We all want to be forgiven, but we don’t always want to forgive. CS Lewis said it well: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” We all want others to release their hold, their bitterness, their grudge against us, but we don’t always want to release ours against them. But the two are very tightly wound together by God.
The power of your prayer for forgiveness is limited by the degree to which you obey the command to forgive.
So we need to learn how to forgive, but first we need to learn about hypocrisy…
Give, Pray, Fast – But Don’t Be a Hypocrite!
The three most important acts of religious devotion for devout Jews in Jesus’ time were giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. There is no doubt that these are all very good things. But like many things, they had become opportunities for prideful religion. They had become opportunities for people who craved the praise of men; good things had taken on some bad religious baggage.
But they were still good things, and Jesus doesn’t throw these good things out. Instead, he gives some instruction about all three of these in Matthew 6. It’s worth noticing that for each of these three good things – giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting – Jesus gives the same instruction. And that instruction is this: DON’T BE LIKE A HYPOCRITE
A hypocrite – a stage actor, a pretender, someone who plays a part, someone who pretends to be something they are not.
We shouldn’t be this way, Jesus says, because when we act this way we get a reward. But the reward we get is only from other human beings. They like us, “respect” us, think well of us, maybe even treat us with reverence. And this is a great reward… if you are earthly-minded. What could be better than reverence and affection from your fellow human beings, your coworkers, your fellow church members?
But Jesus says not to be a fake. Don’t be hypocrite. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t do things in order to gain favor with other people.
1. Not when giving to the poor…
In the first part of Matt. 6, when you give to the poor, don’t go to the poor neighborhood in a bus that says “ON TOUR – Feeding the Poor! Look at me!”
Don’t do this – instead, do it in such a way that if nobody ever knows about it, that’s totally fine.
2. Not when fasting…
Later in Matt. 6 he talks about fasting and again he says DON’T BE LIKE A HYPOCRITE. When a hypocrite fasts, you know about it, because they work hard to look gloomy, they disfigure their faces…
“Oh, I’m so hungry!”
“Really? Why don’t you eat something?”
“Oh, I can’t – I’M FASTING! This is sooooooo hard! I haven’t eaten in days because I’m so holy and God is so pleased with me!!!”
Don’t do this – instead, do your best not to give any physical clues. Smile. Splash some water on your face.
3. Not when praying…
In Matt 6:5 Jesus talks about prayer in the same context:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Don’t be like the hypocrites – they pray loudly in the most public of places. “Oh Lord, thank you for making me such a holy and humble person! I am your chosen servant! Let everyone know my deeds and praise me – I mean YOU… let everyone see my deeds and praise you…”
Go into your room, shut the door, pray to your Father who is in secret… We are to pray in a way that glorifies God, not in a way that brings glory, popularity, or fame to ourselves – not like hypocrites. God prefers sincere plainspoken words to precise articulate speech from a hypocrite’s heart.
Guarding Against Pride
The principle in all three cases – when giving to the poor, when praying, and when fasting – is that when we are about to do something that will gain us some attention or glory from others, we are to do it as secretly as possible. This is to guard us against pride. Pride is always a mechanism for stealing glory from God, and we are never to do that.
And in each case there is a reward at stake. In each case we must choose what kind of reward we will pursue. If we are like the hypocrites, we will certainly receive a reward. This reward will be the praise of men. But if we do these things in the way that Jesus commands – if we give to the poor in secret, if we pray without an audience, if we fast and no one knows – we will receive a very different reward. We will be rewarded by God.
This post is part a series on forgiveness, based on a sermon called “Forgive and Be Forgiven”. You can listen to the sermon audio here (or right-click and “Save As…” to download)
Other posts in this series:
Part 1 – Don’t Be a Hypocrite
Part 2 – A Prayer to Be Recited?
Part 3 – Giving Up the Desire to Punish
Part 4 – Don’t Be Like the Unforgiving Servant
Part 5 – The Older Brother Syndrome
Part 6 – Living the Forgiving (and Forgiven) Life
Part 7 – What Forgiveness Isn’t…
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