Our audience profoundly shapes what we do and say. When junior accidentally smashes the lamp with his baseball bat, we react one way when its just the family at the house and another when the nice lady from church is visiting. Similarly, texts sent to our spouse often contain content that does not belong in our company’s email chain. When we confuse the two audiences, Joe in the cubical next door feels a touch awkward. He’s happy that you like him, but he never thought of you in that way. Audience shapes our expectations and our actions.
Our audience also shapes our spiritual lives. The object of our religiosity will shape how we go about praying, giving, and fasting. According to Jesus, our religious actions should have an audience of one. We are to worship with God and God alone in mind. If we have another audience in view, our worship will explode at take-off and plumet into the waters of uselessness. Jesus bluntly says, “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 (Matt. 6:1).” In other words if we perform religious deeds for someone other than God, we will miss God completely and tumble into the fiery rivers of hell. When we give, pray, and fast, God alone should be our audience.
What About the City on a Hill?
Despite appearances, Jesus’s statement in Matthew 6:1 which advocates for a private faith does not contradict the sentiment of Matthew 5:16 where Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.” The sentiments of the two passages support each other. As the believer follows Christ, he loves his enemies with such intentionality that his coworkers cannot help but ask him his secret. But instead of praising his three-point, personal growth strategy, the believer points to Jesus. He testifies of God’s saving grace, hoping to lead the guy working next to him to Jesus. As Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:16, the goal of our good works is to inspire others to “give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In other words, we live for the glory of God. As we privately make much of Jesus, others will notice our humility, joy, love, kindness, and justice. Our actions should prompt others to ask questions about the hope within us. At that point, we happily tell them about our God, but we do not practice the fruits of the spirit for this moment. We obey because we love God with all our heart soul mind and strength irrespective of what those around us think. This obedience should shape our giving, prayers, and fasting.
Sincere vs. Insincere Giving
To give with an audience of one in view, we must give in secret. When we give loudly so that everyone will notice our generosity, we have the wrong audience in mind. Jesus equates the practitioners of people-centered worship with the trumpeters of old. Those who worship to earn the admiration of their neighbors loudly put out press releases, nail up plaques, and drop hints about how they are the anonymous donor who bought the church its new bus. They give so “that they may be seen by others (Matt 6:2).”
Though people love such loud gifts, Jesus takes no notice of them. Rather he delights in private gifts because “your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt 6:3-4).” Sincere giving does not require a press release or a plaque. The left hand shouldn’t know what the right had is doing. The knowledge of God’s pleasure is enough for the believer. She gives because she loves God. She is content with the knowledge of his recognition.
Sincere vs. Insincere Prayer
Jesus tells us to pray in private for God is our audience. People who pray with other people in mind love public prayer. They pray loudly in church and “at the street corners, that they may be seen by others (Mt 6:5).” Hypocrites compose passionate and well-written prayers so that those in the pew next to them or sitting across the table from them will be in awe of their words.
Though people are impressed with public displays of elegance and passion, Jesus prefers us to pray in secret for “your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt 6:6).” When we pray, we should long to be alone with God. This is not to say that Jesus is not opposed to public prayer. He encourages the church to pray together in Matthew 18:19-20. Rather Jesus opposes public prayer that is done so that the guy standing, “may be seen by others (Matt 6:5).” A prayer that ends with people admiring the one who prays instead of the one prayed to is severely misguided prayer. Rather, public prayer should flow out of private, secret prayer.
Sincere vs. Insincere Fasting
Lastly, Jesus calls us to fast in private for God is our audience. When fasting, a believer will abstain from food for the purpose of securing deliverance. For example, Queen Esther calls for a fast after learning of a plot to annihilate her Jewish people. She asks her relative Modecai and his community to stop eating for three days as she prepares to enter the king’s throne room to petition him for help (Est 5:12-17). God grants Easter her requests. When done well, fasting is a good and proper exercise for the believer.
But as with giving and praying, hypocrites can turn fasting into a people-centered charade. When hypocrites fast, they refuse to wash their faces and look all sad and forlorn as their tummies grumbled. When the fasting hypocrite walked by, their neighbors would remark on the faster’s piety and devotion. All would assume that the hypocrites loved God dearly. After all, their religiosity had extended well beyond the bounds of typical westerner’s religiosity.
But as giving and prayer, fasting done with God in mind occurs in secret. The sincere believer fasts privately. Her coworkers have no clue that her stomach is churning on empty. She never mentions her hunger pains. She takes a shower. She avoids letting little comments slip out on social media about what she is doing. She appeals privately to God for deliverance from her trials for she knows that her “Father who sees in secret will reward” her (Matt 6:18).
The Essence of True Religion
Like many people today, Jesus takes issue with religious hypocrites. But in contrast to those who leave the church because of its flawed members, Jesus says the proper response to hypocritical worship is pure worship. Jesus does not call us to abandon giving, praying, and fasting because the bimbos at the local church do all those things insincerely. He calls us to do them sincerely. He calls us to worship with an audience of one in mind.
Who is your audience?