Summary: When I give, God’s approval is what counts.

June 10, 2001

Secret Christianity – Part 1


In September of 1997 Ted Turner announced he was giving a billion dollars to the United Nations. The billion dollars was the amount his TimeWarner stock climbed in the last 9 months. He himself admitted he was giving away only a third of his wealth. But however you look at it, making a decision to give away a third of your assets is remarkable.

And consider what he gave to. Not to some of the typical causes of the richest of the rich. Not to the Turner museum in some lucky city; not to endow a Turner chair at some fine university; not to create a spacious sports stadium with sky boxes; not to build a palacial center for the performing arts. Rather, Turner directed his dollars to food, clothing, shelter and medical care for the poorest of the poor. And then daring his fellow billionaires to follow suit saying, “If you are rich, you can expect a call or a letter from me,” he promised.

All of this is very credible. However, it’s also very interesting on a deeper level. While being very generous, he still wanted to make sure everybody knew. Before making the gift, he called up Larry King so he could start circulating the news. And then, Turner made his announcement in a New York ballroom filled with tuxedos, evening gowns, reporters and cameras.

Perhaps b/c his stock had risen so much it seemed wise to him and his advisors to be very public about where the increase was going. But oddly enough, Jesus says there’s still a better way to go about giving.

Read text: Matthew 6:1-4

1“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Those are some challenging words. But we have to remember that in this greatest of all sermons that Jesus is delivering here in Matthew 5, 6 and 7, he’s laying out a way of truly following God’s commands without setting artificial limits. And having challenged the notions of what it meant to be truly religious in the areas of angry words, lust, divorce, telling the truth, outrageous attitudes and loving our enemies – he now challenges the popular notion of what it meant to be really religious in your giving. And here is what Jesus wants us to know…

Big Idea: When I give, God’s approval is what counts.

That’s it. That’s all that counts. But unfortunately, we don’t always act like that’s all that counts.

TRANSITION: So Jesus shows us a better way to give. In the section we just read…


Let’s spend a few moments taking a look at these.

One possibility when we give is that we are…

1. Seeking the praise of people

Jesus says (v. 1), “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them.”

In other words, He’s saying don’t do religious things for the sole purpose of being noticed. That’s nothing like the heart God desires. In fact, if that’s how we give, we will have no reward from our Father in heaven. Because we’re proving we haven’t let him change our hearts.

Interesting that Jesus said in 5:16, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

And now He’s saying be careful so that people don’t see. Isn’t that a big contradiction? Not if we understand Jesus’ intention. These two statements are actually making the same point. In 5:16 when people see our good deeds they are to praise our Father, not us. And in 6:1, Jesus says don’t do your acts of righteousness just so others will notice you. That won’t bring any glory to the Father if you wanting all the praise yourself. Good deeds are to make God visible, not shine the spotlight on us. That’s His point.

So, he again points to the Pharisees. Those religious legalists of His day. They knew what the Old Testament law said…

Deuteronomy 15:11 – There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

The Pharisees knew this law, but when obeying it, they turned it into a show. That’s why Jesus said…

Verse 2 - So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men

A humble uncomplicated walk with God had been replaced by a prime-time performance of religion. Righteousness on display. Strut your stuff spirituality. Piety on parade. Lights, camera, action! It’s showtime!

Apparently this stuff about the trumpets isn’t just humorous exaggeration. The trumpet blast was a signal that it was time to give to the poor, and Pharisees quickly drew a crowd as they ostentatiously made their way through the streets to the synagogue to make their showy gifts. What a sight that must have been!

In John 12:43 it says this of the Pharisees… they loved praise from men more than praise from God

And in Matthew 23:5-7, Jesus says this about them: “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear extra long tassels on their robes. 6And how they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the most prominent seats in the synagogue! 7They enjoy the attention they get on the streets, and they enjoy being called ‘rabbi.’ (NLT)

Their religious acts, including giving to the poor, were all a big show. Jesus uses a rather strong word to describe them. He calls them hypocrites.

In classical Greek a hypocrite was an orator or an actor. A person who lays aside his or her true identity and assumes a false one. No longer themselves, but in disguise, impersonating someone else. They wear a mask.

