How to give, pray and fast - Matthew 6:1-18
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Do you think God would be happy if you gave away all your money to a Christian charity? Do you think God would be happy if you stood at the front of church and led his people in prayer? Or what if you abstained from food for a whole day so you could read the Bible and pray? Would this make God happy?
It all depends on two things. First, whether you are a Christian. And, second, your motivation for doing it.
First, in order for God to be pleased with us we need to become followers of Jesus Christ. Before surrendering to Jesus we are enemies of God and so we need to be reconciled to him. Until that, our good deeds, religious or not, cannot please him.
Consider how the Iraqi Prime Minister would respond to the news that one of the ISIS leadership just outside Bagdad was known for getting up early to make his men a cup of tea. Would that make the Prime Minister happy? Of course not. The ISIS leader is fundamentally opposed to the government of Iraq and so until there is a fundamental change of heart, there can be no pleasure derived from these acts of kindness.
The same is true with us and God. In order to please our Creator we must embrace Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. We must stop our cosmic rebellion and embrace his loving leadership.
Suppose we do that. We are now privileged to be children of God. Does that mean God would be pleased if we gave away our fortune to a Christian charity or lead the prayers eloquently at church or if we fast for a day? It all depends on our motivations. For example, if we were doing them so that we would receive praise from people then the answer would be no. But if we were doing them out of love for God then the answer would be yes.
This is the big issue Jesus is dealing with in these first 18 verses of Matthew chapter 6.
You might not see the connection between these three topics at first glance. What links together giving, prayer and fasting? Well let me show you the big principle that runs its way all through the section.
Look at verse 1.
At first sight you may think this command contradicts what Jesus has said previously in this sermon. Remember in Matthew 5:16, he said, “Let you light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” How can he now say, “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others”? Which is it to be? Public righteousness or private righteousness?
Whenever you see an apparent contradiction in the Bible here is my advice. First, have some humility. Secondly, read things closely.
What does Jesus actually say in Matthew 6:1? Not, ““Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others” but “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”
Those final words are vital to hear if we are to interpret what Jesus is saying properly. He is not opposed to public expressions of religious convictions. But he is against public expressions that are only done so that praise can be received from those who see them.
He knows our hearts. He knows how desperate we are for human approval and for human admiration. And so he knows how tempted we will be to do good Christians deeds for very bad motivations.
He also wants to point out the consequence of this. He warns us if we fall into this trap that we will receive no reward from our Father in heaven.
Many Christians are nervous about any talk of rewards for Christians. This is because they have come to understand that our salvation is all about grace. Any talk of rewards stinks of salvation by works. And it doesn’t sit right that we should be motivated to do good things for God simply to receive a reward from him.
Let me try and explain this idea of rewards more carefully. Why should a Christian obey God? Out of love. We should obey our loving Heavenly Father as a besotted child who is captivated and compelled by passionate desire. Our Heavenly Father is so generous and kind that he wants to shower us with blessings. He is besotted with us!
He is so delighted when we obey out of love that in this sense he rewards us extravagantly in response. Now we shouldn’t obey in order to get rewarded but we should be thrilled that as a result of godly obedience rewards will be received, both in this life and in the next.
I know I’ve spend quite a bit of time on verse 1. But this is the headline principle that will now be worked out by Jesus in three specific areas.
What is the principle? Don’t do things in order to be seen by people. Instead, we are to do things out of love for God.
In verses 2 to 18, Jesus applies this principle to three different religious activities: giving, prayer and fasting.
Did you notice that each of these three sections begins in a similar way?
- Look at verse 2 - “So when you give to the needy…”
- Or verse 5 - “And when you pray…”
- And verse 16 - “When you fast…”
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “If you do these things” but “When you do these things.” There is an expectation that every Christian will give, pray and fast.
But what Jesus desires is that his followers do these things with the right motivations.
What grabbed my attention me as I read through Jesus’ teaching in these verses is that he focuses on methods. That struck me as odd. Why focus on methods if Jesus is primarily interested in our motivations?
- Our methods reveal our motivations
- Our methods change our motivations
With that in mind let’s see what Jesus has to say about Christian giving, Christian prayer and Christian fasting.
First, Christian Giving (Vs 2-4)
Look at verse 2. Read verses 2-4.
Notice the structure.
- What not to do. Make a big fuzz when you give.
- What to do. Keep it secret. Even from ourselves.
- The result of following Jesus’ method.
What does this mean for us?
We should give to needy causes and needy people. We must allow the Bible to define what needy means.
We must give to local gospel work. It’s not about how much we have.
Not just here. There are many other Christian organisations. Other charities that we will want to support. And many people that we can help individually.
If you give more to cats than church then you have issues!
But in all these things remember to follow the method of Jesus - don’t blow the trumpet. Do everything in such a way that no one will know what you are doing.
If you can’t do this then it will reveal your motivation.
But if you do use this method, then your motivations will be become more godly.
Secondly, Christian Prayer (Vs 5-15)
This section begins with a similar structure to what we’ve just seen.
- What not to do
- What to do
- The result of following Jesus’ method
What not to do. Praying to be seen by others. This is not a command never to pray in public in any way. This is a warning not to do that in order to be seen by others.
Instead, a Christian is to go to a secret place and pray.
Result? The Father will reward them.
This method of secret prayer is a great way of revealing our spiritual motivations and indeed our spiritual health. No one else can see us when we pray in secret - only God can see and hear us.
If we practice this it will shape our motivations in a more godly way. It will help us to have right motivations when it comes to public prayer.
Our hearts are shaped through private prayers so they are healthy at the time of public prayer.
What should we pray about?
The great news is that we don’t have to babble on for hours. We are not tying to get the attention of a disinterested and distracted Creator. No, we are communicating with our dear Heavenly Father.
But what should we say?
Left to our instincts we often end up praying about ourselves and our close family.
I read this prayer recently written in the 18th century by a man called John Ward of Hackney. It's a classic example of man-centred praying: 'O Lord, thou knowest that I have nine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased one estate in the county of Essex; I beseech thee to preserve the two counties of Essex and Middlesex from fire and earthquake; and as I have a mortgage in Hertfordshire, I beg of thee likewise to have on eye of compassion on that county. As for the rest of the counties, thou mayest deal with them as thou art pleased. O Lord…give a prosperous voyage and return to the Mermaid ship, as I have insured her.'
If we pray only about ourselves that’s either the sign that you’re an unbeliever or just a really immature Christian. Jesus wants us to grow up as children of God.
To help us know what to pray about he gives us a prayer template. It’s what we call the Lord’s Prayer.
We don’t have time to go through it line by line but let me point out how it is structure.
First, a concern for God’s honour and the spread of the rule of King Jesus. Then a focus on our personal needs, both physical and spiritual.
Thirdly, Christian Fasting (Vs 16-18)
Notice the same structure
- What not to do. Don’t let everyone know you are doing it.
- What to do.
- The consequence of following Jesus’ method
This hasn’t been a regular practice of my Christian life but from this September I’m endeavouring to make it something I do.
Why should we fast? One of the benefits of fasting from food is that is creates in us physical desires, cravings for food. Those are the desires we often lack spiritually. But when we feel them physically we can pray for God to work those in our spiritual appetites.
What can we do to make God happy with us?
- Become a Christian
- Then do the right things for the right reasons, not to be seen by people but out of love for God.
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