Becoming Like Jesus in Quiet Service
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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. Matthew 6:1-4
The cost of discipleship is that we must put an end to our spiritual pride. We must ruthlessly abandon any attempts to be good or appear good on our own. Our good deeds must flow from our connection to Jesus and not the other way around. We bring no goodness to him and we must reject any thoughts that suggest otherwise.
Jesus doesn’t call us to be good little Christians. And we do not become Christian or holy through our piety, regardless of how pure our motives when we pursue holiness. The things we do, the prayers we pray, the service we offer to others do not make us holy and when we think and act like they do, we are embracing heresy, plain and simple.
At the same time, Bonhoeffer notes, Jesus says nothing about abandoning the world, separating ourselves from others in a monastic fashion. He will have nothing to do with an impractical religion that establishes a contrived environment where it is easy to love the world at a distance.
Jesus didn’t leave the comfort of heaven and get dirty and bloody and hurt just so we could live out a mythological Christianity of the sweet-by-and-by. A Christianity of goodness and good feeling, where people see us and declare us to be nice people. Aren’t they special? Aren’t they extraordinary? And when we receive such praise, we are stealing from Jesus.
Jesus calls us to always be vigilant in examining the motives of our Christian service. Our “better righteousness” should never be about bringing praise to ourselves and the best way to prevent that is to never focus on what people will think when we do something for others.
Jesus insists we surrender our motives to his righteousness, where our old self is crucified and the ego is no longer central. That way, what emerges from the inside of us is the righteousness of Jesus, not our own mere good intentions.
- Bonhoeffer argues that we should be unconscious of doing good. What do you think happens if we become conscious of doing good?
(Bonhoeffer says, “All that the follower of Jesus has to do is to make sure that his obedience, following, and love are entirely spontaneous and unpremeditated. If you do good, you must not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing; you must be quite unconscious of it. Otherwise you are simply displaying your own virtue, and not that which has its source in Jesus Christ.”)
The apostle Paul tells us: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. This life that I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Our service to others should be an act of worship and when we draw attention to ourselves, we’re no longer worshiping God; we’re actually creating a situation where others will worship us. Is there any doubt why this would be offensive to God?
When we obey Jesus, we line up with his thoughts and his plans. Our agenda, our focus, and our desires become one with his and, as a result, the things we do for others in the name of Jesus become second nature to us. We do them without thinking about what others may think or how we may be rewarded.
- Jesus has placed his life inside you and his objective is to love others through you even as you keep learning how much he loves you. Will you obediently trust Jesus and let his life flow through you to serve others or will you try to serve others in your own strength?
Becoming Like Jesus in Prayer
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But 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. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Matthew 6:5-8
Prayer is an intimate conversation with your heavenly Father. When you try to impress others with your ability to pray, you mock that intimacy. You appear to be focusing on the Father when you’re actually focusing on yourself—your needs, your wants, your ability to persuade and bully God, and your desire to impress others with your knowledge of how to get God to give you what you want when you want it. It’s absolutely no different from standing up and saying, “Look at me so you can be impressed with how connected I am with God!”
If your motivation in prayer is to impress people, then Jesus says you will get what you want: praise from other people. In truth, that is exactly what you are asking for when you pray to impress. God wants you to talk to him as if you are a member of his family because, as a disciple of Jesus, you are part of God’s family. Bonhoeffer notes a disciple’s prayer should be like a child talking with his father. A child doesn’t have to impress his father (or anyone else) to get him to listen and respond to his requests.
Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “It matters little what form of prayer we adopt or how many words we use, what matters is the faith which lays hold on God and touches the heart of the Father who knew us long before we came to him.”
Prayer is not a tool for getting things from God; no more than a conversation is simply a means for ordering meals at the drive-through window. Our modern approach to prayer is to look at it like just another piece of technology. We place our order with God by speaking into the device of prayer thus reducing the Master and Creator of the universe to a mere order-taker.
Jesus will not allow such a trivial view of prayer. He commands that we keep it intimate, and nearly every prayer he utters in the New Testament begins with Abba, an affectionate name for a tender, loving father. This is why he says not to ramble on with repetitive words like the pagans do. We wouldn’t do that in a conversation with someone we loved and honored; why would we do that when we speak in intimate conversation with the Father?
Jesus is showing us that relationships in the kingdom of heaven are lovingly other-focused and this is reflected in the way we pray. Bonhoeffer says prayer is the antithesis of self-display. We focus on God and not on ourselves. By focusing on God, who he is, and what he can do, our problems become smaller and his power to deal with them becomes larger. Of course, it has always been that way, but we have been thinking like mortal men and not thinking like eternal beings who reside in the kingdom of heaven.
- What do your prayers say about the way you view God?
- What do your prayers say about your faith in God?
