Pleasing Self or Pleasing God by Martyn Lloyd Jones
The passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount,” published as Second Edition in 1976 by Inter-Varsity Press.
OUR consideration of this Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-7) began with an analysis and division of its contents. We saw that here in chapter 6 we come to a new section. The first section in chapter 5 (v.3—12) contains the Beatitudes, a description of the Christian as he is. In the next section (v.13—16), we find this Christian man, who has thus been described, reacting to the world and the world reacting to him. The third (v.17—48) deals with the relationship of the Christian to the law of God. It gives a positive exposition of the law and contrasts it with the false teaching of the Pharisees and scribes. It ends with the great exhortation in the closing verse: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’
We come now to quite a new section, and it runs right through this sixth chapter. Here we have what we may well call a picture of the Christian living his life in this world in the presence of God, in active submission to God, and in entire dependence upon Him. Read this sixth chapter and you will find that this reference to God the Father keeps on recurring. We have been looking at this Christian man who has been told something of his characteristics, who has been told how he is to behave in society, and who has been reminded of what it is that God expects of him and demands from him. Here we have a picture of him going on to live that life in this world; and the great thing that is ever emphasized is that he does it all in the presence of God. That is something of which he should constantly be reminded. Or, to put it in another way, this section presents a picture of the children in relationship to their Father as they went their way on this pilgrimage called life.
The chapter reviews our life as a whole, and it considers it under two main aspects. This is something very wonderful, for in the last analysis the life of the Christian in this world has two sides, and both of them are covered here. The first one is dealt with in verses 1 to 18; the second from verse 19 to the end of the chapter. The first is what we may call our religious life, the culture and nurture of the soul, our piety, our worship, the whole religious aspect of our life, and everything that concerns our direct relationship to God. But of course that is not the only element in the life of the Christian in this world. He is reminded by it that he is not of this world, that he is a child of God and a citizen of a kingdom that cannot be seen. He is but a journeyman, a sojourner, a traveller in this world. He is not a worldling and does not belong to this world as other people do; he is in this unique relationship to God. He is walking with Him. Nevertheless he is in this world, and though he is not of it any longer this world keeps doing things to him, and he is in many senses subject to it. And, after all, he does have to walk through it. So that the second picture is that of the Christian in his relationship to life in general, not so much as a purely religious being now, but as a man who is subject to ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, a man who is concerned about food and drink, clothing and shelter, who may have a family and children to bring up, and who therefore is subject to what is called in the Scriptures ‘the cares of this world’.
Those are the two great divisions of this chapter, the directly religious part of the Christian life, and the mundane. Both these aspects are taken up by our Lord and dealt with in considerable detail. In other words, it is vital for the Christian that he should be absolutely clear about both these matters, and he needs instruction about both. There is no greater fallacy than to imagine that the moment a man is converted and becomes a Christian, all his problems are solved and all his difficulties vanish. The Christian life is full of difficulties, full of pitfalls and snares. That is why we need the Scriptures. They would have been unnecessary but for that. These detailed instructions given by our Lord and in the Epistles would be unnecessary were it not for the fact that the life of the Christian in this world, as John Bunyan and others have been very careful to point out in their great Christian classics, is a life beset by problems. There are pitfalls associated with our practice of the Christian life, and associated also with our living our lives in this world together with other people. You will find as you analyse your own experience, and still more as you read the biographies of God’s people, that many have got into difficulties, and many have for the time being found themselves in great misery and unhappiness and have lost their experience of joy and happiness in the Christian life, because of their neglect of one aspect or the other. There are some people who are wrong in their religious life as we shall see; and there are others who seem to be all right in that respect, but who, because they are tempted in a very subtle manner on the more practical side, tend to go wrong in that way. So we have to face both these matters. Here, in the teaching of our Lord, they are dealt with right down to the minutest detail.
We may as well realize at the outset that this chapter 6 is again a very searching one; indeed, we can go further and say that it is a very painful one. I sometimes think that it is one of the most uncomfortable chapters to read in the entire Scriptures. It probes and examines and holds a mirror up before us, and it will not allow us to escape. There is no chapter which is more calculated to promote self-humbling and humiliation than this particular one. But thank God for it. The Christian should always be anxious to know himself. No other man truly wants to know himself. The natural man thinks he knows himself; and thereby reveals his basic trouble. He evades self-examination because to know one’s self is ultimately the most painful piece of knowledge that a man can ever acquire. And here is a chapter that brings us face to face with ourselves, and enables us to see ourselves exactly as we are. But, I repeat, thank God for it, because it is only the man who has truly seen himself for what he is who is likely to fly to Christ, and to seek to be filled with the Spirit of God who alone can burn out of him the vestiges of self and everything that tends to mar his Christian life and living.
