A friend of ours told us last week that she listens to and enjoys the podcast. She said that she used to be quite involved with serving those with material needs, but began to question her motives. She felt that God wanted her to step back from some of her service activities, but is thinking that maybe it’s soon time to re-engage. Thanks, friend, for your comments, and for listening to the Lord. Obedience is better than sacrifice, as the Scripture says.
So, just as our friend questioned her reasons for serving, we also wonder about our motives for giving, and for even doing our blog and podcast. This week, we’re going to talk about motives for serving others and giving generously, specifically the issue of doing charitable works to impress others vs. doing them in secret.
There are a few verses that come to mind.
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
It seems pretty obvious from these verses that it’s wrong to give charitably when you might be seen. It’s better not to serve or give at all than to risk being noticed, right? Well, maybe not quite. Let’s not let the fear of being seen keep us from doing good works.
Indeed, did not Christ say, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
St. John Chrysostom addresses this in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, “when you do it not for display before men; though the whole world has seen, none has seen, because you have so done it. For He said not simply, Do it not before men, but added, to be seen of them.”
I heard a lovely explanation of the "do it in secret" mentality on the Tending the Garden podcast on Ancient Faith Radio in their episode about St. Nicholas.
When the hypocrites give, they seek glory from men. They have chosen their reward. I love the way that Christ presents the reward here — there’s really no punishment, God isn’t penalizing anyone. There’s simply a bunch of rewards for good works, and you can choose one.
Some people choose to do good works so that they can have glory among men. And that’s fine — they’ve done a good thing, they’ve received appropriate glory. Done and done. They wanted the glory, and they got it. All is well.
The trouble is that they have chosen a temporary reward. They have chosen glory among men. Now, at best, that could last for your lifetime here on earth. Once you die, that glory is finished really. You can’t collect it anymore. And of course, as we all know, fame and fortune and glory among men are fleeting — the crowd is fickle. One moment, they love you for your generosity, but the next moment, they love the next guy. They might even turn on you if you run out of money or if your generosity dries up. Glory among men is a temporary reward, but if that’s the reward you want, God will allow you to choose it.
So, while it may be better to give in secret, there’s nothing wrong with being seen.
Since in this blog and podcast we talk about the first and second liturgies, it’s also interesting to know that just a few verses later in the book of Matthew, Christ says, “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:6) With the development of the cycle of liturgical services, corporate prayer is kind of a big deal. Do we stay home from liturgy because we don’t want people to see us praying outside of our closed room? In the same way, we shouldn’t stay away from public acts of charity when we have the opportunity to do so.
St. Paul ran into the topic of motives for the preaching of the Gospel. He wrote, “Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” Philippians 1:15-20
So, perhaps we don’t need to wait until our motives are 100% pure before doing any good deed, whether praying, preaching, or doing works of charity.
St. Paul, in his famous letter to the Corinthians, wrote, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor... but have not love, it profits me nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:3)
I’ve always read this verse to mean that it would be useless for me to do any charitable works if I wasn’t positive that I was doing it out of love. However, there’s a twist to this verse that I noticed recently. Maybe there’s a different meaning in the Greek (and I welcome the scholars to help us out to better understand this). The verse ends with “if I have not love, it profits me nothing.” So, in order to profit, I need to have love. But if I am doing it in a way to make sure I profit, doesn’t it then become about me rather than love for God and the one I am serving?
Let’s wrap this up with a quote from St. Ambrose of Optina, “If you find that there is no love in you, but you want to have it, then do deeds of love, even though you do them without love in the beginning. The Lord will see you desire and striving and will put love in your heart.”
So, let’s obey the commands of Christ to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners; let’s sell what we have and give to the poor; let’s love our neighbors as ourselves, whether or not we feel like we have achieved 100% love and even if we have some doubt about our motivations.
Let’s strive for love!
Final thought: I guess the only time we shouldn’t give and serve charitably is in the situation of our friend who we mentioned earlier, when the Lord asked her to step back from certain activities for a time.