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Spiritual Disciplines: In the Secret

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." ~Matthew 6:5-6

This past winter I found myself caught in a weak moment and said yes to a huge volunteer undertaking. I volunteered to run the kitchen for an annual women’s retreat where I would be serving anywhere between 50 and 150 women at any given meal. This was a weekend where pre-processed food was not welcome as almost everything was made from scratch. And if it wasn’t made from scratch, it was doctored up so much that would never guess it wasn’t. It was a weekend filled with long, exhausting days on my feet. My favorite part came at the end of the retreat during our final chapel service. There is a time where those who have just experienced the retreat for the first time share their experiences with one main rule: No thanking those who worked to make the retreat happen.

I wasn’t the only one who worked hard that weekend. An entire team of people had worked and prepped for months to prepare for the retreat, just like the team does every year. And just like every other year, no one would get a public acknowledgement of the hours and effort they put into making it happen. Instead, all the thanks would be directed to God. The reality is that, if you volunteer to be part of making this particular retreat happen, it can’t be because you a looking for a pat on the back. It has to be all about helping people experience God.

Jesus wasn’t one to seek out the spotlight during his time on this earth. In fact, we see multiple instances where he tries to get away from the crowds but they follow him anyway. Yes, he was the Son of God but he knew his ministry was not about Him, but about His Father. He was sent to do the work His Father had asked of him. He wanted everything he did to point, not to him, but to something much bigger than him.

Isn’t it easy for us to read about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and self-righteously agree with his words from Matthew 6? For surely we would never be like those hypocritical Pharisees who needed everyone to acknowledge how holy and spiritual they were in their prayer and worship! Right on Jesus, good job for calling them out!

Might I ask you to pause for a just a minute or two and consider how you felt the last time someone else got the credit for your work or your idea? Or how about the last time you gave a really thoughtful gift only to have it discarded with no thank you ever expressed? Would you truly be happy to go about your work or ministry if no one ever acknowledged the work you did?

In the world of psychology, they talk about extrinsic rewards versus intrinsic motivation or rewards. To be motivated by extrinsic factors means you seek validation from sources from outside of yourself. You need your boss to congratulate you on a job well done on a regular basis. You need to get the thank you card. You need others to know just how much work you put into something and, to some extent, you need to know they admire and appreciate your efforts. If you don’t get this sort of feedback, you find yourself less than excited about continuing the task set before you.

Those who are primarily motivated intrinsically find validation from within themselves. They don’t need public acknowledgement of the work they have done because they know they did the best they were able to do. They generally prefer to work behind the scenes and enjoy setting others up for success. They don’t brag about their accomplishments. Often, these are the people who, when you get to know them, you are surprised to learn just how much they do for others because they simply do the work without telling others they are doing it.

When it comes to faith, we are called to be intrinsically motivated. While secrecy might not be the best word to describe this spiritual discipline, it does speak well to the reality of what Jesus is asking of us in Matthew 6. He is asking us to seek him, to engage in prayer, worship, loving one another not so others will notice, but only to grow deeper in our relationship with God.

Follow Up:

- Think about the last big service project or event you were part of for a faith community (church, non-profit organization, etc). What was your motivation? How many people did you tell about your work? How often did you slip it into conversations? Would people in your community be surprised to hear about all the work you put in? Or is it more likely they would be tired to hearing about it every time they talk to you?

- Think about the little things you do for others on a somewhat regular basis. Do you need to hear thank you on a regular basis? Or are you happy to help simply because you know it is what God has called you to do?

- Do you tend to seek out the spotlight or shy away from it? Do you approach your daily life differently than your church or faith life when it comes to the spotlight?

Helpful Resources Used

- "Secrecy" by Bill Gaultiere found on

- "Secrecy" by Dr. Alex Tang found on


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