Tim Alford finds a Christian podcast that wasn’t altogether helpful
A few years ago I was out for a run listening to a prominent Christian leadership podcast to which I subscribed at that time. The subject up for discussion that month was “how to build your personal brand on social media.” And to my great shame, I listened through the whole thing and barely batted an eyelid. Somehow, in this digital age, I had become so accustomed to a world in which it has become the norm for preachers to market themselves; to following Christian leaders on Instagram whose feeds are full of themselves (pun-intended) preaching; and to churches and ministries investing countless hours and resources being in developing their “brand,” that I had become blind to the very thing that was right in front of me. I had come to unquestioningly accept the kind of leadership behaviours that Jesus explicitly and emphatically rebuked the Pharisees for in his day…
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi ’by others”
Matthew 23:5-7 (emphasis added)
Modern paraphrase: “Everything they do is done for people to see: they make their Instagram reels punchy; they work the algorithm to gather the most hits and build more followers for themselves; they love to headline the biggest conferences and to be called ‘pastor’ by others.”
The philosopher Dallas Willard writes this stinging inditement on the lack of spiritual depth such behaviours expose: “One of the greatest fallacies of our faith, and actually one of the greatest acts of unbelief, is the thought that our spiritual acts and virtues need to be advertised to be known. The frantic efforts of religious personages and groups to advertise and certify themselves is a stunning revelation of their lack of substance and faith.”
It seems we have come full circle, from the honour-shame paradigm of the greco-Roman world, to the humility-inspired ethic of the Judea-Christian worldview, and back again to the honour-shame paradigm of the digital age…. and we barely even noticed.
But Jesus calls for a different kind of leadership, one which seems radically out-of-sorts to that which we have become accustomed…
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi, ’for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father, ’for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.”
And then Jesus concludes, reminding us of how in God’s economy, it’s those who humble themselves, not this who promote themselves, that will be considered the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”
Notice Jesus language; ‘those who humble themselves,’ not ‘those who pray to be humble.’ This is an instruction repeated again by both James (James 4:10), and Peter (1 Peter 5:6). Cultivating humility then is not something passive, but something we must take active steps to develop. But how do we do that? How do we humble ourselves in a world in which it has become the norm to promote ourselves, even in the church?
Well that’s where the practice of secrecy comes in….
Secrecy is an ancient spiritual discipline that has been almost entirely lost in the digital age, because we feel compelled to post everything we do on Instagram. The spiritual practice of secrecy is, in Willard’s words, where “we abstain from causing our good deeds and qualities to be known. We may even take steps to prevent them from being known, if it doesn’t involve deceit. To help us lose or tame the hunger for fame, justification, or just the mere attention of others, we will often need the help of grace. But as we practice this discipline, we learn to love to be unknown.”
The spiritual discipline of secrecy, then, does not mean keeping secrets, it means we humble ourselves in a world where everyone else is trying to promote themselves. It is how we learn to, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
And this spiritual discipline, though largely forgotten and rarely spoken about, comes straight from Jesus himself.
In his seminal ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus instructs his listeners to, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
He then goes on to talk about giving in secret (6:2-4), praying in secret (5-15), and fasting in secret (16-18). On each occasion, Jesus concludes his point with this repeated refrain: “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (6:4, 6, 18, emphasis mine).
And this practice was evident throughout Jesus life and leadership, taking no interest whatsoever in promoting himself or ‘building his brand.’ Had he been interested in such, Jesus would have adopted a very different strategy to that which we see play out in the gospels.
Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, notes that just three miles from Jesus’ home town of Nazareth sat the gleaming city of Sepphoris, a “beautiful Greco-Roman metropolis, which featured colonnaded streets, a forum, a palace, a bath and gymnasium, and luxurious villas, all constructed in white limestone and coloured marble.” It even featured a four thousand seater auditorium, which would have been the perfect setting for a would-be celebrity preacher to make a name for himself. And yet, as Yancey observes, though during Jesus ’lifetime Sepphoris served as Galilee’s capital, second in importance only to Jerusalem in all of Palestine, not once do the gospels record that Jesus visited or even mentioned the city. Nor did he visit Tiberius, Herod’s winter resort town situated nearby on the shore of Lake Galilee. Jesus consistently gave centres of wealth and political power a wide berth. He would often withdraw from crowds, favouring the secret place, even in the midst of what we would consider a full scale revival!
In all this, Jesus shows us that, “secrecy rightly practised enables us to place our public relations department entirely in the hands of God. … We allow him to decide when our deeds will be known and when our light will be noticed” (Willard).
As we practice secrecy as Jesus did, we learn to offer service to God that does not need to be validated by the affirmation of others. It teaches us to love others for the sake of others, and, overtime, is how we cultivate true humility in our spirit.
And in secrecy there is incredible freedom! No longer do we need to be seen or known in order to feel valuable. No longer do we need to be visible in order to feel purposeful! We find peace in our minds and joy in our hearts as we learn to take pleasure in doing a secret and unseen thing for the glory of God.
So what if you and I embraced the counter-cultural disciple of secrecy? What if we had successes in ministry that we didn’t post on Instagram? What if we learned to value the secret place over the public platform? What if we stopped trying to promote ourselves and instead started to humble ourselves? What if we could truly live for the audience of one?
So “humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6).
I pray that you and I would learn to love to be unknown as we embrace this discipline of secrecy.