“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that you alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”
While I was in seminary Lenten disciplines became an incredible competition. Lent used to be a time of preparation for believers, a time of prayer, penance, repentance, self-denial, and catechesis. Today, in many churches, Lenten observance has been compartmentalized into giving up some of our temptations during the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. At Duke Divinity it was not uncommon to hear subtle braggings throughout the halls; “This year I’m giving up sweets (and because we were in seminary there was always a theological reason) and every time I want to eat a cupcake I will pray instead.” Or “Im going to give up eating meat in order to honor the glory of God’s creation.” Or “I’m giving up television so that my focus can remain on the Word of God.”
I love my friends and peers from divinity school, but two years ago I outdid all of them. I gave up four Fs: Facebook, Fast-food, Fermented Drinks, and Facial Hair (which meant that I shaved every morning for forty days).
What I didn’t realize, at the time, was how often I shared and bragged about what I was giving up. As people would compare their sacrifices and temptations during that liturgical season I was there waiting for the right moment to outshine them with the ultimate sacrifices of a social network, McDonalds, Beer, and my Beard.
I am ashamed at how often I can easily turn the gospel around to be more about my own selfishness than the Good News of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus addressed the crowds and warned them about their piety regarding alms-giving it was all about intentionality. Whenever you drop your offering in the plate, whenever you bring your donations to the local mission, whenever you bring food to the local soup kitchen to not brag about it and share the news with everyone else. If that is your motive, than you are serving yourself and not others.
As we prepare to enter the coming weeks of Lent I encourage each of you to remain committed to doing God’s good work in the world not for yourself, but for the glory of God. If you choose to give up a temptation during Lent do not brag about it to your friends and peers but focus instead on spending more time with God. May God grant each of us the strength to be better and love deeper.