THE INNER LIFE
As we continue our look at what it takes to develop Christ-like character, we come to what seem to be two conflicting passages. The first one says don't hide your light under a bushel, but put it out there for everybody to see. In the second one Jesus says to do things in secret...don't display your good works publically. Both of these statements are part of the same sermon in the same place. This is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Except for some who might have left to go to the restroom, he's talking to the same bunch of people in chapter 6 that he was in chapter 5. Why is Jesus saying opposite things in the same sermon?
If we had the time, I would take you through the entire Sermon on the Mount, because I think if we did that, you could see what Jesus is up to here. Throughout the three chapters that make up this section, Jesus is constantly putting the inner and the outer life together. What he is saying in all of it, I think, is that the two are so closely connected that the absence of one negates the benefit of the other. It is the inner character that determines the worth of the outer action in the eyes of God.
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by praising certain qualities of the inner life...we call those sayings the Beatitudes...Blessed are the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who are willing to suffer for their faith, and the list goes on. The passage about not hiding your light comes right after this. It is the people with those inner qualities that should not hide their works under a bushel. Why? Because works that spring from those inner attitudes will give glory to God rather than look for glory for themselves.
Jesus goes on to show this in regard to the law. He says it is wrong to say that he is trying to abolish the law. No, instead he is trying to fulfill it. What he means is that what he is teaching is how it is possible to keep the law. If we are just focused on the externals...do this, don't do that...we will fail every time. That was the focus of the Scribes and Pharisees. They focused on the outward acts and keeping the details of the law. And that's understandable, because that is something you can observe and measure. As long as the terms are clearly defined, you can know if you have killed someone, committed adultery, or worked on the Sabbath. Other can know, too, and can hold you accountable.
Jesus' point is that just a focus on the externals will mess us up every time. The right way to go about keeping the externals of the law is to fix our inner attitudes so that over time we have less and less desire to break the law. He spends quite awhile illustrating this with specific commandments. You have to go beyond the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, says Jesus. They say, "Don't kill." That's a good commandment, but you're never going to be able to keep it unless you first deal with the hate and anger inside of you. Murder starts in the heart. Fix that, and you will be able to keep the law.
It's the same thing with adultery, says Jesus. He does not at all want to abolish the commandment against it, but he does want to say that you haven't got a prayer of keeping that commandment unless you first get a handle on lust. And Jesus goes on like that for the rest of chapter 5. It is after he has pointed out all of that...saying that the law is good, but that keeping the law depends on what is going on inside of you...then we get to the first part of chapter 6 where he warns about having the outward actions only.
Charitable giving is a good thing, but if we do it to receive praise and glory for ourselves, that praise and glory from human beings is all we will receive. God simply turns away. Prayer is critically important, but if we do it as a means of showing off our righteousness, God is not impressed in the least.
So to those who fit the character of the Beatitudes...those who are meek, pure in heart, merciful, hungering and thirsting after the things of God...God says, don't hide your faith. Don't be afraid to share it and to show it in public. The world needs your light and your witness. Works that come from that sort of heart will draw others closer to God...let your light shine. But to those who have focused only on outward appearances, Jesus says in essence, get back under the bushel. Go spend private time in prayer. Give up the public acclaim and discover what rewards a personal relationship with God has to offer. Make your sacrifices privately. Give up the need for the approval and affirmation of the world and learn how to be content with the approval and affirmation of God.
Do that for long enough and your relationship with God will deepen to the point where God is suddenly saying to you...blessed are you, meek one, merciful one. I see now how you are pure in your heart, even if your actions slip sometimes. I am pleased with the way that you hunger and thirst for more of me, even if you don't quite understand me yet. You are beginning to truly shine for me...get out from under that bushel so that others can benefit from my Light shining through you.
To me, that's how it works. To go back to my point from last week, it all begins with a relationship with God and is accomplished through the power of God's spirit. Whether we need to be hiding under a bushel or visible to the world like a city on a hill, depends on where we are in our hearts. Now that's not to say that we move from doing everything in secret to doing everything in public. In the full measure of Christian life, there are always both of those aspects working at once. Jesus often went off by himself to pray...sometimes spending all night alone on a hill with God. No one knows what was said in those times...Jesus didn't invite the Disciples along to record his private moments. And Jesus certainly had many public displays of his righteousness. But his point in the Sermon on the Mount is, I think, that the only way to really keep the law of God is to get our hearts straightened out first.
