A Good Word for Secrecy
Let’s linger a bit longer with the gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6: 1 – 6, 16 – 21), which I mentioned yesterday. It seems to me to have a new resonance in our “connected” world. Moreover, in a world that so prizes — or claims to prize — openness, transparency, being heard and being seen, is there still be a place for the reserved, for secrets and for the inner life?
In this passage, Jesus speaks of the three classical spiritual practices of his Jewish faith — almsgiving (giving to the poor), prayer and fasting. He doesn’t say not to do them. Go for it. But he adds a warning.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
Jesus concludes his teaching on each practice with the same direction, that these things are to be done “in secret.” “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Same with prayer and fasting. Don’t do it to be noticed by others.
As with all of the Sermon on the Mount, this is a big ask. The general need for recognition and appreciation is pretty human. It isn’t always wrong to give it or receive it. It can be, in fact, good. A literal interpretation of this would put university development offices out of business.
But it is dangerous. There is the danger of attention-seeking. Which can become a kind of drug. And the even greater danger, a disconnect between our outsides and our insides, between the person others see and the person you are — in secret.
I remember the first time or two that an article of mine was bannered across the cover of The Christian Century magazine. I thought, “Wow, I’ve made it! I’m somebody. Ain’t I great!” But the curious thing was how very short-lasting that high was. Within a day I would be grumpy, despondent and wallowing in the old self-doubt. The short upper gave way to a longer downer.
With perspective and maturity, I would like to think I’ve learned to hold my successes (and failures) a little more lightly, and to take both praise and criticism with a grain, or a shaker, of salt.
But here’s where this text has a new resonance. What strikes me about our current situation, our new cyber reality, the world of social media, tweets and all the rest, is that we have legalized this dangerous drug of attention, notice, or celebrity. We’ve made it easily accessible. widely available and socially acceptable. Not just acceptable, but mandated.
While social media can be an innocent way of “sharing,” it easily morphs into competition for attention and notice. “Clicks” and “likes” become addictive. Increasingly, it seems, life has become very much about being “seen by others.” It is “celebrity culture.” We have a new word for it — “performative.” People perform themselves to be noticed, to be lauded, to get attention. A preoccupation with being “seen by others” is no longer a character flaw. It is a social imperative.
But it’s still a drug. It’s still a false high that soon requires another hit. Within bounds, recognition and appreciation are, as I say, human, even good. But we seem to have moved beyond that. If clicks or likes are your measure of your value, you’re on thin ice. Being “seen by others” does not for integrity make. “Celebrity culture” is a toxin to a healthy society.
Jesus encourages us to stop drugging ourselves with this search for attention and notice, with “practicing our piety in order to be seen by others.” It may give you a short-term high, but this is not the “living water” of which Jesus said, “those who drink of it shall thirst no more.”
Here’s the truth in which you can find rest — the invisible God knows the real you. God knows who you really are in your amazing beauty and prodigious flaws, your acts of great kindness and your times of being a true jerk. And it’s this real you that God wants and loves wholly and without ceasing.
It is the inner life, in the end, that matters. The outer life not so much. It feels as if that perspective is in jeopardy, if not lost, in contemporary culture.
Jesus asks us to pay less attention to the outer, but to be better stewards of the inner. Coming honestly before God who sees “in secret” is liberation. To know as we are known.