Seeking Your Father’s Approval


Biblical Truth: For followers of Jesus, the Father’s approval of their actions should be most important.

Giving:  Matthew 6:1-4.

[1]  “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. [2]  So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. [3]  But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, [4]  so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  [NASU]

This trio of religious obligations [6:1-18] expresses in some degree our duty to God, to others and to ourselves. For to give alms is to seek to serve our neighbor, especially the needy. To pray is to seek God’s face and to acknowledge our dependence on him. To fast (that is, to abstain from food for spiritual reasons) is intended at least partly as a way to deny and so to discipline oneself. The three paragraphs follow an identical pattern. In vivid and deliberately humorous imagery Jesus paints a picture of the hypocrite’s way of being religious. It is the way of ostentation. Such receive the reward they want, the applause of men. With this he contrasts the Christian way, which is secret, and the only reward which Christians want, the blessing of God who is their heavenly Father and who sees in secret.

The Greek word for almsgiving in verse 2 means a deed of mercy or pity. Generosity is not enough. Jesus is concerned throughout this Sermon with motivation, with the hidden thoughts of the heart. There are three possibilities. Either we are seeking the praise of men, or we preserve our anonymity but are quietly congratulating ourselves, or we are desirous of the approval of our divine Father alone. A ravenous hunger for the praise of men was the besetting sin of the Pharisees. Not only are we not to tell other people about our Christian giving; there is a sense in which we are not even to tell ourselves. We are not to be self-conscious in our giving, for our self-consciousness will readily deteriorate into self-righteousness. It is possible to turn an act of mercy into an act of vanity, so that our principal motive in giving is not the benefit of the person receiving the gift but our own benefit who give it. Christian giving is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self-congratulation. What we should seek when giving to the needy is neither the praise of men, nor a ground for self-commendation, but rather the approval of God. What, then, is the reward which the heavenly Father gives the secret giver? It is probably the only reward which genuine love wants when making a gift to the needy, namely to see the need relieved. To sum up, our Christian giving is to be neither before men, nor even before ourselves but before God, who sees our secret heart and rewards us with the discovery that, as Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Praying:  Matthew 6:5-15.

[5]  “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. [6]  But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. [7]  And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. [8]  So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. [9]  Pray, then, in this way: Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. [10]  Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. [11]  Give us this day our daily bread. [12]  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. [13]  And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. [14]  For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. [15]  But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”    [NASU]

Just as nothing destroys prayer like side-glances at human spectators, so nothing enriches it like a sense of the presence of God. For He sees not the outward appearance only but the heart, not the one who is praying only but the motive for which he prays. The essence of Christian prayer is to seek God. We seek Him in order to acknowledge Him as the person He is, God the Creator, God the Lord, God the Judge, God our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Savior. We desire to meet Him in the secret place in order to bow down before Him in humble worship, love and trust.

Our Lord’s emphasis on the need for secrecy should not be driven to extremes. If all our praying were to be kept secret, we would have to give up church-going, family prayers and prayer meetings. His reference here is to private prayer. Rather than becoming absorbed in the mechanics of secrecy, we need to remember that the purpose of Jesus’ emphasis on secret prayer is to purify our motives in praying. As we are to give out of a genuine love for people, so we are to pray out of a genuine love for God. Hypocrisy is not the only sin to avoid in prayer; vain repetition or meaningless, mechanical utterance is another. Hypocrisy is a misuse of the purpose of prayer (diverting it from the glory of God to the glory of self); verbosity is a misuse of the very nature of prayer (degrading it from a real and personal approach to God into a mere recitation of words). Prayer should not consist of heaped up phrases, idle repetitions, and the ridiculous assumption that the probability of an answer is in proportion to the total number of words in the prayer.