We do not need to know how prayer works or why. This only serves to take our focus off Jesus; rather, we need to know that Jesus works within us to give us Christlike character and to bring us through the narrow gate into the kingdom of heaven. Prayer prepares us for the kingdom by teaching us, not only how God thinks, but also by showing us his will in action.
- If you believed without a doubt that God heard your prayers and would specifically answer them, how would you pray?
(Start praying that way!)
Self-centered prayers are a signal you need to mature toward God-centered prayer. The issue is not what you are doing wrong; rather, Jesus is providing a measurement so you can plainly see when you are out of alignment with him. Don’t get stuck on your failure; instead, follow Jesus into an intimate prayer life where you focus on God and join him in his love for others.
- Will you, in obedient faith, use prayer to enter into an intimate conversation with the Father or will you use prayer as a tool for getting what you want or showing others how clever you are?
Becoming Like Jesus in Spiritual Disciplines
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:16-18
Have you ever had a question in your mind about how deeply Jesus was devoted to God? Don’t we tend to see it as a given that Jesus was totally devoted to the Father?
The truth is, Jesus had to be totally devoted to the Father for him to be who he was and to do what he did. In addition, Jesus didn’t have to show everyone how devoted he was to God because his relentless obedience to the Father’s will was proof enough. Jesus focused on the Father and trusted with certainty that God would see what he was doing and would reward him for his faithful obedience.
If you want to be like Jesus, then the thing to do is to follow him into a relentless obedience to God’s will and to stop drawing attention to yourself and your own spirituality. Focus on pleasing God and not pleasing yourself or pleasing those around you. Don’t try to prove your devotion to God, just show God how devoted you are to him.
In this passage of scripture, Jesus continues to contrast life in this world with life in the kingdom of heaven, and it should come as no surprise, he is moving you toward a choice. In essence, he says, if you want to live by the standards of this world, then make a big show about your devotion to God. When you fast, act like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. Give yourself that ruffled look, like you haven’t had a meal in days and you’re really suffering for it. Tell everyone you’re on a special fast, waiting to hear from God or demanding that the Almighty give you a spiritual breakthrough.
If you choose to live this way, you will impress people. They will see you as godly. You might even impress yourself. But you won’t be impressing God because he sees into your heart and he knows the pride and fear you harbor there. The affirmation and adoration you get from others will be your reward, but that’s all you’re going to get.
If you want to be rewarded in the kingdom (and if you want to be like Jesus), then go about your fasting quietly. Let the joy of the Lord naturally emerge on your face. Dress like you usually do and then make your way through the day in such a way that no one will look at you and wonder when you had your last meal.
You don’t have to tell others you’ve skipped a meal or two. You don’t even have to tell God. He already knows. Perhaps we see the gentle humor of Jesus in his patient explanation that the God who is unseen is perfectly capable of seeing. If he isn’t able to see what we’re doing, then he really isn’t God. The truth is, he sees directly into our hearts and he knows whether we are partially or totally devoted to him.
We are the ones who cannot see the difference between distraction and devotion, and so we do things to prove our devotion even though Jesus keeps on telling us that the proof is in our hearts, not in the things we do.
- Paul says the spiritual disciplines keep us spiritually fit and focused on Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:23-27). Some of the common spiritual disciplines are prayer, Bible memorization, fasting, simplicity, and solitude. Are you doing any of these? How can you incorporate some more of these into your life?
Becoming Like Jesus in Trusting the Father
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:19-24
The secret to carefree living is to stay focused on Jesus, always looking to him for direction and provision. If you look anywhere else, you’re simply setting yourself up for worry and eventual failure. Jesus is the rock we build our lives upon; anything else is simply sinking sand.
Bonhoeffer says when we focus on anything other than Jesus, we are looking at a mirage of the real world. We’re simply trafficking in shadows that shift and slip away without warning. By focusing on Christ, we catch a glimpse of the real world established in the kingdom of heaven.
We are disciples because we keep our focus singular, on Jesus—never Jesus-plus-the-law, Jesus-plus-religion, Jesus-plus-the-world. Our inability to remain focused exclusively on Christ is at the heart of why we have such difficulty living carefree within the grace of God. It is why we struggle to find the abundant life promised by Jesus and why we have such difficulty resting in the arms of God, wiggling ourselves with child-like faith in the Sabbath rest promised by God.
When we live out our faith as if we’re to adhere to Jesus-plus-the-law or Jesus-plus-proving-we’re-nice-people, then we are submitting ourselves to two masters—and Jesus says that will never work. We will end up hating one and loving the other.
Jesus says our possessions, or the things that possess us, expose what we are devoted to; they reveal where our heart lies. Bonhoeffer notes Jesus isn’t suggesting that to be a Christian means you must live in poverty; rather, he’s talking about possessions that possess you.
- Are you prepared to give it away when asked for or, like the rich young man, will you walk away from Jesus saddened because you are possessed by much?
