Scripture Reading – Matthew 6
I remember with crystal clarity the first time I raised my hands in the air during worship. I also remember tasting my first blue raspberry Airhead. Two seemingly random memories that are forever intertwined.
I was about 9 years old. My parents were attending this big event featuring a really prominent evangelist of the day. They had a separate program for the kids in another auditorium at the event center. It was a pretty big deal – out late on a Friday night, just me and my church friends with no grownups we knew in sight and our own special speaker whom our parents had assured us would “probably not be boring like the main guy.” Kids are tough critics.
The evening opened with live worship featuring all of our favorite songs – Lord I Lift Your Name on High, Go Light Your World, Amazing Grace (the original… the ubiquitous “our chains are gone” bridge had not yet been added). In the midst of the singing, the leader suddenly began calling out kids who were “really worshipping” and throwing them candy. I was a quick study, and realized that if I scrunched my face and lifted my hands I, too, could be the recipient of both public praise and free candy. Two of my very favorite things! So I assumed the pose and was rewarded two minutes later with that delicious Airhead – and the resulting blue tongue that I was sure made my friends jealous.
Looking back, I cannot believe that anyone thought it was a good idea to compensate kids for the appearance of worship. I was absolutely not motivated by my love of God to close my eyes and raise my hands in praise to Him that night. The worst part is, I was already discovering that place of genuine worship at that age. It had just never resulted in any natural outward expression for me. But, of course, I deduced that no one would ever throw candy to me if I just sang with normal posture, no matter what was going on in my heart.
It’s the first time I clearly remember “practicing [my] righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matt 6:1). It certainly would not be the last.
Why is it so hard to do good things with pure motives?
Matthew 6 may as well have been written directly to the church – or Kalyn Stralow, specifically – in the year 2018. As a modern reader, I relate easily to this chapter. Sometimes when I’m reading Scripture, I have to really work to put myself in the place of the original audience. But believers today put on an outward show of piety in some of the same specific ways that Jews were doing in their own religious life over 2000 years ago.
When Jesus talks about people contorting their faces so others know they are fasting, I’m not thinking about Hebrew religious leaders, I’m thinking about myself in high school. When He talks about fancy phrases in prayers meant to be impress others, I can easily access examples from my own church experience.
We humans tend to perform good deeds for the approval of other people, if we bother to pursue righteousness at all. That instant gratification is like candy – tasty, but empty of any lasting benefit. Thank God that He can still use our actions, however poorly motivated, for His good (Phil 1:17-18). That desire to perform often creeps in. But our Father also loves us, and desires our hearts to be motivated and sustained by Him alone, with our eyes on eternity, not on the accolades we can rack up today.
And He has much greater things in store for us than impressed strangers, crystal awards on a shelf, or even blue raspberry Airheads.