Today we’re going to fight a disease together, one that often goes undetected and has eternal side-effects. The disease is that of exhibitionism—the desire to be seen and validated for doing or saying something. This is a sickness that controls lives, binds consciences, distorts motives, and spreads quickly.
While exhibitionism is always ugly, it may be at its worst when it gets into the church. You see, Christians are not immune. We’re all vulnerable to the desire of wanting to be seen doing churchy things by churchy people, whether to impress or avoid disappointing. And one of the terrible symptoms of this illness when it gets into the church is that the desire to be seen godly becomes more important than actually being godly; that more time is spent crafting the illusion of righteousness rather than pursuing real righteousness; that we elevate what those around us think over and above what God in heaven thinks of us.
This morning we want fight exhibitionism and, to do that we’re going to hear from Jesus, the Good Doctor himself, and find help in both diagnosis and treatment.
Today we’re going to fight a disease together, one to which we’re all vulnerable. This is an illness that often goes undetected and has side-effects that reach into eternity. The disease is that of exhibitionism—the desire to be seen and validated for what we do or say.
Virtue signalling is a type of exhibitionism in which an individual publicly expresses sentiments in order to demonstrate their own morality to the world. It’s been asked rhetorically, If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? Virtue signalling is built atop a similar question: If a “good person” isn’t seen being good, are they really that good? The assumed answer is, “probably not,” and so a carefully curated photo album of personal righteousness must be presented to the world through means like social media, award acceptance speeches, and bumper stickers.
And it doesn’t matter if the virtue being signalled is actually moral or if the one signalling actually holds that view. The important part is that others witness them displaying an approved position. It doesn’t matter that I don’t recycle and have three SUVs in the driveway so long as I retweet eco-friendly articles. The optics are what’s important.
This is the disease of exhibitionism—wanting to be seen and heard doing and saying the right things. This sickness controls lives, binds consciences, distorts motives, and spreads quickly.
When the Church Gets Sick
It’s always ugly but it’s at its worst when it makes its way into the church.
You see, Christians are not immune. We’re all vulnerable to the desire of wanting to be seen doing churchy things by other churchy people, whether to impress them or avoid disappointing them. And one of the terrible symptoms of this illness when it gets into the church is that the desire to be seen godly becomes more important than actually being godly; that more time is spent crafting the illusion of righteousness rather than pursuing real righteousness; that we elevate what those around us think of us over and above what God in heaven thinks of us.
It’s a terrible sickness and this morning we want fight it and, to do that, turn to Matthew 6. In this text, Jesus, the Good Doctor himself, is going to help us in both diagnosis and treatment. Matthew 6.
As you turn, recall that in these early days of Jesus’ ministry, it’s the people of Israel that are his focus. Matthew describes him ministering in Jewish areas, calling Jewish disciples, and proclaiming a Jewish kingdom. And, in chapter 5, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, a teaching directed at a Jewish audience. The nation had largely misunderstood, misinterpreted, or misapplied the Mosaic Law and Jesus here is pointing that out.
The Principle Stated
As we come to chapter 6, as part of that national rebuke, we find Jesus confronting the disease of religious exhibitionism. In verse 1 Jesus is crystal clear on the issue. We’ll label this verse the principle stated.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”Matthew 6:1
Notice the assumption that God’s people practice righteousness, examples of which Jesus had just given in chapter 5: Disciples are to put away anger and lust, pursue marital fidelity, uncompromising honesty, long suffering, and sacrificial love. Jesus assumes that God’s people will pursue lives characterized by things like this.
But a warning comes with that assumption: Don’t be a religious exhibitionist. Don’t practice righteousness for human applause, approval, or acceptance. Pursue righteousness, yes; but not just to be seen.
Why? Because God doesn’t reward that. While we may impress or appease people, God’s not easily fooled. He’s not dazzled or star-struck by even the most zealous religiosity.