God gives us possessions (really, we’re just stewards) not so we can hoard them, but so we can use them to bring him glory and advance his kingdom. In the wilderness, God gave the Hebrews manna to sustain them, but it spoiled when they tried to hoard it. God also provides for the disciple every day, and if the disciple builds bigger barns to preserve the wealth, they ruin not only the wealth but themselves as well. Jesus warns that our hearts are devoted to what we treasure.
- How do we know the difference between the things we need to keep for legitimate use and those that represent an unnecessary accumulation of possessions?
(Bonhoeffer says we only need reverse the words of Jesus: the place you will most want to be, and end up being, is the place where your treasure is. Small or large, Bonhoeffer says, “Everything which hinders us from loving God above all things and acts as a barrier between ourselves and our obedience to Jesus is our treasure, and the place where our heart is.”)
The more we possess, the more we have to care for our possessions and that leads to our possessions eventually possessing us. Jesus doesn’t forbid us to have possessions. His point is that we should not allow our possessions to get in the way of following him—and the more we accumulate, the more likely we are to worry about how we will pay for, take care of, keep and protect the things we own.
Suddenly, we’re serving things instead of serving Jesus. We begin to believe, “It is all up to me to pay for these things and to provide for my needs and my family’s needs.” And that is fallen thinking locked into the economy of this world. Jesus says in God’s economy, in the kingdom of heaven, our Father is the provider and he knows our needs better than we do ourselves. Look around. Look at how he provides. Now believe he will provide for you.
- When we worry, we reveal our lack of faith. Jesus brings us to a choice: Will you trust me or will you not trust me? If you trust me, you will not worry. If you worry, then you do not trust me. Is this realistic?
(We think, “But…but…but…” Jesus gives no wiggle room on worry. When we worry, we have stopped following Jesus. When we worry, we are no longer submitted to Jesus. When we worry, we sin. Jesus went to the cross because of our worry; yet, it is an overwhelmingly accepted sin within the Christian community.)
- Will you obediently trust Jesus or will you put more faith in your worry? Do you believe things would be different if you put as much time into prayer as you do worry? If yes, why don’t you do just that?
Becoming Like Jesus in Our Acceptance of Non-Believers
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:1-12
Like Joshua at the borders of the Promised Land, Jesus brings us to where we can see the kingdom of heaven spread out before us. We must separate from our old life, and the boundaries between the old and new are very clear. But Bonhoeffer says this raises the question of how we should relate to our non-Christian neighbors. One thing is clear, there is no room for harsh judgment because the source of our new life lies exclusively in our fellowship with Jesus Christ. Our righteousness comes only from our union with Jesus and not from anything we’ve done, not from anything outside of our relationship with him.
For that very reason, says Bonhoeffer, we can never use our righteousness as a measurement applied against the life of others, in particular those who are not in union with Christ. We have not set the standard for Christian living; rather, we follow Jesus Christ, the Mediator and very Son of God, who applies his righteousness to us.
With this in mind, we have no justification for maintaining a superior, judgmental, holier-than-thou view over anyone. There but for the grace of God go I. It is not our place to tell others how they ought to live; rather, our role is to take them to Jesus and he can tell them how to find life, a life extraordinary.
Because we belong to Jesus, we can no longer judge others independent of Jesus. We must see them through the eyes of Jesus. The unconditional love of Jesus flowing through us will condemn their sins far better than anything we could do or say, and the Holy Spirit working on them will convict them for their sin.
- The issue is, will you trust God to handle judgment or will you insist on bringing your own judgment into the relationship?
(“Judging others makes us blind,” says Bonhoeffer, “whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” It is only by seeing with the eyes of Christ, as we look at others from the foot of the cross, that we are able to see them with clarity, understanding they need forgiveness in the same way we do. The changing of our perspective on this is one marker of our passage from this world into the kingdom of heaven.)
Jesus does not limit those we cannot judge to the familiar. He tells us not to judge any human being because all humans are created in the image of God. When we objectify and dehumanize our enemies, using the common racial slurs, we undermine our own ability to love them unconditionally—which is what Jesus commands us to do.
Jesus does not give us the power or the right to force the gospel on others. This is why we waste our time when we demand non-believers to act as if they believe. He says we are casting pearls before swine. This is also why we waste our time trying to legislate Christianity. Jesus never suggests a nation can become Christian by legislation or imperial command.
When we try to force others to believe in Jesus, we deny the power of Christ to persuade them through his unconditional love. We deny the power of his death and resurrection to transform lives. Jesus doesn’t need us to force people to change. He is perfectly capable of bringing about change in their lives. Our role is to obediently trust Jesus will use his life flowing through us to nudge people toward change. It requires faith to believe Jesus will transform the lives of others and the cost of discipleship for us is to get out of the way as he works through us.
- The life of Jesus flows from him into us, transforming us. We have no basis for judging others; in fact, we must now see them as Jesus sees them—with compassion and love. Knowing this, will you continue to judge others or will you allow the love of God to flow through you into them?
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