"But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." Matthew 6:3 (ESV)
After 40 U.S. billionaires pledged several years ago to donate at least half of their fortunes to charity, headlines proclaimed that philanthropy had become a "new status symbol" for the wealthy.
One expert on charitable giving, Stacy Palmer of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, made a prediction at the time that seems prophetic today: "It will be something that's very important to the wealthy -- to be able to say, 'I give my money away as much as I spend it in all these other exciting ways.' Clearly pressure on the elite is high right now to say that they are giving money away and that will make it trendy."
In response to such sentiments, many Christians may recall Jesus' warning against giving in order to impress others. Yet they easily forget that His warning went farther. Indeed, He said that giving to impress anyone other than God – even oneself – is an abuse of a spiritual discipline.
In Matthew 6, He addressed some pointed words to religious leaders who gave away money with self-serving ostentation. He told them giving should be done with pleasing God as one's main focus, not pleasing self. As odd as it may sound, there is such a thing as "selfish giving." It occurs when people give with a desire for public recognition or even the private opportunity to congratulate themselves in smug self-righteousness.
Of course, there are benefits that accompany "selfish giving." For example, parks, academic buildings, and museums all enrich their communities even when the donor insists on having his name attached to them. They also provide the giver with a modicum of satisfaction.
Yet there is a way to achieve deeper blessing through giving: make the contribution in secret and perhaps secure a divine reward. Indeed, Jesus said givers must choose between applauding themselves and receiving the sweet, sanctified fulfillment of secret gifts offered in humility.
He was not saying that believers must never feel good about their righteous deeds. In the previous chapter, He promised pleasurable feelings — including comfort and satisfaction — to those who obey His commandments. Further, the New Testament repeatedly lists a clear conscience as one benefit of knowing Christ as Lord and Savior, and Paul promised "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7) to those who bring their concerns to the heavenly Father in prayer. To seek and enjoy these blessings, far from being a sin, is a divine mandate on the life of every Christian. The believer ought to be satisfied in doing good.
The problem against which Jesus warned was self-congratulation, whereby people medicate themselves by using giving (or other spiritual disciplines) to block the pain of shortfalls, excuse slackness, and bolster confidence. Such egocentric charity places its exclusive focus on self rather than focusing on God and receiving His blessings as a result. Believers must align their practice of the disciplines with the true standard and seek grace and power from their only true source – the Lord.
This warning is especially important for pastors. For those who applaud their own piety with self-centered glee will be in no position to teach piety properly. Their preaching of the gospel will be skewed, for they will have replaced Paul's robust insistence that his righteousness was like dirty rags with a self-indulgent star-chart. Rather than pressing on to what is ahead, they will dwell nostalgically on past performances. Piety with man at the center — whether others or oneself — receives its reward at once, and is spent.