Here, as in the previous chapter, the teaching is given, in a sense, partly by way of contrast with that of the Pharisees. You remember there was a kind of general introduction to this when our Lord said: ‘Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ There we were looking at and contrasting the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes, and the teaching that should govern the life of the Christian. Here the emphasis is not so much on teaching as on practical living, including piety, and our whole religious demeanour and behaviour.
As we come to this first section, we find that verse 1 is an introduction to the message of verses 2 to 18. It is indeed astounding to notice the perfect arrangement of this Sermon. Those who are musical, and are interested in the analysis of symphonies, will see that there is something still more wonderful here. The theme is stated, then comes the analysis, after which the particular themes and sections—the various ‘leit motifi’, so called—are taken up, until eventually all is drawn together and gathered up in a final statement. Our Lord employs a similar method here. In the first verse He lays down the general principle governing the religious life of the Christian. Having done that, He goes on to give us three illustrations of that principle, in the matters of almsgiving, praying and fasting. There, ultimately, is the whole of one’s religious life and practice. If we analyse the religious life of a man we find that it can be divided into these three sections, and into these three sections only: the way I do my almsgiving, the nature of my prayer life and contact with God, and the way in which I should mortify the flesh. Again we must point out that the three are but illustrations. Our Lord illustrates what He lays down as a general principle exactly as we found Him doing in His exposition of the law in chapter 5.
The fundamental principle is laid down in the first verse. Here there is no doubt at all but that the Revised Version is, at this point, superior to the Authorized Version which reads like this:
‘Take heed that ye do not your alms before men.’ It should be:
‘Take heed that ye do not your righteousness (or, if you prefer it, your piety) before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father which is in heaven.’ This again is just a question of a textual difference in the manuscripts. Without doubt the second is the better version, and all good commentators are agreed in saying that this word should be ‘righteousness’ rather than ‘alms’. Almsgiving is one of the particular illustrations, whereas in this first verse our Lord is concerned to lay down a general principle. The word ‘righteousness’ governs the three aspects of righteous living. We look first at piety itself and then come to consider the various manifestations of piety. The general principle is this: ‘Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father which is in heaven.’ Let us consider this in the form of a number of subsidiary principles.
The first of these is this—the delicate nature of the Christian life. The Christian life is always a matter of balance and poise. It is a life that gives the impression of being self-contradictory, because it seems to be dealing at the same time with two things which are mutually exclusive. We read the Sermon on the Mount and we come across something like this: ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.’ Then we read, ‘Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father which is in heaven.’ And a man looking at that says, ‘Well, what am I to do? If I am to do all these things in secret, if I am not to be seen of men, if I am to pray in my closet having locked the door, if I am to anoint my face and wash myself, thus giving the appearance that I am not fasting, how can men know I am doing these things, and how can they possibly see this light which is shining in me?’
But, of course, that is obviously only a superficial contradiction. You notice how the first statement puts it: ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.’ In other words there is no contradiction here, but we are called to do both these things at one and the same time. The Christian is to live in such a way that men looking at him, and seeing the quality of his life, will glorify God. He must always remember at the same time that he is not to do things in order that he may attract attention to himself. He must not desire to be seen of men, he is never to be self-conscious. But, clearly, this balance is a fine and delicate one; so often we tend to go to one extreme or the other. Christian people tend either to be guilty of great ostentation or else to become monks and hermits. As you look at the long story of the Christian Church throughout the centuries you will find this great conflict has been going on. They have either been ostentatious, or else they have been so afraid of self and self-glorification that they have segregated themselves from the world. But here we are called to avoid both extremes. It is a delicate life, it is a sensitive life; but if we approach it in the right way, and under the leading of the Holy Spirit, the balance can be maintained. Of course, if we just take these things as rules which we have to put into operation we shall go wrong on the one side or the other. But if we realize that what matters is the great principle, the spirit, then we shall be saved from the error on the right hand and on the left. Let us never forget this, the Christian at one and the same time is to be attracting attention to himself, and yet not attracting attention to himself. That will be seen more clearly as we proceed.
