now imagine how it would look if God ruled it perfectly, where every member acted like Jesus Himself. Put those two visions together—the church as it is now, and the church that could be if it were fully surrendered.  Now, pray for it! Don’t worry about how to get it there. When you pray for something, you don’t need to know the details of how it will happen. You just believe that God can do it. That’s what kingdom praying is—asking God to bring what now is into conformity to His kingdom. 

Step 3--Trust God to give what is needed to bring it into His kingdom. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

 Notice the world “daily”. Why don’t we pray for our weekly, monthly, or yearly bread? Because what we need to recognize is that God will provide for us this day what we will need. 

 We are anxious people. We worry about the future, so we want to see everything we need tomorrow today. But God says focus on today and let Him handle tomorrow. Earthly security is an illusion.  The only security we need is a secure relationship with God. 

God is managing our future. Even now, He is working His will on future events to provide for us what we need. We don’t have to worry about it. We only have to trust Him.

Step 4—Pray to be released from the past. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”
In the verses following the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us, “If you do not forgive others their debt, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your debt.” He isn’t laying some harder moral obligations upon us. He’s simply stating the obvious—before anyone can be transformed they must let go of the past.

 Debts bind us to our previous life, whether we owe them or ae owed to us. Debts are moral obligations that bind both the lender and the debtor.  The debtor is bound to make payments to the lender until the debt is paid. But the lender is also bound to collect that money until he gets it back. They are mutually bound together until the terms of the contract are completed. The only way out is for the lender to forgive the debtor. The lender has a way out that the debtor does not have--he can always forgive the debt. If he does, he will be free of the debtor forever. 

If you don’t forgive others, you are still bound to them. But to enter the ideal world that Christ wants for us, you need to become unstuck to this one. We must let be free of the debts we owe or are owed, so we can be reshaped and remade.
Fortunately, for us Christ has already set us free from our debts. We don’t have to repay God for our sins, but simply accept the repayment made on the Cross. 

Step 5—Pray that our spiritual bondage will be broken. “Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One.”

The Greek does not indicate evil in general here, but “the Evil One” or Satan. In order for the Kingdom to come we must be delivered from the addictions and obsessions by which Satan has entered and controlled our lives, and we must avoid becoming entangled in the future.

It isn’t enough to be delivered from temptation, though. We also need to be delivered in temptation. God could take one temptation from our path, but seven new ones will likely appear to replace it. We need to develop an immunity to temptation, not just avoid them.

Our bodies are daily exposed to harmful bacteria. But our bodies’ defenses keep us from getting sick. Most harmful germs are eradicated before they can cause trouble. If we lived in a sterile environment, our bodies would not know how to deal with germs. Just so, if we lived in an environment that was sterile of temptation, we would fall for the first one we encountered.

God doesn’t take away all temptations—only the worst ones. If we feel ourselves falling for a temptation, we should run away. But remember “there is no temptation but what is common to man, and God will with each temptation give us the power to resist.” 1 Corinthians 10: 13. James says, “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you.” James 4: 7 says, “For the kingdom of God to be victorious in us, we have to resist temptation.”

Prayer is an important part of resisting temptation. The temptations God does not remove He expects us to resist. Fortunately, we can call upon the power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to give us the power to resist even the worst temptations.  

The Lord’s Prayer is not a vain repetition. It’s a prayer pattern that all of us need to be reminded of every time we come to Christ. Prayer is about the coming of the Kingdom of God. It’s based on who God is and how much He loves us.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Inside and Outside - Matthew 6: 1-18

The Sermon on the Mount is all about the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is “wherever God rules.” We enter the kingdom when we serve God first, seek to please God first, and seek first to be rewarded by God. 

