Your Secret Life
(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
All of us agree: the world isn’t what it should be.
We all wish the world would change. But how? How can we change the world, when we can hardly change ourselves? The forces of conformity and peer pressure are so strong. We set out to change the world, and time and time again the reverse happens. Or we resist the status quo with such fury that we become bitter, cynical, angry – hardly models of a better world. That’s why we aren’t surprised when Jesus turns to the dynamics of change in our personal lives. He shows us how to be the change we want to see in the world.
The key concept, according to Jesus, is the opposite of what we might expect. If you want to see change in the outside world, the first step is to withdraw into your inner world. Connect with God in secret, and the results will occur ‘openly’.
Jesus offers three specific examples of how this withdrawal process works: giving in secret, praying in secret and fasting in secret. Giving, praying and fasting are often called spiritual disciplines or practices: actions within our power by which we become capable of things currently beyond our power.
For example, can you run twenty miles? If you haven’t trained, no matter how well intentioned you are, you will be reduced to a quivering mass of cramps and exhaustion before you reach the finish line. But, as thousands of people have learned, you can start training. You can start running shorter distances in private, and gradually increase them. A few months from now you could cross the finish line in full public view!
If through physical practice a lazy slug can end up a lean and energetic runner, then through spiritual practice an impatient and self-obsessed egotist can become a gentle, generous and mature human being. But Jesus makes clear that not just any practices will do: we need the right practices, employed with the right motives. ‘Practice makes perfect’, it turns out, isn’t quite accurate. It’s truer to say practice makes habit. That’s why Jesus emphasises the importance of practising prayer, fasting and generosity in secret. If we don’t withdraw from public view, we’ll habitually turn our spiritual practices into a show for others, which will sabotage their power to bring deep change in us. So, instead of seeking to appear more holy or spiritual in public than we are in private, Jesus urges us to become more holy or spiritual in private than we appear to be in public.
When it comes to giving, Jesus says, don’t publicise your generosity like the hypocrites do. Don’t let your left hand know how generous your right hand is. By giving in secret, you’ll experience the true reward of giving. A good way to make secret giving habitual is to give on a regular basis to the local church, as a percentage of our income, as we learn in scripture. As our income increases over time, we can increase our standard of giving and not just our standard of living. It’s kind of ironic: a lot of people do ugly things in secret – they steal, lie, cheat and so on. Jesus reverses things, urging us to plot goodness in secret, to do good and beautiful things without getting caught.
It’s the same when it comes to prayer, Jesus says. Prayer can either strengthen your soul in private or raise your profile in public, but not both. So don’t parrot the empty phrases of those who pray as if they were being paid by the word. A few simple words, uttered in secret, make much more sense . . . especially since God knows what you need before you even ask. Jesus offers a model for the kind of simple, concise, private prayer that he recommends. His model prayer consists of four simple but profound moves.
First, we orient ourselves to God. We acknowledge God as the loving parent whose infinite embrace puts us in a family relationship with all people, and with all creation. And we acknowledge God as the glorious holy mystery whom we can name but who can never be contained by our words or concepts.
Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire. We want the world to be the kind of place where God’s dreams come true, where God’s justice and compassion reign.
Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns – our physical needs for things like food and shelter, and our social and spiritual needs for things like forgiveness for our wrongs and reconciliation with those who have wronged us.
Finally, we prepare ourselves for the public world which we will soon re-enter. We ask to be guided away from the trials and temptations that could ruin us, and we ask to be liberated from evil.
Immediately after the model prayer, Jesus adds a reminder that God isn’t interested in creating a forgiveness market where people come and acquire cheap forgiveness for themselves. God is interested in creating a whole forgiveness economy – where forgiveness is freely received and freely given, unleashing waves of reconciliation in our world that is so ravaged by waves of resentment and revenge.
Jesus takes us through the same pattern with the spiritual practice of fasting: ‘Whenever you . . . do not . . . but do . . .’ he says. Whenever you fast, don’t try to look all sad and dishevelled like those who make spirituality a performance. Instead, keep your hunger a secret. Let every minute when your stomach is growling be a moment where you affirm to God, ‘More than my body desires food, I desire you, Lord! More than my stomach craves fullness, I crave to be full of you! More than my tongue desires sweetness or salt, my soul desires your goodness!’
So, Jesus teaches, if we make our lives a show staged for others to avoid their criticism or gain their praise, we won’t experience the reward of true aliveness.
It’s only in secret, in the presence of God alone, that we begin the journey to aliveness.
Jesus now turns to the subject of wealth. Just as we can practise giving, prayer and fasting for social enhancement or spiritual benefit, we can build our lives around public, external, financial wealth or a higher kind of ‘secret’ wealth. Jesus calls this higher wealth ‘treasure in heaven’. Not only is this hidden wealth more secure, it also recentres our lives in God’s presence, and that brings a shift to our whole value system so that we see everything differently. When we see and measure everything in life in terms of money, all of life falls into a kind of dismal shadow. When we seek to be rich in generosity and kindness instead, life is full of light.
Some people shame the poor, as if the only reason poor people are poor is that they’re lazy or stupid. Some shame the rich, as if the only reason they’re rich is that they’re selfish and greedy. Jesus doesn’t shame anyone, but calls everyone to a higher kind of wealth and a deeper kind of ambition. And that ambition begins not with how we want to appear in public, but with who we want to be in secret.
The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures. In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure it will bear fruit through us . . . fruit that can change the world.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you did something good – but for a less-than-ideal motive.
3. How do you respond to the four-part summary of Jesus’ model prayer?
4. For children: Why do you think grown-ups think about money so much? What do you think about money? Do you get an allowance? Is that important to you? Why?
5. Activate: This week, decide whether you’d like to experiment with giving, fasting or praying in secret. But don’t tell anyone!
6. Meditate: Hold the phrase ‘treasure in heaven’ in silence in God’s presence, and notice how your heart responds.