I remember years ago realizing that disciple and discipline share the same root. This sheds light on just what it MEANS to be a disciple.
A disciple is a learner in a specific arena, a “discipline.” And a disciple is one who practices certain behaviors and habits, “disciplines,” in order to achieve a set result.
In our case the arena of study and of achievement is spiritual life, which for Jesus is the fountain and foundation of all of life. Everything begins in the spirit and works its way into the physical realm; it’s been that way since God spoke the world into existence.
(By the way, this is why a life lived “in the flesh” is so deadly: when we’re oriented toward the flesh instead of the Spirit, things begin in the body or physical realm and work themselves into our spiritual lives instead of the other way around. That’s why “sorcery,” a fairly spiritual activity, is called a “work of the flesh” in Galatians. Or at least that’s my take.)
Spiritual Disciplines in the Sermon on the Mount
In the Sermon on the Mount, spiritual disciplines get the central position. That shows their key importance to Jesus and his listeners. Jesus takes it for granted that his listeners, Jewish people with some interest in their religion, are already practicing these spiritual disciplines, but he shows how they had lost the spiritual root and turned them into works of the flesh instead. He also gives them the key to recovering their real purpose and power.
This is a very relevant word for us today! We too are prone to turning innately spiritual things into works of the flesh.
The three disciplines Jesus discusses are giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting.
Giving to the poor had such a central place in the Jewish concept of righteousness that they actually called it “practicing your righteousness”; this is the wording Jesus uses when he starts his discussion in Matthew 6:1. We could use similar wording to describe prayer and fasting: they are “practicing your relationship” and “practicing your humility.”
In the case of Jesus’s listeners, though, many had turned these spiritual disciplines—practices meant to come from the spirit and achieve spiritual goals—into works of the flesh done to achieve a fleshly reward.
The Problem of Wrong Rewards
Here was the problem: God does and will reward these particular behaviors, but so will people. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that godly behavior only gets us persecution and disdain from people; it’s actually a very quick way to get yourself exalted in the eyes of people around you who share your faith and values. If you give and are seen giving; if you pray and are seen praying; if you fast and are seen to be fasting, people will put you on a pedestal. It’s as true now as it was in Jesus’ day.
And when we’re given the option to go for an easy, cheap reward instead of a difficult, valuable one, very often we’ll go for the easy reward.
As an example: right now I am really struggling with self-control in the area of getting up in the morning. I want to get up early in the morning for multiple excellent reasons, not least among which are the pursuit of God and the sanity that comes with getting a jump on your day instead of your day getting a jump on you.
But lately, every morning when my alarm goes off, I hit snooze and go back to sleep.
Why? Well, when I hit snooze and get back under the covers where it’s warm and cozy, I get a little happy dopamine hit.
The rewards of getting up early would be SO MUCH BETTER so as not even to compare. There would be personal growth, there would be sunrises, there would be happy dopamine hits and endorphin rushes. More of them and longer lasting.
But given the choice between all of that and a quick hit, I keep choosing the quick hit.
So it is with spiritual disciplines. We get a choice of rewards.
Do them continually, for the right reasons, in the right way, and grow spiritually, encounter God profoundly, and receive rewards that come from the heavenly realm.
Or get people to admire you and say nice, affirming things about what a great person you are.
Most of us will choose the latter by default.
Thankfully Jesus has come along to rescue us from our defaults.
Done in the right way, the spiritual disciplines he talks about become habits that empower our spiritual lives. They put us into contact with God and habitually grow and prune our lives. Done the wrong way, they become detrimental.
Thankfully, it’s not that hard to do these things right.
The secret, Jesus says, to getting the right reward, is to do spiritual disciplines in secret.
Actually take steps to make sure no one sees you except God.
(You don’t have to get ridiculous about this; it’s the general principle that counts.)
So don’t pray on street corners (a common thing in a religious society like Judea in Jesus’ time); pray in your closet. Don’t give publicly, with lots of fanfare and donation-matching; give quietly and secretly. Don’t fast in a way that calls attention to yourself, fast privately.
When you do this, you’ll discover something profound: that your Father is in secret, and he sees in secret.
The Father Who Is in Secret
To me, “your Father who is in secret” is one of those profound revelations that Jesus just casually drops, a line we’re likely to breeze past without even letting it sink in what’s being said.
The Father is in secret.
When you stop and think about it for a moment, that’s obvious. God chooses to be invisible. He chooses to work invisibly. He speaks silently. He gives to everyone (Matthew 5:45) but doesn’t set himself up in the sky on a visible throne dishing out gifts and rewards where everyone will recognize him and worship appropriately.
God is at once obvious (Romans 1) and hidden. He is in secret.
When you do godly things, then, Jesus beckons us to join the Father in secret. To find the hidden place where God is and meet him there, join him in his work.
God isn’t standing on the stage; he’s sitting incognito at the corner table in the coffee shop, and you can go and huddle with him there and talk.
So God is in secret, and he SEES in secret. That’s the second thing Jesus constantly points out. If you want to do spiritual disciplines right, you have to do them for the right set of eyes.
The Audience of One
In her excellent book What Is the Point?: Discovering Life’s Deeper Meaning and Purpose, Misty Edwards writes about the power of living life “for an audience of One,” of doing everything for one set of eyes alone.
This, she says, is the whole key to living a life that pleases God. It’s the hardest thing we can do and yet the most powerful.
“When we have the confidence that [Jesus] is attentive and remembers even the smallest words spoken and rewards the smallest reach toward Him, this is faith.” (Misty Edwards, What Is the Point?)
In Jesus’ words, doing things before the eyes of men makes us into hypocrites and idolators; doing things for the eyes of God alone leads us into encounter and reward from the God of heaven himself.
A Note About Practicalities
It’s worth mentioning that Jesus isn’t talking about taking your faith underground and making it impossible to tell that you’re a Christian.
Obviously, people were aware that Jesus prayed, for example, and occasionally he did it publicly and even for the sake of those who were listening (see John 11). He also preached and taught in public!
Jesus isn’t teaching that faith should be kept private in that sense. Rather, he’s warning against doing religious actions for the wrong reasons, and in this case, the best way to combat the wrong reasons is to do the actions differently—in a way that thwarts our wrong motivations and gets us zeroed in on the right ones.
The fact is, there is no reward for prayer in a closet except the rewards you find in secret—encounter with God, personal transformation, answers to prayer. Giving secretly doesn’t do anything for your reputation or your status among believers, but it may do a lot for your ability to truly love and care for others, as well as benefiting those others in deeper ways because they don’t become beholden to you. Instead of gaining power over them you set them free, but that’s not the kind of reward our flesh typically craves.
It’s easy to become very self-condemning and frustrated when we fall into fleshly motivations and patterns, but Jesus is teaching us that overcoming those powerful motivations may sometimes be as easy as changing the way you carry something out in practice.
You can cheat your flesh and get back to the spirit that way, and it’s not even very hard. It’s definitely worth it: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
(This is Part 54 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)