“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
(Matthew 6:1-4 ESV)
Two motivations, two rewards
Jesus was a very practical man. He said that there were two motivations for doing good that lead to two different rewards. He said that if you were motivated by the first, you will receive the first reward and if you are motivated by the second you will receive the second reward.
The first motivation for doing good is the praise of man. People want others to think that they are good people, and one of the best ways to do that is to do good works. This was the aim of the Pharisees, they did good for the purpose of looking righteous. This landed them with the less-than-flattering label of “whitewashed tombs.” (Matthew 23:27) But Jesus says something really interesting about being like the Pharisees. He says that if you are like them, you will actually get exactly what you want, which is to say, the praise of men.
What’s wrong with that?
So what’s wrong with doing good so people think that you are a stand-up guy? There are a lot of reasons, but I think an important one it is that Jesus wants us to be rugged doers of good works. What I mean by that is that if you are doing good works for the sake of people seeing you, you will only do socially expedient good works. For example, if you work to help minorities that have been unfairly treated in the criminal justice system because of their race, you are doing good work. This is work that can be done for God. But, this is also work that can be done so people think you are a good person. And if you do it long enough, you will likely have a specific type of person who follows you and cheers you on. Now, imagine that you find an opportunity to work on college campuses to convince people that abortion is wrong. This is also good work, but now the people who would cheer you on are likely not the same people who would get excited about criminal justice reform. So, if you were working for the approval of people, you would feel tremendous pressure to not do the good of speaking out against abortion. (If that illustration above didn’t resonate with you, you might try flipping the examples and reading it again.)
What is the solution?
Jesus gives us the solution when he says to do your good works in secret, so your heavenly father will reward you. The second-most terrifying thing about working for the opinions of men is that we do not get rewarded from God. The first is that we often do not even want the reward, we prefer the admiration of men. But, if we are seeking the approval and commendation from God, we are no longer beholden to the opinions of people. And this will help us do an incredible amount of good in this world; and not just the popular kind.