I’ve been thinking a lot about three-legged stools since Mark’s sermon this past Sunday. They are superior to the four-legged bar stools in my kitchen which are never flush to the ground. They rock. They squeak. Their legs work themselves loose. Three-legged stools are unique in their stability. Mark, of course, was not talking about carpentry so much, but the three legs that provide stability to our spirituality. Jesus identifies them in Matthew 6 as: giving to the poor, prayer and fasting. The long-term commitment to and deliberate practice of generosity, self-denial and prayer are the keys to a deep, rich, and strong spiritual life.
I have to admit that this grates against me for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, I am an American and as an American, I don’t associate spirituality with a set of practices. I see spirituality as a collection of experiences. I associate words like spontaneous, mind-blowing, unplanned, emotionally-charged and free-form. I think of settings like a concert or a gathering of people where God “suddenly shows up.” It feels more like a “high.” I don’t tend to think of spirituality as a set of practices that are consistently followed for a long period of time.
Second, the whole idea of working at our relationship with Christ seems to be at odds with the whole concept of grace. We teach at our church that God accepts us not based on our performance, but on what Christ did for us. He became a human being. He lived a perfect life for us. He died our death. He rose from the dead. He offers eternal life to those who receive this gift by faith. Jesus does the work. We receive the gift. So why should we do anything? Wouldn’t giving to the poor, prayer and fasting turn into an attempt to make ourselves look good to God and to others. Didn’t Jesus die to save us from all this work?
There is some truth to this objection when you consider that Jesus’ fiercest opponents, the Pharisees, practiced all three legs of the spiritual stool religiously. The Pharisees gave at least 10% of their income. They fasted as often as twice a week. They prayed publicly. And yet they hated Jesus and he rightly called them hypocrites. So what was wrong? It wasn’t the behavior, it was the motivation.
Matthew 6:2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.
Matthew 6:5 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 men. I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.
Matthew 6:16 When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
In other words, they were praying, fasting and giving to the poor for the same reason a wide receiver thumps his chest after scoring a touchdown or an actress wears a tight revealing dress on the red carpet — to be noticed, to be praised. Such religious practice is worthless because it is just a show. As Jesus says, why look for God to reward you, you’ve already received the reward you were seeking.
We all know religious types who are motivated by a desire to look good. Religious showmen are plenty and Jesus rightly condemns their hypocrisy. But he doesn’t condemn the practice, rather he calls us to do them with a new motivation.
Matthew 6:3 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 6:6 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.
Matthew 6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men 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.
CS Lewis in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, said that humans are wired with a “great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.” That, I believe, is at the heart of true spirituality. We all seek to be praised and affirmed. The question is, whose approval are we seeking?
I attended the Celtics-Knicks game back in January and I was struck by the crowds’ scramble to get noticed by the fan-cam and be broadcasted on the jumbotron. There we were, 60,000 people desperately wanting to get noticed. Perhaps the mark of the shallowness of our spirituality is our obsession with celebrity. We worship those who are obnoxious enough to grab headlines or catch the camera-man’s eye. It has infected the church. Pastors like me want bigger churches that will afford more attention and gain more accolades. We want to publish books. We want to speak at large conferences. We want to get on TV. We want to be praised, but we are seeking it from those whose rewards are worthless.
Jesus is not denying our desire to be noticed or praised even. He is calling us to seek the praise of the one whose love is far more rewarding. Those who are satisfied by the accolades of other people will miss out on this deeper spiritual blessing. For there is one whose love and rewards will last for eternity, far longer than the 15 minutes that the camera or going viral can offer. This deeper spirituality is driven by a desire to hear the words Jesus heard from his Father, “well done good and faithful servant.”
Jesus wants us to pray, give to the poor and fast. But he wants us to do it for his sake and the praise he offers. But, as it is with all good things, this praise comes with a cost. We must do these things secretly. Give and don’t tell anyone about it. Pray regularly but do it when no one is around. Fast often, but don’t complain about it.
This is hard, because God seems distant and invisible compared to the people in our life. Their reward is immediate. God’s rewards often take time. But that is how it is with true spirituality. You give up the lesser immediate joy for the one whose blessings last for eternity. Give, pray and fast, but do it only so God can see. Give up the lesser high of human praise for the greater joy of hearing the Father say, “well done good and faithful servant.”
The Season of Lent, as Mark likes to say, is a “spiritual laboratory” where we try out spiritual practices that may one day become lifelong disciplines. Try giving, praying and fasting under the cloak of secrecy for the Season of Lent. Set down the three legs of your spiritual life and look for the Holy Spirit to ween you from your craving of human approval so that you might enjoy the eternal blessings of God who loves you and accepts what you have to offer through the life and death of his Son.