Tim Keller wrote, “The only person who dares wake up a king at 3:00 AM for a glass of water is a child. We have that same access to God.”
That’s either true or it isn’t.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he is fighting for our hearts to believe we have this kind of access to the Father. When he tells us not to put on a show when we pray, fast, or give—not to act as though what we are doing is primarily for the sake of those around us—Jesus fights for us by shining a light on our motives. Why? Why would he want to purify our motives for these things and call us to practice our faith out of a genuine love for God, and not mere self-love?
The answer might seem obvious. We could say he’s fighting for us to stop our hypocrisy because he doesn’t like it. And of course that’s part of it. But aside from curbing negatives, Jesus is always after awakening positives in us too. When Jesus rebukes our hypocrisy, he is fighting for our joy.
What’s at stake when we live as hypocrites—play-acting our way through this life of faith? The Sermon on the Mount contrasts two worlds—the one we see and the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus is teaching us how to live now as citizens of another Kingdom. That tells us Jesus’ warnings against hypocrisy are not simply about our posture in prayer, fasting, or giving. They are about how we engage with a God who is real and who sees us and hears us.
God doesn’t give us commands because he is particular and easily upset. He gives us commands so that we might know how to love him and interact with his love for us. Commands against hypocrisy are not about how to keep ourselves from upsetting a cranky God. They are about how to draw near to a loving God.
Take prayer as an example. Prayer is a glorious concept where we, the meek and lowly, can address the High King of Heaven with the promise that he hears us! So Jesus says, in effect, “When you pray, don’t pretend, as though nothing is actually happening. Don’t waste the moment by making it all about how others see you. You’ll exhaust yourself. There is no end to that.”
What happens when we try to use our emotional expressions of worship to obtain the approval of others? What does that cost us? We all do it, don’t we? It costs us the ability to truly feel and express our emotions. Some of us try to keep ourselves so emotionally composed that we no longer know how to honestly emote. This costs us dearly. When we control our emotive posture, we rob ourselves of real joy, sorrow, and wonder. We lose the practice of celebration because our expressions of joy are measured. We resist the cleansing need to grieve because we have banned ourselves from feeling deep sorrow. We won’t permit ourselves to feel awe because we have trained ourselves not to see wonder.
Likewise, we won’t rest in the promised nearness of God when all our generosity, fasting, and prayers are offered either for show or for self-comfort.
Do you hear now the love of Jesus in the command to not pretend when we fast, give, and pray. He is not just fighting against hypocrisy. He is fighting for our joy, our delight, our learning to speak the language of glory, to which hypocrisy denies access. We are learning our native and eternal tongue when we fast, give, and pray. Jesus is fighting for our joy.
© 2017 Christ Presbyterian Church. All Rights Reserved.
Russ Ramsey is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is a graduate of Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary. Follow Russ on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.