What do you do when Jesus makes two statements that seem to contradict one another? At one point, Jesus tells us we are like a city on a hill, and that we should "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Mt. 5:6)." Not too much later, during the same speech, in fact, Jesus warns us about doing things so that we will be seen by others (Mt. 6:5; 6:16). So which is it? Do we let our light shine? Do we let our good deeds be seen? Or do we keep them hidden?
Often, what seems like a contradiction at first, can be worked out by taking the time to ask some questions and consider the intent of each statement. When we take the time, we can gain increased clarity and Jesus' words can bring transformation to our lives.
The key difference between Jesus' two statements is the outcome of each. One results in glory to the Father, and the other in glory for the one doing the good deed. In the first, we let our light shine because it radiates the good of the Father. In the second, we make our good deeds known so we can personally gain the praise of others. You cannot control the response of others, so the more pressing question for you and me is: "what is our motivation for doing the good deed?" Are we aiming at praise for the Father? Or are we aiming at praise for ourselves?
Here are three questions that can help you discern whether your good deeds should be seen by others. Or whether you are falling into the trap of the hypocrites that Jesus confronts.
What do I want people to do when they see my good deed?
This question gets at our motivation. When people see my good deed, what do I want them to do in response? Am I craving their praise and affirmation? Or am I wanting them to give praise to the Father?
Do you daydream? Do you ever imagine future scenarios in your mind and how they will play out? If so, how do you imagine people responding to your good deeds? Do you imagine them giving glory to the Father in response? Or do you imagine them giving praise to you for all the good things you have done?
Let's be honest. This is actually something we are all prone to do at times. I am not immune to this motivation. And neither are you. Jesus is calling us to be mindful about whose praise we are after and pursue the glory of the Father when we engage in good deeds.
Does my good deed necessitate a public act?
One question you can ask yourself is if the good deed you are doing necessitates someone else knowing about it. Certain good deeds, by their very nature, will be seen. Certain good deeds are done in the public arena, and cannot be done in a private way. If you are going to have a clothing drive for the homeless in your community, you will need to tell someone about it or you will not have a very successful clothing drive. The nature of that good deed requires that others know.
In the gospels, Jesus is critical of people who are fasting and giving money in a very public way. Fasting does not require that others know you are fasting. Giving money does not require that others know you have given money.
You can ask yourself. Does this good deed, by its very nature, require that other see it? If the good deed does not require that others know you are doing it, then that good deed doesn't need to be seen. Allow the deed itself to determine whether it is seen.
Am I going out of my way, so that I can be seen?
This question has some overlap with the previous one but brings another angle to test whether our good deed should be seen. Another way of asking the question might be, "in order for my good deed to be seen, have I gone out of my way to ensure that it is noticed by others?"
We want God to be glorified in our good deeds, so it might follow that we want our good deeds to be seen. We may genuinely have the motivation of other seeing our good deeds so they can give glory to God, but when we begin to go out of our way in order to ensure they are seen, then I think it is a good indication we are crossing a line.
Even if we believe our motivations are pure, if we are going out of our way to be seen, I think we have stepped outside of being the "city on a hill" Jesus describes. When a city is seen in the distance, the light shines on the horizon and is a relief to the weary travelers who approach. But the lights were not made so that travelers can see them. The light of a city serves a purpose for the city. It helps the residents walk from place to place and go about their business. The purpose of a city's light is not to be seen by those outside the city, but for those living in the city.
In the same way, the good of our good deeds is found in the very reason we are doing them. If we are raising money to fight human trafficking, the good of that deed is found in the fight against injustice. The light shines in the good deed itself. The fact that someone might observe this good deed and then praise God is not our responsibility. We are responsible for doing the good, and if asked, to give a reason for the good we do. People might see that good deed on the horizon, like a weary traveler seeing the light of a city, and praise God as a result. But whether others see it or not, whether they praise God or not, there is still good in the deed. And so we do it anyway.