“Brother, if I ever become a follower of Jesus, I’m going to be a much stronger follower than you are.”
Ouch. My friend *Hama was sharing with me what he was learning as a first-time reader of the gospel of Matthew.
“May it be, my friend! But what do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, I would study the Bible every day and I would pray every day so that I could be close to my God,” Hama said.
“But Hama, I do those things almost everyday.”
“You do?!” Hama turned in surprise.
I laughed, “Yes I don’t do it perfectly, but for years now I have sought to begin my day by an hour or so of reading my Bible and praying.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. How had I failed to mention my own spiritual disciplines to Hama in the months that we had been friends? I chewed on this question and on the fact that my closest local friend had been assuming the worst about me. This wouldn’t be the last time I experienced this dynamic while working with Central Asian seekers or new believers.
A few years later I was working with refugees in the US. As we sought to have a few join our local church who were professing believers, we kept encountering the same kind of assumptions. The default belief of some of these refugees was that members of the church who were dating were regularly sleeping together before marriage. Others believed that that the pastors who were getting paid by the church were not themselves giving any money to the church. Another time I encountered the belief that the reason we counted the number of people in services was because of some financial scheme. I often wondered, how are they not picking up on what is really happening here?
Later in Central Asia I would find the disturbing assumptions that the missionaries were obligated to pay all the rent for the owner of the home where the house church met. Many even believed that we were paid a certain bonus for each baptism that took place (mine was rumored to be $25,000 per head!). Scores of my friends probably still assume that I work for the CIA in some fashion.
Why would my friends assume these things, even after coming to faith? Part of it is due to their own cultural and worldview formation. They have grown up in the real, fallen world. Central Asia and the Middle East have a strong religious veneer, but underneath the facade everyone has experienced the powerful forces of love of money, sexual immorality, lust for power, and every other manner of sin. They have learned to assume these things are going on as the normal way the world functions.
But I also came to see that I was from a church culture where many of these areas of obedience were kept in the category of open secret. We Western evangelicals tend to assume that others can somehow see our obedience in areas such as spiritual disciplines, sexual purity, and money, without us ever having to tell them directly (with the exception of an accountability partner). And many of us have learned to pick up on very subtle clues or have rightly given one another the benefit of the doubt. If the public teaching is explicit in these areas, then to casually ask someone about their giving to the church or whether they slept together with their fiance before marriage would seem forward and awkward, even in a healthy Western church.
We also know that temptations to pride are real. This keeps us from speaking openly about our obedience, out of fear of seeming prideful or giving ground for pride to grow. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth (Prov 27:2). We don’t want to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing (Matt 6:3). These things are biblical. So we keep quiet about our giving, about the victories of sexual purity, about the ways we’ve been faithful to seek the Lord for years.
There is much good in our allergy to phariseeism. But there is also danger, danger to new believers. It is imperative that we speak openly about our secret obedience with those who are unchurched and new in the faith. They need to hear that we are actually obeying the seemingly-impossible commands of Jesus. They also need to hear from a role model on how we have obeyed the commands of scripture in a practical manner.
I’ve heard it said that children are wonderful observers and terrible interpreters. I believe this is true of many cross-cultural relationships and new believers as well. Many are prone to misunderstand why certain things are happening in the life of the church. Pagan motives will be projected onto believers by those who have been raised by pagandom. It’s our job as their disciplers to be frank with them about many things regarding ourselves – things we might not bring up to other mature believers from our culture for the sake of fighting pride.
Yes, I seek to spend time daily in praying and in the word. This has gone on for years. This is what it looks like for me…
Yes, I give generously to my church. This is what percentage I give at… Here are the other ways we are giving to the poor as well.
Yes, my wife and I were virgins when we got married. This is not impossible. Here’s how we fought for purity…
Yes, I drank alcohol in moderation and never got drunk. This is not impossible. Here’s what that looked like for me…
Yes, all the pastors at my church give money back to the church, even if they are paid by the church.
No, I don’t work for the CIA or for any other government.
No, I don’t get any money for baptizing people! This is a lie.
We will serve new believers and believers from other cultures if we would be more open with them about our secret obedience. But what about not letting the left hand know what the right is doing? The principle of this command is that we should not publicly trumpet our obedience for the sake of the praise of men. It’s all about the motive of the heart. Therefore, if it’s for the sake of equipping a new believer, I am free to take my financial giving out of the realm of open secret and into the realm of frank discussion.
Let’s not assume new believers are able to somehow intuit our secret obedience. They need role models. And let us not assume that they know the “why” of what we do. Let’s make it plain for them. No question about Christian morality should be off-limits. On a personal note, let’s also be gracious when our friends seem to assume the worst about us, our believing friends, or our church. After all, we are part of the kingdom of God – a kingdom that cannot be understood without new eyes and a new heart. Even after receiving these, we all need the grace of frank discussion with a friend… and lots of time.