“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
– William Shakespeare
It’s a truism that people behave differently in public than in private. As social creatures, we become far more calculating in front of an audience than in the absence of one. In public, there are rewards to be gained, punishments to be eluded, and benefits to be garnered if we follow certain requisite behaviors. A practical consequence of this is that some people “game the system,” behaving publicly in ways that gain them favor, impressing the appropriate “grade-givers,” whatever the grades might be.
Sadly, these games we play inevitably spill over into the life of the community of faith. This is one reason why Jesus gave explicit warnings in the Sermon on the Mount against doing one’s acts of righteousness in order to be seen by others. Whether praying, giving to those in need, or fasting, Jesus said it’s best to keep it a secret, lest the desire to impress others and receive human praise get in the way.
In Mark 7, Jesus echoed Isaiah’s criticism of external religious show with no inner integrity, of religious folks who “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” In the gospel of Luke, Jesus told a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray. One man was in full virtue signaling mode, trumpeting his righteous deeds for any to overhear and admire. The other guy was off in a corner, humbly pleading, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus affirmed that this humble man “went down to his home justified rather than the other.”
One time-honored way to fight against making a public show of our righteousness is the spiritual discipline of secrecy, in which we abstain from causing our good deeds to be known, perhaps even taking steps to hide them. Being content to be unknown, even as we serve others and the Lord, allows us to experience relationship with God independent of the opinions of others. Practicing secrecy allows us to escape the temptation to perform good deeds in order to be seen by others and to “pad our spiritual resume,” instead placing our public relations department entirely in God’s hands. Secrecy helps us check “selfish ambition” and “vain conceit” as Paul urged in Philippians 2:3. May God help us overcome our need to receive public credit and approval for whatever good we do as we offer our lives as living sacrifices unto the Lord.