There is no harm in this in the theater. Everyone knows the people on the stage are playing a part. There is an understanding with the audience. People know they are watching a performance – a person pretending to be someone else.

In the Palestine of Jesus’ day, there were a number of fine theaters, so He was utilizing a vivid image that effectively captured the attention of his hearers.

The trouble with religious hypocrites is that they deliberately set out to deceive people.

They are like actors, yet they take some religious action, which is real, and turn it into something it was never intended to be – namely a piece of make believe – a theatrical display before an audience. And it is all done for applause.

Because Jesus’ audience was familiar with stage actors, they were able to see that He was telling them – “You know guys, much of the most obvious religious behavior you see around you is nothing more than a sham. It’s a put on. It’s religious make believe.”

And people who give like this have already received their reward in full.

We may not employ a troop of trumpeters, but we sometimes still like to toot our own horns.

It boosts our ego to see our name listed as a subscriber to charities and a supporter of good causes. We like the plaques with our name on them at the hospital, the community center, or the school as evidence of our generosity.

And so, we face the same temptation – drawing attention to our giving in order to be praised by men.

I remember experiencing this when I was 14.

ILLUS - I had taken a pig to the Illinois State Fair that ended up being the champion market hog of the entire 4-H show.

The champion gets put up for sale at the Governor’s auction, and mine sold to the owner of Rockome Gardens for a record price of $14,500. Typically the pig would then be butchered and the meat donated to a charity fundraiser, but this buyer wanted to keep the pig and put him on display.

The charity fundraiser was for the University of Illinois athletic program. Each year the meat from the state fair champion would be auctioned off at a big party at the Governor’s mansion in Springfield. Since my fair pig didn’t get butchered, my dad had me donate another pig from home.

We went to the auction at the Governor’s Mansion. Had a fancy dinner. Afterward went into a ballroom in the mansion for the auction. On the way to the auction, a man pulls my dad and I aside and says, “You know, it’s customary for the exhibitor of the champion pig to purchase the highest priced cut of meat.”

So the first piece of meat to go up for auction is a ham. We start the bidding and someone bids $100. My dad has me bid $150. $200 from someone else, I bid $250. On and on this goes. $300, 400, 500, all the way up to $750, I bid again and sold – I became the proud owner of an $800 piece of meat from a pig I gave away.

Announcement is made, sold to Matthew Rogers of Emden, Illinois for $800. People applaud. I’m getting patted on the back. One of the University of Illinois cheerleaders runs over and gives me a big kiss. Lou Henson, the coach of the men’s basketball team at that time, shook my hand. But you know what, in that moment, I had just received my reward in full (unless you count the little digital Fighting Illini desk clock that came in the mail with a Go Illini bumper sticker a month later – but even at that – I had received all the reward I was going to get.)

Why? Because it was all a show. I loved U of I sports, but not to the tune of an $800 ham. I was giving to be seen – because I was told it was the right thing to do. And I had gotten my reward in full.

You may wonder was the ham any good? I’ll never know. My dad stood up and said, “We don’t need this, sell it again!” People applauded and away the bidding went for another round. When I pulled out my checkbook to settle up with the clerk, all I got to take home was a nice receipt for my donation. Whoopee!

Believe it or not, do you know this act of giving to be seen even happens in the church? Really. It does. The Bible even records an instance of its occurrence in the early church.

You can read about it in Acts chapter 5. At a time when others were giving generously to the church, a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property and brought the money to the church. There was only one problem: they brought only a part of the proceeds and pretended it was the full amount they had received from the sale.

Now, why do you think they did this? Most likely because Ananias and Sapphira wanted to appear to others in the church as though they were very devout, godly, generous people too. They wanted their names to be announced. They wanted to hear someone stand up in a service and say, “Listen, O church, we have here Ananias and Sapphira, let’s hear it for them. They just sold some property and gave the whole amount to the church. Put your hands together now, let’s praise God for their sacrifice and give them a hand.”

Were Ananias and Sapphira blessed? No. They were pious pretenders who were judged by God instantly in their hypocrisy.

Dallas Willard wonders why it’s easier to get buildings built than maintenance endowed. He says it is perhaps that no one wants their name on a mop.

So when we give for show, what kind of reward can we expect?

We get the reward we sought. People’s approval.