The second subsidiary principle is that the ultimate choice is always the choice between pleasing self and pleasing God. That may sound very elementary, and yet it seems necessary that we should emphasize it for this reason. ‘Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them.’ ‘Surely, then,’ we may think, ‘the choice is between pleasing men and pleasing God.’ I suggest that is not the choice: the ultimate choice is the choice between pleasing self and pleasing God, and that is where the subtlety of this matter comes in. Ultimately our only reason for pleasing men around us is that we may please ourselves. Our real desire is not to please others as such; we want to please them because we know that, if we do, they will think better of us. In other words, we are pleasing ourselves and are merely concerned about self-gratification. That is where the insidious character of sin is seen. What appears to be so selfless may be just a very subtle form of selfishness. According to our Lord it comes to this: man by nature desires the praise of man more than the praise of God. In desiring the praise of man, what he is really concerned about is his good opinion of himself. In the last analysis it always comes to this, we are either pleasing ourselves or else we are pleasing God. It is a very solemnizing thought, but the moment we begin to analyse ourselves and see the motives of our conduct we shall agree that it comes to that.
That brings us to the next subsidiary principle which perhaps is the most important of all. The supreme matter in this life and world for all of us is to realize our relationship to God. One almost apologizes for making such a statement, and yet I suggest that the greatest cause of all our failures is that we constantly forget our relationship to God. Our Lord puts it like this. We should realize that our supreme object in life should be to please God, to please Him only, and to please Him always and in everything. If that is our aim we cannot go wrong. Here, of course, we see the outstanding characteristic of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is there anything that stands out more clearly in His life? He lived entirely for God. He even said that the words that He spoke were not of Himself and that the works He did were the works which the Father had given Him to do. His whole life was given to glorifying God. He never thought of Himself; He did nothing for Himself; He did not obtrude Himself. What we are told of Him is this, ‘A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench.’ He did not raise His voice aloft. In a sense He seems to be there unseen and trying to hide Himself. We are told about Him that ‘he could not be hid’, but He seemed to be trying always to do this. There was a complete absence of ostentation. He lived entirely and always and only for the glory of God. He said constantly in various ways: ‘I seek not My own honour but the honour of Him who has sent Me.’ And He put it negatively in this way: ‘How can ye believe, which receivehonour one of another and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?’ ‘That is your trouble’, He says in effect. ‘You are so concerned about man. If only you had a single eye to the glory and honour of God, then all would be well.’
The second thing which we have to remember in this connection is that we are always in the presence of God. We are always in His sight. He sees our every action, indeed our every thought. In other words, if you believe in having texts placed before you in a prominent position on your desk or on the wall of your house, there is no better one than this: ‘Thou God seest me’. He is everywhere. ‘Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men.’ Why? ‘Else ye have no reward with your Father which is in heaven.’ He sees it all. He knows your heart; other people do not. You can deceive them, and you can persuade them that you are quite selfless; but God knows your heart. ‘Ye’, said our Lord to the Pharisees one afternoon, ‘ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed amongst men is abomination in the sight of God.’ Now this is obviously a fundamental principle for the whole of our life. I sometimes feel that there is no better way of living, and trying to live, the holy and sanctified life than just to be constantly reminding ourselves of that. When we wake up in the morning we should immediately remind ourselves and recollect that we are in the presence of God. It is not a bad thing to say to ourselves before we go any further: ‘Throughout the whole of this day, everything I do, and say, and attempt, and think, and imagine, is going to be done under the eye of God. He is going to be with me; He sees everything; He knows everything. There is nothing I can do or attempt but God is fully aware of it all. “Thou God seest me”.’ It would revolutionize our lives if we always did that.
In a sense the many books which have been written on the devotional life all concentrate on this. You remember that famous little book of Brother Lawrence’s, The Practice of the Presence of God. I am not recommending it, but I am recommending the principle behind it. We have to learn, if we want to live this life fully, that we have to discipline ourselves and speak to ourselves. This is the fundamental thing, the most serious thing of all, that we are always in the presence of God. He sees everything and knows everything, and we can never escape from His sight. Those men who wrote the Psalms knew all about it, and there are instances of where men have cried out in desperation: ‘“Whither shall I flee from thy presence!” I cannot get away from You. You are there “if I make my bed in hell. . . . If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.. . .” I cannot get away from You.’ If we only remembered that, hypocrisy would vanish, self-adulation and all we are guilty of by way of feeling ourselves above others, would immediately disappear. It is a cardinal principle that we cannot get away from God. In this matter of the ultimate choice between self and God, we must always remember that God knows all about us. ‘All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’ He knows the thoughts and intents of the heart. And He can divide to the separating of the joint and marrow and the very soul and spirit. There is nothing hid from His sight. We have to start with that postulate.
