Do acts of mercy in secret. Just do some good things that no one knows about. — Fr. Tom Hopko
There’s a tension in the Gospel between Jesus’ command to do good in public so others can see it and glorify God (Matt. 5:16) and the command do good in secret so only God sees it (Matt. 6:2-5).
The resolution of this tension is to be found in the intention of the do-gooder:
why do you do what you do?
For Jesus, the only authentic intention of the disciple is summed up in the twofold commandment: love of God and love of neighbor. Love, which is willing the good of neighbor and the glory of God, takes us out of ourselves, out of our proclivity toward wound-licking and naval-gazing, and reorients us toward God and neighbor. The music of love takes as its refrain the words Jesus spoke as He consecrated the bread and wine:
“…this is my Body which will be given up for you…my Blood…shed for you and for many…”
In those simple words is a revolution, as “my” is out-turned and placed in service to “you.” For those who dare to eat this Bread and drink this Cup, any and every claim to what is mine is immediately placed in service to the well-being of others and the glory of God(which is really saying the same thing). If I say this is “my body” or “my money” or “my home,” the Christian conscience obliges me at once to consider in what way God wishes me to rightly place those gifts I hold in my possession in service to the common good.
There’s no mistake that we call the bread and wine, after they have been transformed under the force of Jesus’ words “…for you…”, the Real Presence. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Doing good for others in secret is a wonderful asceticism for disciplining our broken tendency to turn everything back on ourselves. This is especially true when we do secret good for those who do not do good to us (Matt. 5:46). The early Fathers often counseled fasting and praying for one’s enemies without ever making it known. The frequent practice of secret mercies and kindnesses can also help prepare us for handling our public good deeds when they get praised. Not by mere protestations of pious humility — “No, really, it’s all God” [btw: no it’s not, it’s cooperating with grace] — but by very naturally experiencing an inner gratitude that you were able to benefit someone else and so manifest the glory of the God who is love. The joy of praise is found in its acknowledgment that love is the true measure of all things.
My spiritual director of 25 years ago used to say to me, “If anyone praises you for this or that, remind yourself:
‘How much God must love them to give me these gifts.’ It’s not about you. Gifts are ‘about you’ only inasmuch as they’re about those they were given for.”
He continued, “The day that this thought naturally occurs to you when you are praised is the day you’ll know you’ve tasted real humility.”
A number of years ago some unknown person began paying for our utilities every month, and would send us gift cards in the mail to a local grocery store. We tried every way of finding out who they were to thank them, but we were never able to. One of my children said, “Makes me want to be a better person knowing there’s someone like that out there.”
Yes. Glory to God, the hidden Giver of all gifts.
Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and has a particular passion for exposing the unlimited potential of theology to offer the faithful a deeper sharing in the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. Tom received a Masters in Systematic Theology from Mount St. Mary’s University and a PhD in Religion at Florida State University.