This is new thinking for many people. While many of us have a sense that doing something that harms another person is wrong, we often don't think about the possibility that we could actually be out of the will of God all by ourselves. In fact, the witness of much of Scripture is that many people who do all the right things and even profess the right beliefs could be headed as far away from God as you can get. One picture of the Last Judgment claims that many will call God, "Lord, Lord" and God will look at them and say, "Who are you? I don't know you."
The place to start in becoming like Christ is with an examination of our hearts when we are all by ourselves. When I give something and no one knows it or recognizes it, what goes on inside me? Am I resentful that I didn't get a thank you note? Does my giving actually make me feel bad if I don't get the recognition I think I should? Those are the kinds of things we can notice when we spend time with just ourselves.
And let me tell you there are few things harder than that sort of self-examination, which is why the act of confession is so important. One of the best things you can do toward becoming more like Jesus is to confess your sins. Not necessarily on Jerry Springer, and not even necessarily to another human being, although that certainly has its benefits.. I mean confessing your sins to God in prayer. Not just "forgive us our trespasses,"...not just a general admission that we have sinned, but a very specific list. I mean that once a day, once a week, once a month...whatever you can handle...you go to God in prayer to ask forgiveness for every specific thing you have done in that time that seemed to you to be out of God's will. Forgive me for snapping at so and so, when I could have been more patient. Forgive me for not calling Sally, when I knew how much she needed a friendly voice. Forgive me for trying to be the center of attention when the party was given for someone else. Forgive me for being so busy doing Your work that I didn't take time to get to know You. Whatever it is...in every detail.
Confessing our sins is one of the greatest benefits of the Christian life because it is the way we get direct experience with the unconditional love and forgiveness of God. While God is not jumping for joy that we have sinned, God is anxious for us to bring our sins in prayer so that God can help us to do better. God isn't waiting to try out the latest in punishing techniques. God simply loves us and wants to mold us and shape us into people who can manage to live in Heaven whether we happen to be in this life or the next. That happens when we can go to God with the things we have done wrong, admit our fault, and ask for help in being better.. Whether we are talking about relationship with God or relationship with other people, confession and forgiveness are the only way we can live together in health and wholeness.
Confessing my own sins has actually made me a better person. It helps me, first, because you can't improve something you don't know needs improvement. Searching my days for things that may have displeased God helps me to be aware of my own shortcomings. It also helps me to discover where my own sense of morality and rightness has been warped. There have been times when I have confessed something to God and God has shown me that it wasn't sin at all. I used to think, for example, that when someone was unhappy with something I had said or done, that I had done something wrong. But then God reminded me of Jesus' own life on earth and how many people he offended and alienated by doing what God sent him to do. The opposite has also happened...I have given thanksgiving for something that I thought was a good thing, only to have God call my attention to a passage of Scripture that gave another perspective.
That is how our prayer can shape us, and confession is a key ingredient.. Confession makes me aware of my faults, and let me tell you, when I find myself confessing the same darn thing night after night after night, it tends to become so embarrassing that I get more intentional about fixing it. Doing your confession aloud really helps in this. Hearing yourself say what you have done really makes an impact and can be a great motivator to do better.
And lastly, because confession is done in the anticipation of forgiveness, confessing our sins lets us get beyond them. Sometimes we cannot become better people because we have become so stuck on how rotten we are. We are so aware of our sins that we feel that there is just no hope for us. Sometimes we have even been told by others that there is no hope for us. Do not ever call another person "hopeless." Just don't do it. Cut your tongue out instead. Don't say it. The Bible says that with God all things are possible. No one is hopeless. All of us can grow to be like Jesus because it is not our work but God's. Remember the passage from Zechariah last week. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.
When we have come to feel like we are just plain bad people, confession can help to correct that. When we confess, the Bible says, God forgives. Our slate is wiped clean in God's eyes and we get to start again. Yes, you will still have consequences with other people for what you've done. But with God, you rise from a real confession as pure as the driven snow.
If you want to do the will of God, don't focus on the law...focus on your heart. Listen to what you say to others and, even more importantly, listen to what others say to you. Go to your room and shut the door and pray to God in secret. In time, your light will begin to shine so brightly that, like a city on a hill, it cannot be hidden. Then as your light shines before others and they see your good works, they will know to give glory not to you, but to God.
(c) 2001, Anne RobertsonReturn to AnneRobertson.com