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Beware of the "Humblebrag"

March 1, 2020


Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


Friends, I’m sure some of you are familiar with this concept, but for those who are not, I want to introduce you to what is known as a humblebrag.


A humblebrag is a seeminglymodest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something that they’re proud of.


Or more simply, a humblebrag is when you brag about something yet try and downplay it through a false sense of humility.


So for example, here are four of my favorite -


‘I’m so embarrassed that my shirts don’t fit me anymore. Must be from all the upper body workouts I’ve been doing at the gym recently.’


‘I’m still not used to when someone comes up and asks me – Can I have your autograph?’

‘Ugh. Just ate 3 pieces of chocolate cake. I Really need to show more self control when flying first class.’


‘Oh my gosh, I am so incredibly sore after a long weekend of skiing at Big Sky where I stayed at the Yellowstone Club.’


So there you have it. The humblebrag. Feel free to use this tactic downstairs in the fellowship hall after the service or to put in your back pocket for a future dinner party … but be careful - they can be pretty funny if the other person knows that you are joking, but yet also incredible irritating if they’re certain you’re not.


Anyway, the reason why I tell you all of this is that I think this is one of the main messages of our passage today –


‘Beware of the humblebrag.’


This morning we continue on in our sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount, arguably Jesus’s most famous sermon, and after 8 weeks where we’ve been slowly working our way through Matthew chapter 5, we finally turn the corner to Matthew 6. And with a new chapter, we in many ways, come to a new part of the sermon itself. For the last few weeks or so, we’ve been looking at how we as Christians today should relate to and obey the Old Testament Law, and how rather than diminishing the law itself, Jesus instead elevates it and reveals a higher, and I believe a more beautiful kind of obedience to it.


And in one sense, that part of the sermon was framed to some extent in the negative. ‘Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t make oaths … a lot of don’t do this, don’t do that.’


And in some ways, as we turn the corner to chapter 6, we transition not so much to a list of don’t, but rather to a list of do’s, things that we should do, things that we should practice as followers of Jesus and as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.


And as for those things that you and I are called to do, Jesus addresses three of them here, that is, giving, praying and fasting, each of which are part of a greater list known as spiritual disciplines. And another way to think of the spiritual disciplines are as spiritual training exercises. That in the same way you and I practice various exercises to stay physically healthy – things like lifting weights, swimming in the pool, running on the treadmill – you and I also need spiritual training exercises – things like giving, serving, praying or fasting in order to stay spiritually healthy.


And yet even in this list of things to do, we get another ‘don’t’, or rather a strong warning or caution on how we go about these disciplines. Here again is what Jesus says in verse 1, which is his thesis statement for our passage today –


“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.


He’s saying - Beware of practicing these spiritual disciplines, these spiritual and religious acts for the sole purpose of gaining people’s praise and approval, because if this is your motive, you’ll have no reward from your Father in heaven. Or, in other words, ‘Beware of the humblebrag.’


And here it’s worth doing a quick compare and contrast with another verse from this sermon that we looked at just a few weeks ago, when Jesus said,


‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’


There Jesus says, ‘Let your light shine before others’ and here he says, ‘beware of practicing your piety before others.’ So which one is it?


Well, at a closer look, we see that the problem isn’t our good works or just how public they are or are not, but rather our purpose and motivation for doing them in the first place.

Are we doing them in order to be seen by others, to gain their praise and approval or are we doing them so that they may give glory to our Father in heaven?


Friends, as you’d imagine, Jesus wants us to be motivated toward the latter.


And so from here, he goes into greater depth on these three spiritual disciplines – where in each of the three, Jesus first warns them not to do the act in order to be praised by others. Then going on to say that those who ignore this warning will get the praise they want yet no more. And so he therefore instructs them to perform the act of piety secretly, finishing by saying that the Father who sees in secret will reward them.