If we were all to practise this it would be revolutionary. I am quite certain a revival would start at once. What a difference it would make to church life, and the life of every individual. Think of all the pretence and sham, and all that is unworthy in us all. If only we realized that God is looking at all, and is aware of it all, and is recording it all! That is the teaching of the Scriptures, and that its method of preaching holiness—not offering people some marvellous experience which solves all problems. No, it is just realizing that we are always there in the presence of God. For the man who starts with a true realization of that is soon to be seen flying to Christ and His cross, and pleading to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
The next subsidiary principle concerns rewards. This whole question of rewards seems to trouble people, and yet our Lord continually makes statements like those in verses 1 and 4. Here He indicates that it is quite right to seek the reward which God gives. He says, ‘Otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.’ If you do the right thing, then ‘thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.’ There was a teaching (we do not hear so much of it now) towards the beginning of the century which used to say that one should live the Christian life for its own sake, and not for the reward. It was such a good thing in and of itself that one should not be animated by any motive such as desire for heaven or fear of hell. We should be disinterested and altruistic. The teaching was often put in the form of a story, an illustration. A poor man was walking along an Eastern road one day with a bucket of water in one hand and a bucket of fire in the other. Somebody asked him what he was going to do with these buckets, and he replied that he was going to burn heaven with the bucket of fire and to drown hell with the bucket of water—he was not interested in either. But that is not the New Testament teaching. The New Testament teaching would have us see that it is a good thing to desire to see God. That is the summum bonum. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.’ It is a right and legitimate desire, it is a holy ambition. We are told this about our Lord Himself: ‘Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame’ (Hebrew 41:2). And we are told about Moses that he did what he did because he had his eye on ‘the recompence of the reward’. He was far-sighted. Why did the people whose lives we read of in Hebrews 11 live the life they did? The answer is this—they saw certain things afar off, they were seeking for ‘a city which hath foundations’, they had their eye on that ultimate objective.
Concern about rewards is legitimate and is even encouraged by the New Testament. The New Testament teaches us that there will be a ‘judgment of rewards’. There are those who shall be beaten with few stripes, and there are those who shall be beaten with many stripes. Every man’s work shall be judged whether it be of wood or hay or stubble or silver or gold. All our works are going to be judged. ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.’ We should be interested therefore in this matter of rewards. There is nothing wrong in it as long as the desire is the reward of holiness, the reward of being with God.
The second thing about rewards is this. There is no reward from God for those who seek it from men. This is a terrifying thought but it is an absolute statement. ‘Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.’ If you have your reward from men in that particular respect, you will have nothing whatever from God. Let me put it like this very bluntly. If I am concerned as I preach this gospel as to what people think of my preaching, well that is all that I will get out of it, and nothing from God. It is an absolute. If you are seeking a reward from men you will get it, but that is all you will get. Work through your religious life, think of all the good you have done in the past, in the light of that pronouncement. How much remains to come to you from God? It is a terrifying thought.
Those are the principles with regard to the general statement. Let us now consider briefly what our Lord has to say about this particular matter with respect to almsgiving. It follows of necessity from the principles we have been laying down. He says there is a wrong and a right way of almsgiving. Almsgiving, of course, means helping people, giving a helping hand in case of need, giving money, time, anything you like which is going to help people.