We should be pursuing righteousness—becoming more like God’s Son, depending on God’s Spirit, submitting to God’s word. But as we pursue that God-given goal, it’s good to, once in a while, get our hearts checked for the disease of exhibitionism. Is there any part of me that’s motivated by what others will think? Am I at all “practicing righteousness before men to be noticed”? Jesus says, “Be careful! God doesn’t reward that.”
The Principle Illustrated
Jesus made his point clear but, as we keep reading, we find he also wanted to make it applicable. Starting in verse 2, Jesus pivots from the principle stated to the principle illustrated, and he gives three intended to further drive home verse 1.
Illustration #1: Giving
The first illustration has to do with giving.
“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honoured by men.”Matthew 6:2a
That’s how not to give. Jesus is saying, “Don’t give in such a way that you ensure others see you do it.” Don’t draw attention to your generosity for the sake of earthly reputation. Why?
“Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”Matthew 6:2b
That applause you sought, experienced, and heard fade, that’s all you’re getting. Jesus says, don’t give this way.
Today he might say, don’t publish your tax write-offs, post acts of generosity online, or announce your charity work, philanthropy, and humanitarian efforts. Christian, don’t advertise your service resume. Jesus says those “likes” you got online, those nods of approval from others, enjoy it! Because that’s all you get. Don’t give that way.
Instead, give this way:
“But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”Matthew 6:3–4
Instead of putting effort into publicity, put it into secrecy to the point where not even you pay attention. God’s people are liberated to give this way—with reckless abandon—because we know none of it goes unnoticed. God sees all, even if others don’t, and his rewards are far greater, with the Father in heaven (v. 1), and are eternal.
Before we move to the second illustration, I want to make sure we don’t swing the pendulum away from exhibitionism and all the way to a form of religious stage-fright, where we’re scared of ever being seen behaving in a godly way because that would forfeited our rewards. Jesus is clearly dealing with motives for godly living. Our motives can be both pure and public just as they can be soiled and secret. The question really is, for whom are we pursuing righteousness? God or people?
Illustration #2: Praying
Jesus moves next to his second illustration: Praying. As with giving, he begins with a statement of what not to do.
“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”Matthew 6:5
Prayer is not a performance to be watched and evaluated. Don’t pray so that others will think, “Wow, he’s godly” or “I wish I had her maturity.” Don’t pray like that. Instead, pray this way.
“But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”Matthew 6:6
Jesus is putting a choice to his followers: Do you want to be rewarded by God or people? You can’t have both.
Jesus continues this illustration.
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”Matthew 6:7–8
Like a foolish student who believes length of essay automatically indicates depth of insight, so Jesus warns against fluffy prayers of exhibition. Don’t bother! God doesn’t need the extra pages of the essay and the padded bibliography. He already knows what you need, so just ask. He’s waiting to hear a sincere dependance and worship not a demonstration of piety and verbal endurance.
After explaining appropriate and inappropriate ways to pray, Jesus now gives a template for prayer. As we read it, note its brevity and its focus on God.
“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name.'”Matthew 6:9
Prayer begins with reverent worship. We want God’s attention, not the attention of others.
“‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.'”Matthew 6:10
Notice the future tense of this request. God bring your kingdom as you said you would and, with it, your perfect will on earth.
“‘Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’”Matthew 6:11–13
Lord, give us what we need physically and spiritually this day, for we are weaker than we even realize. There’s no fluff in that prayer. There’s no self-adoration or exhibitionism. It’s piety without pageantry.
This forgiveness of verse 12 is expounded upon in verses 14 and 15.
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”Matthew 6:14–15
Remember to whom Jesus is speaking: His disciples. So, forgiveness here refers to that which affects our fellowship not our salvation. When we refuse to forgive others who wrong us, that affects our relationships not only with them, but with God. To walk unforgivingly is to walk in unrighteousness (5:43–45) and to walk in unrighteousness is not to walk in favour with God.
Now, don’t forget the context. Jesus is calling out the disease of religious exhibitionism. Don’t pray so as to be seen, applauded, and recognized by people. Instead, go in secret and talk to your Heavenly Father—worshipping him and declaring your dependence upon him. People may not see that, but God does. And he will reward.
