This I desire: integrity— my heart and mind undivided unfragmented undistracted truly focused deeply centered all transparent and devoted— set apart for only You.
Set apart with whole-hearted devotion to God—that is what would qualify us as “holy,” which is what Jesus had commanded right before beginning his message on how important it would then be to do what is right, but never to purposefully draw attention to oneself:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48 NIV)
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. (Matt. 6:1 NIV)
I’ve been contemplating the meanings of “holy,” “perfect” and “godly” ever since we faced the challenge in translating them to Nyarafolo, working out how to accurately communicate the meaning of these key terms. It really impressed me, the way that “holy” means completely set aside for God, and requires perfection! So how can I ever achieve that? It is only through my relationship with God as he works in me. And the best translation we found for “godly” is one used in a current French translation: “attached to God.” It reminds me of being attached to the Vine, able to bear fruit due to that nourishing life-giving connection!
The way the chapter cut happens right after Matt. 5:48 divides the discourse and makes it easy to overlook the thought progression. Jesus says to be perfect, or holy, like our Father, then begins explaining what it means to be completely set apart for God, relinquishing all need for self aggrandizement. A disciple’s focus is to be totally reoriented, no longer concerned with their own honor but instead with showing people what their great God is like: loving, merciful, and attentive.
But hadn’t Jesus just said that they should let others see their good works?
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:16 NIV)
The key ingredient in determining whether a disciple’s actions are in line with Jesus’ teaching is the person’s motivation. Do they do what they do, even good acts, in order to be applauded by other humans, to get others to respect how great they are, or do they focus on respecting the goodness of their Father?
It is not wrong to be encouraged by others. We are commanded to encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11), and when it comes unexpectedly it can truly be delightful to know that others in your cohort are supporting you. But if we are truly aligned with the Kingdom perspective, getting that applause is not why we do what we do. We are motivated by love for our King, and this love overflows to others.
Practicing righteousness had a particular meaning for the Jewish audience that Jesus was addressing:. The Louw-Nida Greek Lexicon gives this definition:
δικαιοσύνη, ης f: observances or practices required by one’s religion – ‘religious observances, religious requirements.’ . . . ‘be careful not to perform your religious observances in public’ Mt 6.1.
Understanding it that way shows that the verse functions as a heading for three sets of religious observances that Jesus will now address:
- Vv. 2-4: giving to the needy (called almsgiving then)
- Vv. 5-6: prayer
- Vv 16-18: fasting
The most enlightening explanation of why Jesus pinpointed these observances, for me, was what Donald Hagner points out (referencing Gerhardsson):
“The deeds may be thought of as the Christian’s self-offering in “spiritual service” and may correspond to the demand of the Shema (Deut 6:4–5) to love God with all your heart (prayer), soul (fasting), and might (almsgiving), with the order changed to move from the easier to the harder.”
So then giving to the needy was seen as easier, fulfilling a religious requirement that showed off good character. With prayer the next hardest, one could make it a habit to recite memorized prayers at the assigned hours for prayer during the day, and also be seen doing that in public spaces. Then last in line would be fasting. This self-denial would take more strength of will and character. But if you could be admired for doing it, then that brought motivation.
In each case Jesus pointed out that when the practice is performed in order to be noticed and admired by others, it was not being done to honor God but oneself. Therefore it did not even count as something that God would reward; that idea of being “rewarded” had already been fulfilled.
How does this apply to us today?
As missionaries, known as representing the Jesus Road, we found that living it out put us in marked contrast to one of the major religions where we were working in Côte d’Ivoire, Islam. For one thing, the word was circulating that Christians were less prayerful than Muslims. It was said that Jesus-followers only pray three times a day, at meals, whereas Muslims are to pray (bowing, on a prayer mat) five times a day, much of the time in an open setting facing east. If we could engage someone in a discussion about this, we would try to point out that for us it was not about times of the day, but about “praying constantly” and most of the time in private when setting aside a regular habit of talking with our Lord. Yes, we were grateful for the Lord’s provision of food at meals, but we had other conversations with him that did not show up.
Giving to the needy also depended more on the particular need and the identity of the person needing help. We were viewed as wealthy, being educated professionals, and Americans who owned a car. That meant that we received many requests for help and needed much wisdom. But we did not walk by the mosque at times of prayer to give to the beggars regularly there, to be seen. (More on that in another discussion.)
Fasting was also assigned by them to designated months, and meant rigorous self-denial during the lengthy hot days, usually followed by hefty meals during the night hours. People even spit sidewise during the day so as not to be swallowing that liquid. But did Christians ever fast? I found it very difficult to fast without it getting noticed, at least by family and workers coming in and out. This actually discouraged me from attempting it, for years. But I eventually realized that the point was not just to find a way to do it in secret, but to be sure that I was not trying to get others to think I was more spiritual than “normal” people because I sometimes did need to deny myself in order to pray in a more focused way, especially during tough times.
How about our current question in the United States about whether a football coach should make it a habit (a ritual?) to pray on the field, kneeling, after a game? How about churches that maintain that clergy and truly devoted believers are to observe fixed prayer times, a liturgy of the hours? How about when those prayers are based on reciting formulas, particular forms of prayer?
I personally have found that having scheduled prayer times does promote a greater focus on conversing with my Lord. And during some seasons of life I have applied certain prayer outlines to intensify my learning curve. So I am not saying that such practices are all wrong.
And I don’t understand what Jesus said as completely negating those practices either.. But he was describing the essential ruler to apply to measure whether the religious observance is being done for personal aggrandizement or to honor the Father, eyes on him and what delights him.
An example that comes to mind is my own learning curve as a child with respect to household chores. At first I did them to be seen as a good kid, especially when I was at boarding school and would get “graded” on my bedroom’s cleanliness every day. It also took a lot of maturation before I would find myself leaping in to help mom with cleaning up or child care not in order to be applauded, but because I loved her and wanted to partner with her.
If all our good deeds and religious practices (even going to church!) are done under a sense of legalistic observances, to check off what is required and to be seen as a good Christian by others, we are falling into that muck of doing it for the wrong reasons. If instead we listen to the promptings of the Word, and of the Spirit working in us, to partner with the Father in our spiritual maturation and loving service, eyes on him and not on the applause of others, then we are on the right path.
That goes against the grain of our culture, where we are constantly pursuing better grades and recognition, popularity, or respect in the workplace. But that embrace and smile of approval from the Father is what matters more than anything!
God is love, and when we love him with all our heart, we are living in an atmosphere of overflowing love. His love in us motivates us to care for our “neighbors” who need help. He is our Father who delights in our conversations with him. That changes our perspective on prayer, which brings us into increasing intimacy with him and helps us to know him better. Fasting changes from something on a check-off list to get us better grades in “spirituality” to a practice that helps us to concentrate on strengthening that sweet relationship with our Beloved and to listen to him.
Living completely attached to God (a “godly” life) changes everything!