We see again that the method of Jesus is to paint a vivid contrast between two alternatives, in order to indicate His way the more plainly. Thus Jesus is always calling His followers to something higher than the attainments of those around them, whether religious people or secular people. He emphasizes that Christian righteousness is greater (because inward), Christian love broader (because inclusive of enemies) and Christian prayer deeper (because sincere and thoughtful) than anything to be found in the non-Christian community. To sum up, what Jesus forbids His people is any kind of prayer with the mouth when the mind is not engaged.

The Lord’s Prayer serves two purposes. First, it provides a model prayer, an easily memorized outline, that serves as a lesson in how we are to approach God as Father and how we are to speak with Him. Second, it serves as an outline of the whole Christian life by providing certain fixed points of concern for the family of God. It underlines life’s priorities and helps us to get them into focus. The prayer focuses on five concepts: the worship of the Father; the kingdom of the Father; the sustenance of the Father; the grace of the Father; and the protection of the Father.

Worship of the Father. The whole of our worship flows from these few words: Our Father. They, in turn, invest our worship with the grandeur and the joy of true praise and adoration. Jesus is clearly stressing the greatness of God in His heavenly glory, and what we sometimes call the Creator-creature distinction: He is in heaven, while we are on the earth; He is heavenly, while we are earthly; He is the eternal one, while we are His creatures, made by Him and dependent upon Him for every breath we breathe. Furthermore, these words underline the fellowship and corporate nature of the Christian life. We pray, ‘Our Father,’ not ‘My Father.’ Notice the balance of this teaching. It contains three elements: intimacy (Father), adoration (in Heaven), and fellowship (our), and thereby sets the tone for Christian living, and especially for our praying. We do not live in intimacy with God in a way that destroys our reverence for Him or in a manner that isolates us from our fellow Christians. We are really saying about our own lives, ‘Lord, may everything I do and say show forth your glory as my Father in heaven, and may all my thoughts be focused on what will bring honor to your name.

Kingdom of the Father. We live now between the inauguration of the kingdom and the consummation of the kingdom. We therefore pray that the kingdom that has already been established will express its presence more and more throughout the earth, until the day comes when The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign for ever and ever [Rev. 11:15]. We are to live as those who have already experienced the power of Christ’s kingly rule, yet who still long for its completion. Because we live ‘in between the times,’ we fight, and labor, and sometimes struggle. This, then, is what lies behind Jesus telling us that we are to pray, with urgency, Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Think what this involves. (1) Bowing to God’s sovereign purposes. God establishes His kingdom through the cross, first of all by Jesus dying on it, and then by Jesus’ disciples taking it up daily as His followers. To pray for that kingdom means committing yourself to the way of the cross. (2) Seeking the spread of the gospel. The Lord’s Prayer is a missionary prayer. As a model prayer, it teaches us to put the spread of the gospel before our own needs. (3) Searching out God’s will in Scripture. Such a prayer implies that we ourselves will seek out and then do the will of God. In a nutshell, we discover that will as we become familiar with God’s revealed will in Scripture and subsequently develop the wisdom to apply biblical teaching to the different situations and experiences of our lives. (4) Praying for Christ’s Return. No one can rightly pray, Your kingdom come or Come, Lord Jesus [Rev. 22:20] without here and now bringing his life into conformity with the will of God.

The Sustenance of the Father. Christians have long realized that there is a clear order to the Lord’s Prayer. Its opening focus is God and His glory. Only then does it move to man and his need. God and His kingdom must always take priority over man and his needs. Since man was made for the glory of God, he can never be what he is intended to be until his life is properly focused on the glory of God. Since we were made for His glory, we will always malfunction whenever we fail to live for that purpose and according to the Maker’s instructions. In the light of this, we are encouraged to pray for our daily bread. Our eating and drinking – everything we do – are to be to the glory of God [1 Cor. 10:31].

