Every time Lent comes around, the perfectionist in me starts showing its face more than usual. I always start the season with the intention of doing more than just giving up chocolate or something simple like that, but sometimes I go a little overboard with my Lenten commitments and end up having to ease up on some of them.
I’m sure I’ll always have this impulse to aim higher than I can reasonably go, even though I’ve learned to temper my expectations and avoid getting down on myself when I fail. My perfectionism doesn’t just apply to what I do during Lent, though. It also applies to the way I do things, which in some ways is even more powerful.
As we hear during the Gospel at every Ash Wednesday, Jesus wants us to “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” Instead, we are to pray, fast, and give alms without anyone noticing, so that the Lord, the only one who will notice when we do things that way, will repay us in heaven.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve taken this verse completely to heart. I’ve never enjoyed attracting too much attention to myself, especially when it comes to prayer or helping others, although I’m not sure whether this is a cause or a result of my relative ease in adopting this verse as a mantra. Either way, though, when I pray, fast, or give in a public setting, I do my best to do so discreetly.
After doing these things this way for so long, though, it’s easy to lose sight of why we’re even called to give in secret at all. I’ve reflected on the notion of giving in secret a lot recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that even if we do give and pray when no one is around, it means nothing if we do it for a reason other than the ones Jesus has given us.
In the passage where Jesus says to pray and give in secret, he gives several examples of people who call attention to themselves while they give, pray in areas where they know they will be seen, and neglect their appearance while fasting. He tells us not to be like these hypocrites, saying, “Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.” This gives us the reason that we should do our best to give while nobody is watching. Here, Jesus is saying that people who make a show out of praying and so on aren’t looking for the right thing. All they want is attention, and as a result, that is all they get.
What we should really seek when praying, giving alms, and fasting is a deeper connection with the Lord and with our neighbors, for those things will guide us to eternal life in heaven. It’s much easier to put our focus on a genuine desire for the Lord when there’s no one around to tell us how great we are.
But if you’re a perfectionist like me, even just giving in secret doesn’t make connecting with God completely easy. Far too often, I do things in secret not because I genuinely want to get to know the Lord better, but because I want to feel good about myself for following this rule. To perfectionists, just doing something we know we are supposed to do is inherently satisfying, but this satisfaction is not the reward we should be seeking. Giving in secret is pointless if we do it just so we can pat ourselves on the back.
What’s always more important than just doing good things with no one noticing is what’s in our hearts. We can and should pray, fast, or give alms publicly at times—such things can serve as a way to share our faith and work for justice in the world. Whether we give in secret or in public, we must always remember to do it for the glory of God and the love of our neighbor. If we give for any other reason, we will receive the reward we think we want, but not the one we truly want.