Legend tells of a humble old man who wished to do good to others, but not to receive their praise. So he wrote letters of blessing, epistles of encouragement, placed them in bottles, and set them afloat on the seas where, through the power of wind and wave, they went through the world, cheering many gloomy hearts, lifting many drooping hands, strengthening many weakened knees.
Like that old man, each of us can attest to the deceptive nature of our own hearts when it comes to doing good. Our hearts are so twisted and wicked that the good we do to others is sometimes actually designed to bring good to ourselves. We give of our money so others will tell of our generosity; we give of our time so others will give us honor; we invite people into our homes so they will brag of our posh possessions. The wise of this world learn to distrust their own hearts, their own motives, their own actions.
Jesus addressed this temptation in his day. He told of those who love to give generously to the Lord’s work, but to do so only with great fanfare, with great publicity, to the blast of loud trumpets. He told of others who love to pray, but only in public, only on street corners, only where they can be seen and honored by every passerby. To such people he said it is far better to give and to pray in secret, for then they will receive the blessings God dispenses in secret. But if they give and pray only to be seen and affirmed by the public, that fleeting, public affirmation is all the blessing they will receive now and in eternity.
Thus, the good we do for others should be done in secret to whatever degree possible. A million dollars printed on an oversized check and paraded before the press is of much less value in the eyes of God than a hundred dollars given in secret. A rich gift is no gift at all if its purpose is to enhance the reputation of the giver. The widow’s mite is a great treasure when it is given in secret from the purest of motives. Likewise, the best of our prayers are the ones uttered silently in our closets, known only to ourselves and to the God who hears. The simplest private prayer uttered from the depths of a broken and contrite heart is far more precious than the most eloquent public prayer uttered from a heart that is proud. God weighs the heart before the gift or the words.
And just as we do well to keep our good deeds secret from others, we do well to keep them secret from ourselves. At least, we do well to dwell on our past righteousness just as warily as our past transgressions, for both can weaken us, both can lead us astray, both can invite us to be defined by what we’ve done, not what we do. We live in the present, not in the past. The man of this day gains little from deeply pondering the good or bad deeds of the man of past days. He gains much when he turns his attention to the day at hand, to consider not how he was a blessing yesterday, but how he can be a blessing today. For each day brings its duties, each day its fresh opportunities to give, to pray, to bless, to do. Yesterday’s generosity will not fulfill today’s lack or yesterday’s prayers comfort today’s sorrow. The man who is hungry today cannot be filled by yesterday’s bread nor the person who is groaning today by yesterday’s intercession.
Our calling is not to hoard good deeds, not to pile them up and count them out like a miser his money. Rather, it’s to do good with liberality and generosity, and to leave the accounting to God, for he is the one who promises to remember every word, every deed, every prayer, every gift. We can and should be quick to forget and to entrust it all to him, for he is the one who keeps perfect records.
The farmer scatters his seed in the first warm days of spring, then rises and sleeps and goes about his business, trusting that the seed will sprout and grow. He may not know the full process that leads from germination to maturation, but entrusts it to God and the mysteries he has built into his world. And sure enough, the earth produces first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear, and then comes the time for harvest. Just so, we scatter the seed of our good deeds, then leave it all to the mysteries of God, trusting that he will bring it all to full maturity, that he will reap a great harvest of glory to his name.
(Inspired by the writings of J.R. Miller)