You asked for it, you got it!

And Jesus says, that’s all the reward we’ll get

So Jesus makes is clear. Generosity is not enough. He’s concerned about the hidden thoughts of the heart. And a heart that gives to be seen really isn’t generous at all in God’s eyes.

TRANSITION: Jesus exposes a second possibility of what might be going on in our hearts when we give. He says we might be…

2. Preserving our anonymity while quietly congratulating ourselves

Not only are we to avoid giving for the praise of others, we are also to make sure we don’t give simply so we can privately praise ourselves. Because it is possible to take deliberate steps to keep our giving a secret all the while gloating over our self-satisfied generosity.

So that’s why Jesus tells us (v. 3)… But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this. Giving is a real activity involving real people in real need. Its purpose is to alleviate the distress of the needy.

Yet it is possible to turn an act of mercy into an act of vanity – so that our principal motive in giving is not the benefit of the person receiving the gift, but for the benefit of ourselves.

Horrible to do this to someone in need. Giving is about love. And when the gift is given so that our purposes are served, we show we care nothing about the person with the need, and care only about ourselves. Supreme act of evil.

So in a sense, our giving is to be a secret even from ourselves. Don’t let your left hand know what the right is doing, or it’s very possible that the left hand might feel inclined to congratulate the right hand, coming over to pat it in praise – an action that sounds something like this…CLAP, CLAP, CLAP…YEAH!!

“Right hand, look what you gave! None of your friends are giving that generously. You know, God’s pretty lucky to have someone so generous on his team. He can get a lot more work done now.”

ILLUS - Makes me think of a group of farmers in India. In September of 1994 the Associated Press reported on a demonstration these farmers staged in New Delhi. They were protesting India’s plans to import three million tons of Dutch dung to be used for farm fertilizer. Why? asked the Indian farmers. There is no shortage of cows in India. And dung from Indian cows would not be tainted by pesticides.

So in protest, about one hundred farmers rolled six ox carts piled high with top-quality, home grown Indian cow dung right up to Parliament. Presumably this got the legislators attention.

The message? Our dung is better than their dung.

Think about it. That’s a claim that slightly resembles the pride of a self-congratulatory giver. I’m better. I’m just more generous than they are. A pretty arrogant claim, wouldn’t you think?

That’s why Jesus wants us to give and be done with it. Christian giving is marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self-congratulation.

We are bound to know how much we give away. You can’t literally keep that a secret from yourself. But the point is after we give, we should pretty much put it out of our minds. Or we might be tempted to gloat over it, pat ourselves on the back for how generous, disciplined or conscientious we might have been.

Jesus wants us to know again that generosity is not enough. He’s concerned about the hidden thoughts of the heart. And a heart that gives, only to engage in self-congratulation, isn’t generous at all in God’s eyes.

TRANSITION: There is one other possibility for what’s going on in our hearts when we give. And this is what Jesus hopes we’re doing. He hopes, when we give, we are…

3. Desiring God’s approval alone

Our giving is not to be before people (waiting for the clapping to begin) nor really even before ourselves (with the left hand applauding the right). But before God alone.

We can’t keep our giving a secret from God. So Jesus says…

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (v. 3-4)

Jesus wants us to know that we’re not like actors playing a part. True Christ followers live out their lives authentically before an audience of one. All they really matters to them is what God thinks. They are concerned with pleasing Him.

Remember the lyrics to the The James Bond movie song that Sheena Easton performed?

For your eyes only. Only for you.

You’ll see what no-one else can see. Now I’m breaking free,

For your eyes only. Only for you.

That’s how a Christian lives before God. For your eyes only.

That’s how a Christian approaching the act of giving to someone in need. God, this is for your eyes only. Because we live our lives for an audience of one.

Now, some might take this instruction so strictly that they won’t write a check to the church. They reason, well the treasurer will see my name and how much I gave, and the gift won’t be a secret. I suppose that makes a great rationalization if we really want to be selfish or stingy. But Jesus is talking about motives for giving and what is going on in the heart while giving. He’s not issuing some new and complicated legalism. A person with the right heart is still giving in secret regardless of who may happen to see.

