I want to tell you a secret. Promise you won’t use it against me though, right? We’ll assume you just promised, so here you are. I am incredibly trainable. Far more than any dog (or other animal) I’ve come across, I respond very well to praise. So you could basically train me to do anything you wanted, if you rewarded me with praise at strategic moments. Chocolate works well as a reward to accompany verbal praise, a bit like when Sheldon tries to train Penny on the Big Bang Theory. But the most useful tool of all, for training me to do absolutely anything, is the star chart. Yes, that age old trick for making kids eat their veg, flush the toilet or tidy their rooms, is close to 100% effective on me. This picture should serve as proof:
I’ve been a nail biter all my life, and having small hands (and therefore tiny nails) anyway, it used to look like there was hardly anything there where my fingernails should have been, it was gross. Then when I was 19, my boyfriend at the time made me this amazing star chart to help me stop. He made a picture of a garden with a night sky background that I could stick stars onto each day I didn’t bite my nails, and in the garden was an apple tree with twelve removable apples on it. For each month of stars which I stuck in the sky, I’d get to pick an apple, turn it over, and see what reward was written on the back. They were great, I got meals out, iTunes vouchers, clothes bought for me, Chinese take-aways, girly films and even foot spas. It worked a treat, for the first time ever I managed to stop biting my nails, with the help of this elaborate star chart. Then, 6 or 7 months in, we started to forget about the chart. He’d forget to put stars up for me when I wasn’t at his house, and I’d forget to keep count of days and catch the sky up when I was there. That was when I stopped caring about my nails, and little by little, they returned to being a bitten mess.
Fast-forward to about two years later, I was in second year and determined that if I could stop biting my nails once, I could do it again. I made the decision to stop, I painted my nails to remind me, and I told my lovely friend Emily all about the star chart I’d had a couple of years earlier. The next day, I checked my pigeon hole and found a beautifully hand-made star chart for the term, and a motivational “Keep Calm and Don’t Chew” poster. I’d colour in the days myself, and each weekend, text the Star Chart Fairy (c/o Emily, naturally) to say I’d managed another full week. Emily would be all encouraging and proud, and a sugary reward would find its way to my pidge the next day. It was one of the sweetest things a friend could do for me, and Emily knew me well – my nails in the photo above were the result of her praise and rewards! 9 months or so later, and except for the odd blip, I haven’t looked back.
I’m not the first person in the world to be so driven by other people’s praise. I might be a particularly good example of it, but there’s something in human nature that loves to impress others, show off our achievements and have them affirmed by other people. Our achievements of Christian life are no different, although we might dress it up in different language. If my ‘Quiet Times’ in the mornings, time reading the Bible and praying, are going well during any given period, there’s an easy way to tell. I’ll probably have told you, in some obviously modest way. In a Bible study, “you know this reminds me of a part of Habbakuk I’ve been reading recently, a couple of chapters ago. Actually, the notes I’ve been reading alongside it have been really helpful on the subject too…” Or in prayer request time: “Praise God that I’ve been having such great quiet times, pray that this will be an encouragement to [insert name of struggling friend].” Or as casual anecdote: “I walked in half way through a lecture today, first time I’ve been that late! It was only because my prayer time over-ran though, you know how you lose track of time when there’s just so much to bring to the Lord…”
Anyway, the point is, most of us want our achievements noticed and affirmed by other people.
That was certainly the case for the “fake-pietists” of whom Jesus spoke in Matthew 6:1-18. Giving their money, prayer, and fasting were all good things, ‘pillars of Jewish devotional life’. And much like me and my Quiet Times, they couldn’t resist the urge to let everyone know how well they were doing at these religious activities. They loved to be noticed, to hear people commenting on their exemplary prayer style, or to note their kind generosity to the poor. I imagine they wouldn’t have been averse to a public star chart in the market square either, accompanied by a hearty “well done, you!” and a packet of sweets every week. They got the praise they wanted, the reward they were setting themselves up for. And that was the end of it, for them.
See, I think Jesus is drawing a link between our motivation for doing something, and the outcome of it. If my motivation in working at my Quiet Times is that everyone else will know it and praise me, well that can happen. Simple. But I won’t gain anything else from it. If my motivation to pray is that I can tick it off my to do list and feel like a successful Christian, then fine. I can do that. But I won’t gain anything more. But if my motivation for any of these things, those which Jesus mentions in this passage and the other ‘religious’ activities I might want to add to his examples, is to do with relating to my Father, well that’s a different matter entirely. If my aim is to “be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, and I want to act like him to see the family likeness grow; if I want to really bless the people I’m giving to rather than myself, because I know I’m the child of a generous God; if I pray because I love to talk to him and get to know him better and hear all he has to say too…. then I’ll carry out these activities very differently, caring about no-one who could be watching except for God. The outcome will certainly be different, too. Rather than a pat on the back from fellow do-gooders and perhaps a look of admiration from those struggling with their own piety, I’ll get what I aimed for. My motivation will work itself out in the outcome. I’ll grow in the likeness of God. I’ll get to spend time with him and hear from him. I’ll have real confidence in my identity in him. Here’s the reward that God gives, the reward for those whose motivation is their Father himself.
So no, I don’t have a Quiet Time star chart (though if Emily reads this… only kidding!) or a prayer or giving star chart. I shouldn’t want or need others to stroke my ego and tell me how well I’m doing. That’s not the reward I’m looking for. Instead, if my motivations for doing good are right, I’ll gain more than I ever expected. In acting just a bit more like God, privately and where no-one else can notice, I’ll be changed that little bit more into his likeness. I’ll walk that step closer to him, trusting his character better and enjoying spending time with him more and more. That beats all the rewards I’ve have on my star charts so far, and that’s really saying something.
 This is from Nick King’s translation of the New Testament, and it’s great. You should probably read it.
 Nick again. Each section has a handy little commentary-cum-devotional-guide with it which explains everything.