An Audience of One

No one likes to be overlooked or ignored, especially when it comes to any good deeds that we do.  That is why people have through the ages made it a point to do their good deeds or religious acts in a way that achieves maximum visibility or exposure.  Whether it is through long, flowery and public prayers, or making the big donation for “naming rights” in the capital campaign, the underlying intent is often the same:  “Look at me!”  The implied message is, of course, not missed by any who may be watching:  “I’m better than you.”

Religious Grand-standing

Jesus had some scathing words for those who engage in such religious grand-standing, and warned his followers to avoid that approach, noting that it is rife with hypocrisy, and fueled by self-righteousness and pride (Matthew 23:2-12). Moreover, doing such things in order to impress others provides no lasting satisfaction even if our “show” succeeds in garnering their praise. And, if we do our acts of “worship” or good deeds in order to be seen or recognized, he tells us that we somehow negate any reward from God. In short, the praise or reward of people will be all there is, and as we know, even that is no sure thing.

To avoid this trap and guard against our natural craving to be recognized and admired, Jesus taught that we should be intentional in not calling attention to our religious acts and good deeds.  He used specific examples that go to the heart of the approach of self-righteous, religious people everywhere, including praying, fasting, and giving to the needy while calling attention to themselves (Matthew 6:1-18).  Rest assured, said Jesus, our good deeds done “in secret” won’t be overlooked by the “audience” that matters:

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.“  And …when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:3-6)

Living coram Deo

The underlying truth is that God sees all that we do for what it truly is. As sung by Bob Dylan, “He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask.”[1] Christian theologians have described this perspective in the Latin phrase coram Deo, literally “before the face of God.”  When we live this way, as Jesus reminds us above, we find an audience of One who always knows whether our worship is genuine and our good deeds sincere, because God sees all and weighs our hearts.[2]

There are immediate consequences to this change in perspective. For one thing, we are freed from the concern of being misunderstood. We can be assured that God will see our true intentions, even if others do not. Again, that is a two-edged sword as God will see our sincerity as well as our duplicity or mixed motives.

Living coram Deo also frees us from the need for affirmation by others. While it is certainly nice to be recognized, appreciated, or even thanked when we serve others, this is something that we cannot control and must not insist upon before we do for them the good that is within our power and opportunity to do. And let us be honest, when we do not get the thanks or recognition we think we deserve—or worse, it wrongly goes to another person—we are left resentful and embittered. Some of us have harbored such feelings for a long time, and they have thoroughly robbed our lives of joy. The antidote to such ills, says Jesus, is to look to God and not other people for our recognition and reward.

[1] Bob Dylan, “When He Returns” (Slow Train Coming, Capitol 1979)

[2] See also, 1 Samuel 16:7