The wrong way to do this is to announce it. ‘Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee.’ Of course they did not actually do that; our Lord is painting a picture. In effect they are engaging a trumpeter to go before them to say: ‘Look at what this man is doing.’ The wrong way to do these things is to proclaim them, and to draw attention to them. We could spend much time showing the subtle ways in which this can be done. Let me give one illustration. I remember a lady who felt called of God to start a certain work, and she felt called to do this on what is called ‘faith lines’. There was to be no collection or appeals for funds. She decided to inaugurate this work by having a preaching service and I was given the privilege of preaching at the service. Halfway through the meeting, when the announcements came, this good lady for ten minutes told that congregation of people how this work was to be done entirely on faith lines, how no collection was to be taken, how she did not believe in collections or asking for money and so on. I thought it was the most effective appeal for funds that I had ever heard! I am not suggesting she was dishonest; I am quite sure she was not, but she was very apprehensive. And in a spirit of fearfulness we may likewise be doing this kind of thing quite unconsciously. There is a way of saying that you do not announce these things which just means that you are announcing them. 0 how subtle it is! You know the sort of man who says, ‘Of course I do not believe in announcing the number of converts when I take a mission. But, after all, the Lord must be glorified, and if people do not know the numbers, well, how can they give glory to God?’ Or, ‘I do not like these long reports in my anniversary meeting, but if God is to be glorified how can people do that unless . . ?’ You see the subtlety. It is not always that there is an obvious trumpeter. But when we truly come to examine our hearts we find that there are very subtle ways in which this self-same thing can be done. Well, that is the wrong way and the result of that is this: ‘Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.’ People praise and say, ‘How wonderful, how marvellous; terrific, isn’t it?’ They get their reward, they get their praise. They get their names in the paper; articles are written about them; there is a great deal of talk about them; people write their obituary notices; they get it all. Poor men, that is all they will get; they will get nothing from God. They receive their reward. If that is what they wanted they have got it; and how they are to be pitied. How we ought to pray for them, how we ought to feel sorry for them.
What is the right way? The right way, says our Lord, is this. ‘When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly.’ In other words, Do not announce to others in any shape or form what you are doing. That is obvious. But this is less obvious: Do not even announce it to yourself. That is difficult. It is not so difficult for some people not to announce it to others. I think that any man with even an element of decency in him rather despises a man who advertises himself. He says it is pathetic, it is so sad to see men advertising themselves. Yes, but what is so difficult is not to pride yourself because you are not like that. You can despise that kind of thing, you can dismiss it. Yes, but if that leads you now to say to yourself: ‘I thank God I am not like that’, immediately you become a Pharisee. That is what the Pharisee said, ‘Thank God I am not like that, and especially like this publican.’ Note that our Lord does not stop at saying you must not sound a trumpet before you and announce it to the world; you do not even announce it to yourself. Your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing. In other words, having done it in secret you do not take your little book and put down: ‘Well, I have done that. Of course I haven’t told anybody else that I have done it.’ But you put an extra mark in a special column where exceptional merit is recorded. In effect our Lord said: ‘Don’t keep these books at all; don’t keep spiritual ledgers; don’t keep profit and loss accounts in your life; don’t write a diary in this sense; just forget all about it. Do things as you are moved by God and led by the Holy Spirit, and then forget all about them.’ How is this to be done? There is only one answer, and that is that we should have such a love for God that we have no time to think about ourselves. We shall never get rid of self by concentrating on self. The only hope is to be so consumed by love that we have no time to think about ourselves. In other words, if we want to implement this teaching we must look at Christ dying on Calvary’s Hill, and think of His life and all He endured and suffered, and as we look at Him realize what He has done for us.
And what is the result of all this? It is glorious. This is how our Lord puts it. He says, ‘You must not keep the account. God does that. He sees everything and He records it all, and do you know what He will do? He will reward you openly.’ What utter fools we are to keep our own accounts, not realizing that if we do so we shall get no reward from God. But if we just forget all about it and do everything to please Him, we shall find that God will have an account. Nothing we have done will be forgotten, our smallest act will be remembered. Do you remember what He said in Matthew 25? ‘When I was in prison you visited me, when I was thirsty you gave me drink.’ And they will say, ‘When did we do all this? We are not aware we have done this.’ ‘Of course you have done it,’ He will reply, ‘it is there in the Book.’ He keeps the books. We must leave the account to Him. ‘You know,’ He says, ‘you did it all in secret; but I will reward you openly. I may not be rewarding you openly in this world, but as certainly as you are alive, I will reward you openly at the Great Day when the secrets of all men shall be disclosed, when the great Book shall be opened, when the final pronouncement shall be made before the whole world. Every detail of all you have done to the glory of God will be announced and proclaimed and you will be given the credit and the honour and the glory. I will reward you openly, and I will say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; . . . enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”’
Let us keep our eyes upon the ultimate, let us remember that we are always in the presence and sight of God, and let us live only to please Him. (325-336)