Matthew 6 opens with a warning: “be careful.”  God has competition in our hearts. There are two main competitors.
The first is self— the “flesh”.  Self-rule is when our ultimate concern is some portion of ourselves—our physical pleasures, our personal freedom of expression, or how we look or appear to others. 1 John 2: 16 says this is called, “The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” When self comes first, then self is our real god. Many modern religions and philosophies are forms of self-spirituality. These include New Age mysticism, health obsession, and pleasure-seeking. An example of this is the expression, “I gotta be me.”

The other competitor is community, or “the world.”  John says in 1 John 2: 15, “Do not love the world, neither the things in the world.” It means any other people or group of people. It can mean someone we idolize, or some community we revere, including our country, church, race, or family. 

Now family and community are important, and so is self, but God must come first. There’s room for community and self, but when we follow God in all things for selfish reasons, then we put self above God. When self or community comes first, then these very legitimate sources of pleasure and enjoyment become idols. Like the moon eclipsing the sun, the lesser light prevents us from seeing the greater light. The worship of even good things eclipses God. We are not choosing evil over good. We are choosing something that feels good over God. That’s why Jesus tells us to be careful.   

Be careful even when you think you’re following God. Our temptation is to put self and community over God, and is present even when we think we are serving God. When Jesus gives this warning, He isn’t talking to the pagan, or to the scribes and the Pharisees. He is talking to His disciples before Him who are going to be the first citizens of the Kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t talking about the hypocrisy of the Jews, but our potential hypocrisy. He’s warning those who are already Christian-- especially those in Christian ministry. It’s easy for our motivations to go bad, even when our actions are good.

Let me in on the dirtiest secret of Christian ministers—a secret that has caused more chaos in the church than anything else, and has been with the church from the beginning. It’s pride. It is being motivated in ministry by how we think about ourselves or other people think of us, instead of seeking to please God, and be rewarded by Him. 

Public ministry is dangerous. It can scar the soul of anyone who attempts. Being in front of people is a temptation in itself. Unless we master that temptation, we should stay clear of it. 

Here’s an example. I was teaching a preaching class at school after chapel. That day the preacher was on fire and the people responded with glorious “Amen!”  It was a wonderful service. I asked my class, “How did you enjoy chapel?” They all loved it.

Then I asked, “Have you ever preached in a service where there was that kind of response?”
Many of them had. Those who hadn’t wished they had.  

Then I asked again, “How did it make you feel to get that kind of response?” It made them feel wonderful.
“Would you like to have that kind of feeling again?” They all said yes.

“What would you do to get that feeling? Would you lie to have that feeling? Would you steal to have that feeling? Would you hurt others to have that feeling?” They suddenly became silent. Then they confessed that they would be strongly tempted to do a lot of things to get the kind of personal affirmation they just saw.

Of course, we say, “Well, I’m just doing it for the Lord!  He is getting the glory.”  But it is so easy for our hearts to take what was given for the Lord and to keep it for ourselves, to accept a piece of that glory and take it to mean that we are doing a good job. Then from there, we start to crave being in the center of that glory. When this happens, we are in danger of losing sight of God, of becoming self and community worshippers. That feeling of personal glory is like heroin. It gets in us and it is very hard to kick the habit of wanting more for ourselves. 

There’s a potential hypocrite in every one of us—every minister, every elder, every Sunday school teacher, giver, or practitioner of spiritual life is in mortal danger of hypocrisy. Everyone who climbs on a ministry stage is in danger of becoming phony.

When that happens, then we become a danger, not just to ourselves, but to others. Not only have we failed to put Jesus first, we can also lead others astray to look at us instead of Jesus.   

It’s easy to move from being a professing Christian to a professional Christian--to seek our own glory instead of God’s. Dr. Dennis Kinlaw once said, “True religion ends when we stop talking to God and keep talking about Him.”

This danger has existed from the very beginning of the church. When Philip the deacon preached in Acts 8, a man named Simon Magus saw the power in Philip and tried to buy it for him. In Jeremiah 43, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch is warned not to seek great things. Jesus made it clear that his disciples would be hated and rejected, not idolized and lionized. 

