This next to last line of our prayer resonates with me. I can easily relate to this one and at first glance, I say “No problem, I’ve got this.” After all, I was raised on the hymn “Trust and obey.”
I have shared before about my propensity to “do”. As a child, I was obedient and compliant. I wanted to please and to do well. I followed the rules. I excelled in school and was given leadership roles. Some time in my teens, I discovered 2 Corinthians 3:5 in my Living Bible and tried desperately to attribute my success to God. While in college, I backed off of always praying aloud in groups because I was convicted that my motivation was to show off. I genuinely wanted to serve God, but how to do it without appearing proud or pious was my challenge. Because, you see, I WAS proud and pious. I now realize that while I was a model child, I was also a little Pharisee.
The King James translation calls this vainglory. “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory” (Philippians 2:3). In other words, empty pride or vanity, pomp or show. In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus addresses three ways that the righteous leaders were vainglorious: giving to the needy, praying and fasting. These were the guys who had set aside their lives for service to God (like me) and tried very hard to obey all the laws (also like me). But their problem, according to Jesus, was that they were all about show and recognition – publicly giving large sums of money, saying their daily prayers loudly for everyone to hear and looking half dead to prove they were fasting.
What does this look like today? How do we show off our good works for all to see? How about serving on every church committee? Donating the new addition, complete with plaque? Praying long virtuous-sounding prayers in prayer meetings? Attending the right kind of Bible studies (the real, hard, inductive ones!)? Spending long hours in study of God’s word to produce an expository sermon? Logging the number of hours spend in silence and solitude? Choosing the church’s “highest” position – missionary?
Let me address my missionary colleagues specifically. We have all done what God requires. We have followed God in missions. Some say this is the ultimate service we could do for God. We have obeyed the Great Commission. How can that be vainglory? Has anyone ever said to you, “I couldn’t do what you do!” While we say we hate that comment, it is a form of praise, that others think our service for God is so admirable, so other-worldly, so godly.
Years ago, on our very first furlough, we attended a little country church in Oklahoma with a college roommate. Our friend introduced us to the pastor who then asked my husband to close the service in prayer. As soon as he said the final, “Amen”, an elderly woman seated in front of us, turned around, grabbed his hand and gushed in her country drawl, “Ooh! I get goose-bumps when missionaries pray!” While my first reaction to this was abhorrence, there was also an element that fed my sense of vainglory.
You get the picture. We too can be about show, about the pat on the back, the admiration of those who praise us for serving God in hard places, for our sacrifice and for our piety. Let’s be honest. I like the praise of men. I feels good to be affirmed, to be thought to be wise or godly or kind or hospitable or full of mercy – or whatever that virtue is that you deem to be the most Christ-like.
But Jesus says to serve in secret. What does that mean? In order to serve God secretly, I must (first of all!) be totally secure in Christ’s love. While my Christian sisters and brothers may think me more holy for my choice of service, God will not love me more or less for it. My salvation and eternal inheritance have been secured on the cross and nothing I do can change that.
Someone recently told me that doing the right thing out of love for God was not motivation enough. There needed to also be some measure of guilt, or fear of consequences. To this I humbly venture to suggest that this dear one still doesn’t really know (deep and enduringly down inside their soul) that God loves them, regardless of their behavior or attitude. I appreciate how James Bryan Smith puts it:
You are valuable to God. God loves you no matter what. Your worth is not dependent on your performance or on what others think of you. Your worth is found in the loving eyes of God. If you win, God loves you. If you lose, God loves you. If you fast and pray and give your money to the poor, God loves you. If you are sinful and selfish, God loves you. He is a covenant God, and his love never changes. You are valuable, precious and worth dying for – just as you are. (The Good and Beautiful Life)
Why do I do what God requires of me? To be applauded, recognized, noticed, praised? Or because I am deeply loved by God and want to be in a vibrant relationship with him and humbly serve him? If I am willing to do what God requires, I need to also be willing to do it privately, without fanfare, without keeping track of my accomplishments, and without concern for what others think of me – not because God will love me more, but because he already loves me totally and fully.
Our goal is to get to that place where “we are able to play without needing to win, love without needing to receive, pray without feeling pious and serve without needing to be thanked. Our value is set; our worth is stable and unchanging. We are loved and valuable, no matter what people tell us. When that narrative penetrates our hearts, we become free people indeed”. (Smith)
What does God require of you?
How are you tempted toward vainglory?
Father God, my life is a work in progress to rid my soul of vainglory. I know I still have a ways to go. So as I pray this line of our prayer, it is to me, a reminder that You love me so completely that I can obey you without regard to my standing before your or before others. I give you my heart and trust that my obedience will be a sweet savor rising up in response to your great love.