Is our religious obedience supposed to be obvious or hidden?

Jesus commanded us to obey God in secret. “When you give to the needy, to not announce it with trumpets… do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:2-3). “When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Mt. 6:6). “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting” (Mt. 6:17-18). Jesus commands us to give/pray/fast in secret so that we receive our reward from our Father, not from the praise of men.

At other times, Jesus commands us to “live out loud” (as Youth Pastors everywhere like to say) so that our obedience and love for God is obvious and visible. “Let your light shine before men; that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

So what is it? Is our obedience supposed to be obvious or hidden?

I believe that the underlying principle of Jesus’ teaching is that we are to regard the reward of God as a greater thing than the reward of men. Or, to view the other side of the same coin, we are to fear God, not men.

Let’s look at one particular religious activity: Prayer. Daniel was a man who  prayed in view of other people. He wasn’t on the street corner, but neither was he off in his closet. He prayed in his room with the windows open. It was no secret that Daniel prayed. The jealous government officials used this against Daniel by making a law against praying to anyone other than the King. Daniel, however, continued to pray just as he had before.

Daniel could have prayed in his closet so that the administrators wouldn’t have seen him, but for him to do so probably would have been sinful. Why? If, after the decree, Daniel had hidden himself away he would have proved that he feared the King’s law more than he feared God’s law. Instead, he valued obedience to God as of greater worth than his own life and continued to “let his light shine.”

By contrast, the problem with the prayer of the Pharisees is that their public prayers demonstrated that they wanted the praise of men more than they wanted the praise of God. They should have gone into their closets.

When deciding to perform some religious duty in secret, or publicly, we must ask ourselves – am I doing this for the praise of men or the praise of my heavenly Father? Are you posting Scripture passages on Facebook because you want everyone to think you’re a “good Christian” or because you genuinely want to lift up the Word of God?

All that being said, I think there are a few commands of Scripture that we almost always will have to obey “in public” and which often will get us in trouble with the world.

Repenting and believing in Jesus: Turning to Jesus may be personal, but our faith was never meant to be hidden our private. And, indeed, simply being a Christian is often enough to bring the scorn of the world. Jesus anticipates this when he says “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Mt 5:11). Simply identifying with Jesus requires us to regard the mind of God as greater than the actions of men.

Not participating in the wickedness of the world: Sometimes, conspicuous inaction requires courage. Peter says, “They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you” (1 Peter 4:4). We’ve all heard of Pharisaical Christians who go overboard on this, “I don’t smoke, chew, or go with girls who do.” These Christians are seeking the praise of men. But, I’ve personally been on the other side, especially when I was in High School, blindly following my friends, fearing that my opposition or my opt-out would cost me too much.

Telling the good news: There’s a reason why Paul must say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.” Paul knew that, since the cross is characterized by foolishness (according to the world) that Christians would always be tempted to be ashamed of the gospel and to hide away their faith. It is not surprise, then, that when the early Church met in prayer they prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29). We may not face structural persecution (yet) but we still need boldness to proclaim to tell the good news.

Lord, help us know when to obey you in secret and when to do so in public. When you want us to step out, give us a spirit of boldness. Help us regard you approval over the approval of men.