Thursday, February 5, 2009
the hidden righteousness
I am currently reading The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is fantastic. It is thoroughly kicking my butt. The middle of the book is an exposition on Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount) and there is one part of it in particular that I keep coming back to over and over. In Chapter 14, titled "The Hidden Righteousness", Bonhoeffer gives his treatment of Matthew 6:1-4. I like the version he uses in the book, it is a bit like KJV:
Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father which is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not they left hand know what they right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and they Father which seeth in secret shall recompense thee.
I get the part about not tooting your own horn, so to speak. I understand that living out the righteousness of life in Christ is not done for the 'glory of men.' The Christian strives to do what is right before God at all times, no matter who is watching, because all that is done is to God's glory anyway. In Bonhoeffer's words, "Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible."
The tricky part is the last verse. What's all this secret, left-hand, right-hand stuff? We know from Matthew 5 that it is quite impossible to live the (in his words) "extraordinary" life of discipleship in secret, without the world noticing. If you go an extra mile with your enemy, or give your cloak to someone who has taken your tunic, folks will start to talk. In light of this, Bonhoeffer asks, "From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship? Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light. No. We are to hide it from ourselves." Elsewhere he puts it like this, "We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness."
For an overly self-aware, Psych major, hyper-analytical head case... well, you can see why this is tying my brain in knots. Much of my thought life typically revolves around self-reflection, Did I do the right thing? Did I say the right thing? Did I handle that situation the way God wanted me to? So what's bugging me about this chapter is that it is more or less saying that all those questions are a waste of time, and are in fact the opposite of true righteousness in Christ. It would seem that in the very moment of my concern as to whether I am following Christ, it is just then that I cease to be following Him.
This is frustrating because I can't handle it with my usual set of spiritual (religious?) tools. I can't try harder to not notice myself. I can't pray more about not noticing myself. I can't spend time reflecting on ways to not notice myself. I can't put up sticky notes with little reminders: Haley, don't forget to forget yourself today! Pftthhth. So what I am I left with? Probably just what I need. I am left with the call and desire to look only to Jesus. As Bonhoeffer says, "to put to death the 'old man' with all his virtues and qualities, and this can only be done where the disciple forgets self and clings solely to Christ."
To be totally honest, I am still not sure I know what this means, and I welcome your thoughts and insights. In the meantime, I have more reading to do.