So for the next few minutes, let’s briefly walk through the basic structure of these three parallel passages -


First, there’s the warning not to give, pray or fast in order to be seen by others. And at first glance we might be thinking, ‘Is this really a thing, is this really an issue or problem for people, do we really do these things for our own personal gain? Well, let’s take a closer look at each of the three.


And I think it’ll make most sense for us to work backwards here, so let’s first look at fasting.

Do we fast in order to gain others praise? My sense is no, but to be honest, maybe the more convicting question is, ‘Do we even fast at all?’ I’ll be first to admit that fasting might be the single most neglected spiritual discipline for me and my guess is that’s true for many of you as well. And if you’ve never fasted before or are wondering where to start, don’t worry, I’ll talk more about how to go about it in a few minutes.


As for praying, we might wonder, is this really a problem for people? Do people pray in public in order to gain praise and approval? In fact, for some of you it may be just the opposite - some of you might look at these words of Jesus to not pray in public as the greatest news you could ever here because the very idea of praying in front of other people puts the fear of God in you.


But friends, let me turn that around on you. Why are some of us terrified of praying in public? Might it be because we’re overly worried about messing up and then wondering what people will think of us when we do? You see, it’s simply a desire for praise and approval in a different way. Now, in saying that, I by no means mean to make you feel guilty in the slightest. Rather, my hope is that we as a church can be free to stumble through prayer together and be gracious with one another when we do. After all Lord knows, and you know, I stumble my way through prayer each and every Sunday.


Fast, pray, and then there’s giving alms, which simply means giving to the needy, which could be anything from contributing financially to a non-profit or serving at the food bank. And this is the one of the three where I most often feel like I’m wanting the praise and approval of others. And I wonder if the same might be true of some of you all as well. Here’s the dialogue that sometimes plays out in my heart – I’ll be serving and I’ll feel unappreciated and then I’ll get bitter … And that’s the very moment where I have to stop and remember why I’m serving in the first place. It’s so that others may see my good works and praise who? … my Father in heaven.


Now to be clear, a desire to be appreciated and recognized by others is a good and normal thing to want. In fact,godly encouragement is fuel for our hearts and the fuel for the Kingdom that keeps us going for the long haul. But yet, if the praise and approval of others is the only or main thing that’s motivating us, that’s a warning sign that something is not right with our hearts.


And in that moment it’s a chance to pray, ‘God, no matter what, you see me. God you rejoice when I serve out of a loving heart … may that be good enough for me.’


And for all those whose primary motive is to gain the praise and approval of others, Jesus says,


Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.


In short, the reward of human praise is all the reward they’ll get. And here’s the sneaky truth that you and I know all too well – the praise we get from one another never seems to be enough. We’re always left wanting more.


For example, let me give you a window into my own thoughts -


When someone comes up to me and says, ‘Good job.’ … doesn’t matter about what … often my first and lingering thought isn’t, ‘thank you’ or a feeling of gratitude, but rather, I wonder to myself, ‘Huh, I wonder why they didn’t say great job?’


And if they say, great, it’s why didn’t they say amazing … and if amazing, why not super amazing … no matter the superlative, no matter how great the praise, we’re often left wanting for more …


And so the question is, so how should we go about practicing these disciplines, how do we long for a better kind of reward, how do cultivate and shape our hearts so that we are motivated to want the right kind of approval, right kind of recognition, the kind that can only come from our heavenly Father?


Well, as Jesus says, practice in secret. Give and pray and fast in secret.


Now, to be clear, Jesus is not saying, ‘never give in public, only give in private.’ ‘never pray in public, only pray in private. ‘never fast in public, only fast in private.’ That’s not what Jesus is saying. To say that is to then imply for example that public prayer is unacceptable in public worship.


Rather what Jesus is getting at here is, ‘You all, do you find yourselves motivated by the praise and approval of others to an unhealthy degree? Do you find yourself caring more about gaining the praise and approval of others more than the praise and approval of your Heavenly Father?


Then do your giving, praying and fasting in secret. Do those things where no one can see you, where no one is watching.


