Purity of Focus
The weeks of Lent now upon us beckon towards purity of focus. There are three traditional parts of the path towards purity: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Lent beckons us to do something with each of these. Give away a bit of your goods. Pray a bit more. Eat a bit less.
But here's the rub. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are not uniquely Christian practices; they are common to many religions and indeed, to be fair, to many spiritualities. In his great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus simply assumes that the people he is speaking to already give alms, pray, and fast. What does he say? “When you give alms” (not “if”), “when you pray,” “when you fast”—what? “You must not be like the hypocrites.” And what is Jesus’ prescription for avoiding being like the hypocrites? It is to curtail religious practices, to restrict them, to cut them back. Gone are the trumpets that announce the giving of alms. Gone are the long eloquent prayers performed in public. Gone are the facial disfigurements that signal a person’s virtue and bring on the world’s praise.
Do you see the quandary? On the one hand, Ash Wednesday is that trumpet call sounded by the prophet Joel to take up these disciplines of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. But in Jesus’ own words, we are instructed to curtail those very practices, for the sake of purity (the avoidance of hypocrisy).
For the hypocrites have already received their reward. They gave alms in order to be seen by people and receive praise. They were seen and they got it. They prayed on street corners in eloquent long-winded prayers, not to talk to God, but in order to be seen as praying. And they disfigured their faces, not in order to fast, but in order to be seen as fasting. They were very much seen, and that being seen was their reward.
God does not see as Twitter sees. For God, Jesus says, “sees in secret.” So if you really want to help the poor, you don’t have to be seen doing it. If you really want to talk with God, you don’t need to be famous for doing so. And if you are fasting for the right reason, the world does not need to know that you are fasting.
The people loved Jesus, crowds followed him, because they got this call to sincerity, this call to purity of focus. Very few people are satisfied with surface appearances. Jesus asked questions like: Would you rather have an employee who was working, or one who looked like he was? Would you rather have a doctor who really knows what she’s about, or one who has the appearance of knowledge? And if you knew you would die this coming Christmas, would you spend the time between now and then doing good, or trying to build up a reputation for doing good?
Such questions are rather easily answered. But still, it is hard to change one’s life, hard to live with purity of focus. Consider that there are other choices besides just the two (of having real goodness that no one knows about or having the appearance but not the reality of goodness). One could have the mere appearance of good and be known as a hypocrite, for instance! Or one could be good and known as good. Why does Jesus not ask us to strive to be good and known as such? Why does Jesus emphasize: give alms, pray, fast—in secret?
Surely the answer is obvious: sin. Publicity (or fame) is an awful danger for fallen human beings like you and me. As soon as any of us is known for some element of goodness, then a wee bit of self-inflation slithers into the picture. We can’t help it. The fame of being good, even among just a few friends, acts like a drug—and we come to care more about being known as good (having another dose of the drug of fame) than we care about goodness itself. I say, we can’t help it, but that’s why we need Jesus, and why he would train us against it.
Secrecy is important, not because it is the ultimate state of things, but because it prepares us for the final transparency that comes with the presence of God. What is secret now, good as well as bad, will be revealed then in complete truth, without distortion.
And who is it who sees truthfully now in secret? “Your Father,” Jesus says. Not a generic “god,” but the Father to whom we can pray—in a prayer, note, short and plain, given to us by Jesus himself. “Our Father who art in heaven.” On this Father our lives can find pure focus. What does that focus look like? Daily bread. Forgiveness. Deliverance through trials. Christians move religious practices into the secret realm because we want to purify our lives, because the only social media “like” we care to get, in the end, is that of Jesus’ Father, our Father, the one who is in heaven.