In order to deal with this self-worship problem, the church laid down rules on ministers and worship services, in an attempt to save preachers form their pride, and to keep the focus off their ministers and onto God. Ministers were required to wear plain robes, so that they would not attract attention. Ritualized worship was instituted in churches with sacraments that focused on the Lord, not just the man. The church enacted rules against singing anything but the psalms, using musical instruments in church, or singing songs in parts or solo. These restrictions were intended to place people’s attention on God instead of a leader, to save the preacher from pride and the church from idolatry.   

These rules didn’t work. When pastors wore robes, they went out and bought the fanciest robes (they still do!)  People sang a carpella, but then worried about who has the nicest voice. If anything, the restrictions just made people more proud. Even among the Amish, they get proud of how plain they are!  Put all the restrictions on worship you want to, but pride still gets in, and in more and more subtle forms.

So how do we avoid the dangers of pride, and seek our reward from someone other than God? We still need to minister in front of people. We can’t just do everything in secret. 

Real service comes from the heart, Jesus says. The heart is the battleground for selfishness, and only the heart can save us from our pride. We need to keep asking—whose reward are we seeking
 Jesus describes three kinds of Godly works where we should be careful.

The first is public giving. This may be a reference to the Roman custom of the rich and important people giving gifts to everyone. In Jesus’ day, the mark of your importance was your public charity. Giving. Julius Caesar gained the power to become dictator for life by giving to the poor. The poor voted him into office, and fought for him. He didn’t just help the poor, he bought the poor. They became his private army.

This danger also extends to anyone who is seen as a public figure, who gives the masses what they want. It extends to worship leaders, preachers, musicians, even evangelists. It’s all dangerous. But it is also necessary. 

So how do we minister without pride? Jesus’ idea is to maintain mediated relationships. Give for God’s sake, and do it as secretly as possible, so we won’t be tempted to take credit. Don’t seek any advantage or praise, but let God reward you.
The second area is prayer—our personal devotions. Prayer is not a spectator sport. We can pray for the wrong reasons just like we can preach for the wrong reasons. We should not hide our faith from others, but neither should we try to impress people with it, either.

A friend once asked me for advice, because of a woman at work. She was a very public Christian who wore Christian jewelry, had a Jesus sticker on her car, and kept a Bible on her desk. She was also the worst gossip in the company. Because of her treatment of others, she was turning everyone off to Jesus. 

Prayer isn’t a way of impressing others. Neither is it something we do just to make ourselves feel good. Prayer is something we do to talk to God and to be with God. If you take God out of prayer, it can still be a calming form of meditation, but you will already have your reward. You will not be growing closer to God, or receiving answers to prayers from God. 

Jesus doesn’t say we should never pray in public. There are times for public prayer. What he does say is that we seek prayer in private. Public prayer has its uses, but private prayer runs fewer risks of ulterior motives. Besides, when we pray in private, God can show up His power in a greater way.

The third area is fasting and self-denial. Fasting is good. But one of the things that Jesus is most adamant about Christians doing is not to make a big deal out of it. Keep it to yourself. Self-denial can be one more way of becoming personally proud.

Pride is like a rat in our house. It can be there for a long time without us seeing it. But when we find it, we need to put it to death. If we don’t it will bring all kinds of sins with it—envy, jealousy, disdain for others, political manipulations. 

But here’s the good news—God will reward us.  When we sincerely serve Him and honor Him, He will help us with our pride, by changing our motivations, so we can serve without asking anything from others in return. As soon as we catch ourselves being tempted to pride or ambition, we need to turn it over to God. Confess it. Seek help from Christ. Forgive ourselves as Christ forgives us. 

Then, the Bible says, God will reward us openly.  If all we seek is pride and praise from others, God will not reward us. But if we seek in private God’s grace and blessing, then God will bless and be gracious.