Illustration #3: Fasting
That leads us to the third illustration: Fasting.
“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”Matthew 6:16
Fasting was the temporary denial of the physical so as to focus on the spiritual, to prompt worship and prayer. Some were making a show of it. They’d pout, be unkept, exaggerate lethargy. Inevitably, others would notice and say, wow, they must love God. Look what they’re enduring! Jesus says, Don’t fast this way.
Instead, fast this way.
“But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”Matthew 6:17–18
Same song, different verse. Whether giving, praying, fasting, or any other righteous pursuit, if done for the sake of earthly reputation, that reputation is your recompense. But if done to please God, not god’s people, you will be rewarded by him who sees all.
I knew a woman who had been a missionary in Africa all her life but, now in her 90’s, was almost entirely confined to a chair in her apartment. Day after day, hour after hour, she would sit and pray through our church directory. No fanfare. Rarely a visitor. But she knew God saw her and was listening, and that was enough for her.
Brothers and sisters, “God, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” for your generosity, your study, your private worship, your attempts at evangelism, and good deeds. He sees the phone calls you make and the texts you send, the meals you prepare, the diapers you change, the morality you pursue, the honesty you exhibit, the love you give, the forgiveness you extend, the loyalty you grip, and the grace you extend. He see it all.
Religious exhibitionism is a brutal disease and Jesus calls it out here in Matthew 6. Be careful practicing righteousness for the purpose of being seen. Nothing good can come from it. Instead, pursue godliness knowing that the only One that really matters sees all.
The Principle Activated
So far this morning we’ve seen the principle stated and the principle illustrated. I want to end by considering the principle activated. What will this look like in our lives this week?
I suggest we live like One is watching! Because he is. Live like One [God] is watching! That reality will strike us all different ways, so let me speak to three groups of people.
First, if you’re watching, listening, or reading this and you’ve never trusted Jesus Christ for eternal life, please hear me tell you that God sees you, he loves you, he sent his Son to die for you that you may live eternally with him in Paradise. But it’s a gift that must be unwrapped by faith.
May I suggest that for you to live like One is watching this week is for you to speak to that watching God say, “God, I’m a sinner in need of salvation. I know you’ve provided that in Jesus. I believe in him—that he’s your Son and that he died on the cross for the sins of the world (including mine), and rose from the dead.” Friend, God is watching. He hears you. Call out to him.
Second, you may be watching or listening to this as a Christian who has not been living as a Christian. In fact, that God is watching is an uncomfortable and convicting thought that you may even be trying to reject right now. Well, I’m glad it’s bothering you! It should. If we’re living in sin, the knowledge that nothing escapes the gaze of our perfectly just Creator should be unnerving.
If that’s you, to live like One is watching is to repent. To ask God to forgive you and restore you to fellowship with him. Don’t wait. Like like One is watching and reconcile with him to saved you and loves you.
Third, to what I assume is the majority of you out there, what does it mean to live like One is watching this week? Well, I’m going to encourage you to select one person, couple, or family from your church family, and, without telling anyone (including them!), serve them this week.
Maybe you’ll pray for them, drop a gift card in their mailbox, or shovel their driveway. Whatever it is, serve them, but do it anonymously. (Well, anonymously as far as people goes; we know, God sees all!) And, knowing he’s watching, after you’ve served them, thank God for the reward to come, because he’s promised it.
We want to be a church family that is characterized by piety without pageantry. We want to be a people who run headlong after godliness, following the means that God himself has prescribed for us, but we want to do it for him. We want to live like One is watching. Will others see us? I hope so! But that’s merely a beautiful byproduct of a godly life; it’s not the goal. The goal is worship. The goal is pleasing our Saviour.
May God root out in us any signs of religious exhibitionism this week and re-focus each of us—and all of us together—on the only pair of watching eyes that ultimately matter: His.