Jesus’ commands are impossible to follow. Here is just one example from the Sermon on the Mount:
- "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. (Matthew 6:1-4)
Of course, some of Jesus’ instructions are hyperbolic. There is no way that we cannot prevent the “left hand [from knowing] what your right hand is doing.” Instead, Jesus highlights the fact that our spiritual deeds should not be performed in order “to be seen by” others.
But can we ever be entirely unconcerned about what others think of us? We are social creatures and care profoundly about how we are seen. Even in the midst of my most unselfish act, I found that I was still concerned that people would see how spiritual I was. I saw an elderly woman fall down in the middle of a busy intersection. Immediately, I ran out to help her, but even before I was able to rescue her from the oncoming cars, I looked around to see how many were observing my “un-self-concerned” sacrificial act.
And I am not alone in this. We are self-absorbed with what others think of our appearance and everything about us. How then can we fulfill Jesus’ command to not perform our “acts of righteousness” to be seen by others?
We can’t! Well, if we can’t, why does Jesus command this? It will merely depress and discourage us, won’t it?
Perhaps that’s the point. Certainly, we should be guided by the right motives, but we also need to be humbled. Jesus told a parable about two men praying at the Temple. One thanked God that he was better than others; the other knew he wasn’t and humbled himself accordingly:
- "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)
Those who humble themselves by admitting their spiritual unworthiness will be exalted. This means that the way up is the way down. When we humble ourselves by admitting that we are spiritual failures who cannot keep Jesus’ commands, He will lift us up. He already knows our frailties and failures.
Following Jesus is always a humbling experience, as it should be. Consequently, to follow is to be humbled and then to be exalted. However, this process requires obedience to His commands.
Instead, many of us believe that by following spiritual or physical disciplines, we directly exalt ourselves. However, Jesus warns us that this is impossible:
- Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:24-26)
While all things are possible with God, they are not with us, as Jesus taught:
- “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)
This should be comforting. It allows us to take the attention off of us and place it upon our Lord, where it belongs. Nevertheless, we must be obedient to His commands. We must follow.