And by practicing these things in secret, not only is that people won’t praise you, but even more, they can’t. After all, you’re doing them in secret. And as we stop chasing the wrong kind of reward, a lesser and more unsatisfying kind of praise and approval, the more space it creates to hear and receive the praise and approval of our heavenly Father. The more it cultivates and reorients our hearts to want what is right.


So give and serve in secret. Don’t make a big deal of it.


Go pray in secret. Go find a quiet space, whether in your room or on a mountainside and pray.


And lastly, go fast in secret. And while we’re here, let’s briefly talk about fasting. It’s Lent after all, and Lent is a natural time to practice fasting, since throughout the centuries Christians have used the 40 days of Lent as refrain from something good in order to make space for something better – that is time and communion with God himself.


And while giving up food is likely the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to fasting, truth is, we can fast from just about anything, and maybe one of the best things we can fast from in this age of technology is technology itself, whether it’s music, TV, social media and putting that extra time towards bible reading or prayer.


One of my favorite practices that I learned from someone else and something I tried a few years ago was devoting some of the time I spend the car towards praying and solitude rather than listening to the usual song or podcast. Built in quality time and communion with God. And the added benefit of praying the car, when you’re driving alone is that you’re praying in secret.


So you all, what might you want to fast from in this Lenten season? What is something good you could give up that might create space for you to draw closer to God himself?


And encourage you to start small. Remember, these spiritual disciplines are like spiritual training exercises. No one who decides to run a marathon runs 26 miles on the first day of training, no 3 miles is a much better place to start. So if and when you fast, start with a small, manageable goal and build from there.


Do this, give, pray and fast out of the right heart and right motives, and Jesus says,


your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


I’ll finish with this. Maybe a helpful way to land the plane this morning and bring this scripture home is by sharing with you all my modern day paraphrase, contexualizing this scripture for our world today -


So here’s Matthew chapter 6 one more time -


So when you give or serve for those in need, don’t post it all over Facebook or social media or write an article for the Dillon Tribute in order to be honored by others.


Truly I tell you, you’ll get the praise and acclaim you’re looking for, though it’ll just leave you wanting for more.


So when you give or serve for those in need, give like no one’s watching, serve out of a grateful heart, do it out of your love for Jesus and don’t make a big deal out of it.


Then your Father, who sees what you do in secret, will reward you and may his reward be more than enough.


And when you pray, whether you’re in front of a group or by yourself, there’s no need to use a bunch of big words that you don’t know or talk in a booming voice like James Earl Jones in order to make yourself look good.


Truly I tell you, you’ll get the praise and acclaim you’re looking for, though it’ll just leave you wanting for more.


So when you pray, talk like you normally do and speak from the heart and don’t worry if there are awkward pauses because you aren’t totally sure what to say. Jesus wants your heart more than your eloquence, so speak from the heart.


Then your Father, who sees what you do in secret, will reward you and may his reward be more than enough.


And when you sing in worship, don’t try and sing all four harmonies at once as loud as you possibly can in order to be heard and praised by others.


Truly I tell you, you’ll get the praise and acclaim you’re looking for, though it’ll just leave you wanting for more.


So when you sing in worship, don’t worry too much about who’s standing next to you, don’t worry if you’re sharp or flat or are unsure what those words even mean, sing from your heart and sing for Jesus, if you’re singing like that it’ll be beautiful music to the Father’s ears.


Then your Father, who sees what you do in secret, will reward you and may his reward for each of us be more than enough.


And when you fast, whether it’s from food or technology or something else, don’t go around being a humble brag, telling and showing people just how painfully difficult it all is in order to gain the respect of others.


Truly I tell you, you’ll get the praise and acclaim you’re looking for, though it’ll just leave you wanting for more.


So when you fast, try and be discrete about it, and may you use the absence of whatever good thing it is you’ve given up to create space for something even better, that is, time and communion with the Father himself.


Then your Father, who sees what you do in secret, will reward you and may his reward be more than enough.

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