Secret Service

Monday, February 13, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

(Matthew 6:1, NIV)

My wife and I have a routine of walking every day.  Trudging through our neighborhood recently after the blanket of snow from a recent snowstorm had partially melted away and the snowplows had swept through the streets a couple times, we came upon a bit of stray litter on the ground ahead of us.  I was about to pass by, when my wife realized it was a Next-Day Delivery envelope.  It was dated several days prior, having escaped from a delivery truck and now hiding in the snow.  The recipient address was several blocks ahead of us, so we took along the envelope—still intact, though a bit worn and ragged.  Arriving at the address, we saw it was a home we had passed many times on our daily walks.  We had causally greeted the home owners on occasion when they were outside as we passed, but we didn’t know their names until now.  They were not home at the time, so we placed the envelope securely in a spot they would find it and continued on our walk.  They never learned it was us.  I suspect they simply thought the delivery service was unusually late, as well as a little rough with their package.  It was our little secret to help out a neighbor, with no reward or remuneration.

Matthew 6 calls us to pray, give, and fast in secret.  If we do it in public, we have received our reward. The wealthy who ostentatiously dropped a large sum in the offering plate had their own reward, achieving higher social status in the eyes of those watching the plate.  The Pharisees who prayed on the street corner for all to see had their own reward, obtaining public recognition and honor from those watching the corner.  Jesus foresaw no further compensation for such acts, presumably because they were performed for earthly rather than heavenly gain.  I am reminded of the Old Testament story of David’s anointing.  Samuel thought that Jesse’s oldest son must surely be the next king because of his handsome outward appearance.  But God set Samuel straight: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV).  God sees our true motivations, regardless of what the exterior circumstances appear to imply. 

Scientists or engineers who pursue publication simply to see their name in lights are modern day Pharisees, praying on the street corner and have already received their reward.  Christians who serve God through their calling as scientists and engineers should take heed this teaching of Jesus.  Praying in public is its own reward, while serving in secret is to serve God.  Thus, we ought to engage regularly in careful introspection, examining our motives.  Do we work hard because we are seeking for earthly praise?  Are we pursuing our work hoping for publication in a prestigious journal?  Are we striving for honors and accolades from professional colleagues?  While peer review is an important guide, providing constructive criticism and correction to our work, such review ought not simply be our means to published articles that feed our ego.  While publication and patents are an important way to share new knowledge with the community, such dissemination ought not simply be our means to personal recognition. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting that publication, honors, or rewards are evil in themselves.  Nor am I suggesting that one should feel guilty when recognized. Acknowledgment from colleagues and celebration of accomplishments can be appropriate, energizing, and affirming when accepted modestly and when we acknowledge the support of colleagues, friends, family, and give thanks to God.  My point is that we focus on giving, not getting.  Our work should center on service to others, not on reward or self-actualization.  I once heard that integrity is measured not by what we do in public view, but by what we do when we think no one is watching.  That sounds right to me.  Altruism and service is most sincere when we have no reasonable expectation of reciprocation or reward.

Page 1 of 1 pages
(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest