“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” — Matthew 6:1–4 (ESV)
I heard a saying from a mentor that echoed the sentiment of the above Bible verses: “After you do something good, disappear and never mention it again.” It is a way to give kindness but not give way to pride, to walk humbly with God.
We lose the spiritual reward once we brag about our altruism, because it starts to be about us, not the other person.
Before I was a Christian, as early as two years ago, I did not heed these words. I felt giving to a homeless person was an act of grace and I needed to profess that I was a good person. Same with talking most of the night with a friend about their problems.
I admit I haven’t made it there yet. Sometimes I still profess my good deeds in a public setting, like my Instagram stories. I’m not always the best at maintaining humility.
If you’re doing good things for social validation, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
And it’s not sustainable, because you’re always requiring something in return.
Requiring something in return, in essence, defies the whole point of giving, charity, or grace. To be transparent, every human being expects something in return for doing a good deed. But that can’t come externally or it defeats the whole purpose. It has to come from within or from above.
I don’t believe I do anything alone, but by a God who strengthens me, and that means the resources, energy, skills, or time I give away to a needy person or community is by the grace of God, not myself.
I was inspired to write this article by a fellow writer on Medium, Katrina Loos, who shared a grain of wisdom that “every good thing you do doesn’t need to be seen or shared. You should be a good person on your own because you want to be, not to get people to like you more.” The most genuine people also tend to be the most humble, the ones whose best traits and acts aren’t the ones mentioned in a job interview.
This isn’t a traditional article that denies extrinsic motivation and touts inherently intrinsic motivation for good works and deeds. As a Christian, I don’t believe (or I shouldn’t believe) in being justified by works, rather by faith.
I believe in a certain man, the son of God, who died on a cross and already finished the work. It’s useful for society to give accolades and incentive for good deeds like volunteering, sacrificing oneself, and offering gifts, but the whole reward can’t be the incentive.
Sure, I know a lot of people who believe everyone acts in their own self-interest.
Reciprocal altruism is a term in evolutionary biology that predicts we sacrifice and give to receive benefit for a later time. Vampire bats, for example, share their food and receive food back in return. Even when we give and sacrifice, critics who say we’re acting in self-interest aren’t wrong.
Some of us try to prove to ourselves that we’re good people, while others act on religious beliefs, and many of us just don’t think much about it. Some act arbitrarily because it doesn’t hurt to do so. I have done good deeds for all these reasons.
If altruism is in our self-interest, then at least society, culture, and religious institutions and laws have done something right. We expect rewards.
The issue comes when we expect our reciprocal rewards to come materially, whether in praise on social media or friends, or another favor. In many circles that’s how the world works, particularly in cutthroat business-centered circles.
In Matthew 6, Jesus urged us to give in secret.
There’s merit in giving because we want to give, not because we expect something materially in return, but because “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
There’s a lot of temptation in the material reward for good deeds and altruistic behavior. It would be folly to not acknowledge that temptation. I don’t expect Marlon, the last homeless person I gave money to on the intersection of Pratt and President Street to repay me the next time I see him.
There’s a far greater reward in spirit when given by God. We lose that spiritual reward once we start to brag about our good deeds or altruism, because it starts to be about us, not the person we helped.
It cheapens the act or gift the moment we make it about ourselves. It also cheapens the intimacy when a good deed is made public to the whole world, not just ourselves and the recipients.
There is the old Arab Proverb that “a good deed dies when it is spoken about.” Colossians 3:17 tells us that “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Let’s remind ourselves that the gift is the act of giving, of helping, of sacrificing, that reminds us that we are meant for more in this world than simply ourselves.
It’s in the act of giving to a homeless person that we’re fulfilling God’s word and our moral code. It’s in the act of giving our co-worker a ride home when their car broke down that we’re making meaningful connections. When we’re volunteering in the soup kitchen, our souls are filled when we nourish others.
I don’t believe in the notion that you can’t love yourself if you don’t love others.
When we’re trying to exalt ourselves and brag about our good deeds, we don’t need other people’s help. We don’t need a God. We don’t need Jesus. We become our own saviors.
And pardon me if that reality doesn’t just seem so damn lonely?
Life is what happens when we’re waiting for the things that never come. Self-righteously trying to not only save ourselves, but save others, is something that will never come.
We will never let life happen when we showcase and brag about our good deeds, and don’t acquiesce to the fact that we’re going to be the people that need help, all the time.
Life is what happens when you accept help and realize that you are what you are, give what you can give, because of those large support networks that grew and sustained you all these years.
We can’t be fulfilled without meaningful connections.
Meaningful connections require helping others, doing good deeds, and giving back to the community that sustains us.
So, after you do something good, disappear and never mention it again, because the reward comes not from the validation, but from the act itself.
Originally published at The Partnered Pen on August 11, 2019.