A person with the kind of heart Jesus is describing is so tuned in to God that they probably even forget that someone will be looking at their check. They don’t care. Because they gave out of a generous heart of love, not with any thought whatsoever about who might see and know. That just doesn’t matter to them. God’s approval is what counts. They’re not actors on a stage. They are real. They live for an audience of one.

A writer named Clara Null says, “For years we lived in a small town with one bank and three churches. Early one Monday morning, the bank called all three churches with the same request: “Could you bring in Sunday’s collection right away? We’re out of $1 bills.” (from Humor for Preaching and Teaching, p. 75)

That’s a pretty low blow. But it’s a good reminder. Secrecy is not to be an excuse for selfishness.

Remember the Faithful-Now and Forever sacrifice stories from last fall? Those weren’t secret, were they? No, those were very public, and they were meant to follow the pattern of King David in the Old Testament. David, when the temple was being built, stood up in front of the people as a leader and set an example by announcing he would make a sacrificial gift to help the temple get built. His motive was not to be applauded, but as a leader to set the standard in sacrificial giving.

At the request of our stewardship consultant, several of our leaders here, including Kim and I did the same. I’ll be honest, at first I thought what he was asking might not coincide with Jesus’ teaching on secrecy here in Matthew 6. But our consultant helped me to understand something something very important. If we’re sharing our stories for applause, then we certainly shouldn’t share them at all. But if the motive is to be like David, and as a leader show a demonstration of prayerful sacrifice to encourage the people of God when a new place of worship and service needs to be built – then you’re following the Bible. It’s all about the motive.

And Jesus says, when you give in secret, God will reward you.

But not because you give – that would be earning your salvation.

The Koran says that if a person prays, then prayer will take him halfway to paradise. If he fasts, that will get him to the gates of paradise. But if a person gives to the poor, the gates of paradise will open for him and he will be admitted. But that’s not what the Bible tells us. Christians should pray, fast and help those in need, but those acts won’t bring salvation. Salvation is a free gift that God gives people who will accept what Jesus did for them on the cross.

The reward from God is an eternal one given to people whose hearts have been changed by Jesus so that they live entirely for Him. They are not seeking a reward through giving. They have changed lives and await the crown of righteousness laid up in heaven for them because of Jesus and His victory.

TRANSITION: We need to be at the place where our giving is only for God’s approval. But you may wonder…


How can I be sure I’m giving with the right kind of heart?

We have some pointers from these words of Jesus. If my motives are right…

1. I will give spontaneously

1 John 3:17 – If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?

Certainly we need to calculate what we are able to give – but the heart with right motives will just give and be done with it

When I hear of a need, my heart will be prompted to give

Acts 4:34 tells about the early church - “There were no needy persons among them.”

Because of the generosity of others within the church.

Give spontaneously

Second, if I have right motives…

2. I will give secretly

That means I will find some ways to do something anonymously for someone

ILLUS – Recently each of the members of our worship ministry received a new book in their workroom boxes. There was no name or note attached. It was an anonymous gift from someone in the church – someone who wanted to do something nice and do it secretly.

Secret giving is fun. Earlier this morning Petra Hentzel talked about how the secret sisters ministry does this all the time.

Maybe there is someone you could surprise

Follow Jesus instruction – do it secretly

And third, when I truly have the right motives…

3. I will give with no thought of reward

Giving to a need is an issue of love

If I’m thinking God will love me more

If I’m thinking I’m securing a place in heaven

If I’m thinking of the recognition someone on earth will give me

Still not showing the kind of heart God says is possible for His people

Give with absolutely no thought of reward

TRANSITION: When I give, God’s approval is what counts.


Before we give, Jesus would have us ask ourselves this question…

Would I still do this if no one would ever know I did it?

Isn’t it great to know that following Jesus doesn’t require impressing others?

ILLUS – Sometimes it may seem like we are on the stage of life, doing our best. Our passionate performance sends the message, Love me! Love me! Love me! See me! Notice me! Tell me I have value! Tell me I’m special! Love me for who I am!

Jesus looks at us and says I do love you. In fact, I can’t take my eyes off of you. I’ve noticed you even before you were born. To me, you have immeasurable value. To me you are unimaginably special. I will always love you for who you are.

Jesus just wants our hearts. His love frees us from exhibitionism and takes us to the place of intimacy. Won’t you come home to Him?