The Grace of the Father. Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, Forgive us our debts, because He knows that we come to our Father with the burden and nagging pain of our guilt. We no longer foolishly try to hide them from the Lord. We admit them, bring them to the surface, mention them by name in His presence, and ask to be forgiven. But Jesus adds a qualification to this petition. Does Jesus mean that our reception of forgiveness is determined by our granting of forgiveness? The key to understanding His teaching is to recognize that we do not receive forgiveness because we forgive others, but because we cast ourselves on the mercy of God. Yet we cannot receive forgiveness without forgiving others. Forgiving others is a necessary consequence of being forgiven by God. The two are inseparably linked, for the man who knows his debt before God and turns to Him for forgiveness is the recipient of such grace that he cannot but share it with others.

The Protection of the Father. The final petition assumes that the children of God realize their weakness and vulnerability, and therefore seek the protection of God from evil. We are to pray that we will be delivered from the Evil One now, and kept from the test of his full onslaught against our lives; that we will either be protected from such terrible testing, or, should we be faced with it in the providence of God, that we will be protected in it with the armor of God. Jesus urges us to pray to be delivered. The fact that He does so assures us that our Father is both willing and able to deliver us. The Christian who knows his weakness, but is a praying Christian, will be garrisoned by the Lord’s strength.  

Fasting:  Matthew 6:16-18.

[16]  “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. [17]  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face [18]  so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”     [NASU]

Here is a passage of Scripture which is commonly ignored. Most Christians lay stress on daily prayer and sacrificial giving, but few lay any stress on fasting. First, then, what is fasting? Strictly speaking, it is a total abstention from food. It can be legitimately extended, however, to mean going without food partially or totally, for shorter or longer periods. In Scripture fasting has to do in various ways with self-denial and self-discipline. First and foremost, to fast and to humble ourselves before God are virtually equivalent terms. We are not to humble ourselves before God only in penitence for past sin, however, but also in dependence on Him for future mercy. There is another biblical reason for fasting. Hunger is one of our basic human appetites, and greed one of our basic human sins. So self-control is meaningless unless it includes the control of our bodies, and is impossible without self-discipline. Fasting (a voluntary abstinence from food) is one way of increasing our self-control. One further reason for fasting should be mentioned, namely a deliberate doing without in order to share what we might have eaten (or its cost) with the undernourished. So whether for penitence or for prayer, for self-discipline or for solidarity love, there are good biblical reasons for fasting. The purpose of fasting is not to advertise ourselves but to discipline ourselves, not to gain a reputation for ourselves but to express our humility before God and our concern for others in need.

Looking back over these verses, it is evident that throughout Jesus has been contrasting two alternative kinds of piety, pharisaic and Christian. Pharisaic piety is ostentatious, motivated by vanity and rewarded by men. Christian piety is secret, motivated by humility and rewarded by God. In order to grasp the alternative even more clearly, it may be helpful to look at the cause and effect of both forms. First the effect. Hypocritical religion is perverse because it is destructive. The effect of hypocrisy is to destroy the integrity of these practices by turning each of them into an occasion for self-display. What, then, is the cause? Ultimately our only reason for pleasing men around us is that we may please ourselves. The remedy then is obvious. We have to become so conscious of God that we cease to be self-conscious. And it is on this that Jesus concentrates. The hypocrite performs his rituals in order to be seen by men, his audience. The true Christian is also aware that he is being watched, but for him the audience is God. We can fool the human audience into supposing that we are genuine in our giving, praying, fasting, when we are only acting. But God is not mocked; we cannot deceive Him. For God looks on the heart. That is why to do anything in order to be seen by men is bound to degrade it, while to do it to be seen by God is equally bound to ennoble it. So we must choose our audience carefully.

Questions for Discussion:

1.      Why does the hypocrite give? What is Jesus warning against in verse 3? What is the proper motive for giving?

2.      Why is praying in secret the necessary foundation for learning how to pray in public? What is the proper motive for praying? What two purposes does the Lord’s Prayer serve?

3.      Jesus contrasts two types of reward in these verses. What is the reward the hypocrite receives? What reward does the believer receive in giving; in praying; in fasting?


Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount , D.A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.

The Sermon on the Mount, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth.

Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter-Varsity Press.

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