This morning, I was listening to Jesus in Matthew Chapter 6 and was reminded again of one of the most dangerous trappings of religious people and humanity at large: the tendency to focus on the externals over the internals when it comes to seeking (and evaluating) our relationship with God. Jesus constantly warned followers about having religious form but no real substance. He criticized their focus on appearances while neglecting the heart. He said many are like white-washed tombs, clean on the outside but dead on the inside. He knows us all too well. Having grown-up in a religious background and family, I know I struggle with this so much! Many of you will relate, especially those from the American South. Even non-religious people sometimes confuse what Christianity is all about, thinking it is about some set of good behavior and obedience to rules rather than a message of God’s redemption through Jesus. It is so easy to get caught-up in doing all of the right things without a right heart! Yet, it’s only when right actions come from right hearts that we are truly right with God!
This is why it’s so important to listen up to the words of Jesus! You need to be reminded today of what pleases Him, frees you, and brings Him glory. I encourage you to read Matthew 6:1-18 for yourself now by clicking here or turning there in your Bible. Listen to some key statements from Jesus from the passage:
- “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.” (v. 1)
- “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.” (vv. 2-4)
- “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees you in secret will reward you.” (v. 5-6a)
We see a consistent theme here. The need for inside-out living extends to every area of life and spirituality. First, we must clarify something. Jesus is not telling us that a life of holiness and obedience to God is unimportant. Rather, he is saying just the opposite. He is saying it is of utmost importance. But he’s helping us realize where holiness & obedience begin – the heart. God’s righteousness comes inside-out. Every act of practical obedience should be the natural overflow of a obedient heart. Our giving, our praying, our worship, our going….. every single act of Christian obedience…. should come from a heart (love) for God and a heart (love) for others. Our enjoyment and worship of Jesus must be the engine of our obedience. This is why in Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus answers that the greatest commandment is loving God supremely and loving others selflessly. If you love God with everything and love others as you love yourself, you will truly fulfill the law (Rom. 13:8-10). Your life will be marked by every form of practical holiness.
Do you see what Jesus is saying? Righteousness begins within. God knows & seeks your heart! The Holy Spirit must first work God’s love into your HEART. He wants to change you from the INSIDE-OUT. This is why Christ died & rose again: to forgive, rescue, and change our hearts for God. When our hearts are surrendered to Him, our lives will follow & reflect His presence in a million practical ways. This is why we must daily take up our cross, surrender our bodies to Him as a living sacrifice, as yield the members of our bodies unto righteousness (see Rom. 7, 12).
Even (and especially) as a pastor, I feel the constant tendency and tug keep-up outward “appearances” of spirituality, even if I do not feel love, intimacy, or desire for God in my heart. We want people to think we are one way, even if we are not. We like to convince ourselves that we are really OK. And it’s easy to get away with it. Yet, while others think you are close to God, in your heart you know you are far away. And while you may convince yourself your activity is worthy of some nod of approval from God, you know He is desiring your heart. Yet, the cycle often continues; pretense seems easier than waiting repentance. Sometimes, Tylenol to ease the pain seems easier and better than heart surgery to cure the problem. But – you must know – if the root problem is not confessed and addressed with honesty & repentance, allowing for God’s restoration within your heart, this cycle of religious pretense can lead to even deeper dangers and heads toward spiritual destruction. [See Hebrews 4:1-13.]
Today, we need to focus on internal realities, ensuring that our hearts are truly satisfied and devoted to God. Your desire & prayer should be for God to give you a white-hot love for Jesus & others. Where is your heart? If you are trapped in a life of outward forms with no inward realities, I encourage you to make today the day you confess your sin, repent, and return to God with your whole heart. Remember: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17) “When you seek me, you will find me, when you seek me with all of your heart.” (Jer. 29:13)