In chapter 16 of my book Money, Possessions & Eternity I suggested sharing giving testimonies in order to help Christ's body grow in giving. I once objected to this—and many still do—because Jesus said, "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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matt. 6:3-4).
When he received an automated tax receipt from his church indicating he'd given no money the previous year, one Christian leader was outraged. He said he was obeying Scripture by not letting his left hand know what his right hand had given. Giving was to be so secret, he thought, that even he shouldn't know how much he'd given.
In Matthew 6 Jesus dealt with motives, something the religious elite failed to examine. He starts with the broad category of "acts of righteousness," then moves to three such acts—giving, prayer and fasting. These are not exhaustive. In teaching, the rabbis often spoke in groups of threes. He could have added Bible reading, feeding the poor, or raising children. Today, we might include going on mission trips or attending a particular college or church. The idea is any "act of righteousness" (or badge of spirituality) that can give you spiritual status.
The most important verse, the one that sets up the entire passage, is the first: "Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them" (Matt. 6:1). The operative phrase is "to be seen by them." This isn't a prohibition for others becoming aware of your giving, prayers, fasting, Bible study, feeding the poor, missions work, or church attendance. Rather, it's a command not to do these things in order to receive the recognition of men. Jesus says, "If you do [that is, if you do good things to win human approval], then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." The problem isn't doing good things with reward in mind—it's looking for the reward from men rather than God.
Then Jesus says, "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" (Matt. 6:2). Trumpet blowing may seem silly and obvious. There's no record this was actually done. It seems to be satirical or humorous, a caricature of less obvious things we do to get attention. But Christ's focus is the reason for which hypocrites draw attention to what they've done: "to be honored by men." Again, Christ's argument is not that our giving should never be seen, but only that we should never divulge or flaunt it in order to get human recognition. When that happens, "I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full" (Matt. 6:26).
If we give in order to get men's praises, we'll get what we seek—college wings named after us, getting wined (or diet-coked) and dined by ministries, our names inscribed on a pew or a brick, getting added to a board or seeing our names on a plaque and in the newspaper. But in getting what we seek we will lose what we should have sought, the only thing that ultimately matters —God's approval.
Only now comes the verse we must understand: "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."
This is a figure of speech. It's hyperbole, deliberate overstatement (which is in no sense misleading, since hearers recognized it as a common way of speaking). That it cannot be literal is self-evident, since a hand has no ability to know anything, and the person has only one center of knowing, the brain, which knows what both the right and left hand are doing. There is no center of intelligence in one hand as opposed to the other, nor is there an ability for the brain to withhold information from one hand while disclosing it to the other. A person isn't able to throw a switch so he doesn't know he's giving, or that he's given.
Consider the Christian leader who prided himself on not knowing how much he gives. Shouldn't a steward know what he's done with his master's money? This man was proud that he couldn't be proud about his giving because he didn't know how much he gave. (If he really did know—which he found out when he got the statement from his church—he'd be ashamed, not proud.)
So what's Christ's point? Do your giving quietly, unobtrusively. Don't cough loudly just as you're giving. Don't slam dunk it in the offering. Drop your check in the offering or send it in the mail without drawing attention to yourself. Keep the envelope sealed. Give in a spirit of humility and simplicity, as a private act of worship. Don't give in order to get your name on a list. Don't give in a spirit of self-congratulation. Don't dwell on your gift, fixating on it, building a mental shrine to yourself. In other words, don't make a big production out of it, either before men or in the privacy of your own heart.
This verse cannot mean that we should—or even that we can—be unaware of our own giving, any more than we could be unaware of our praying, fasting, Bible reading or evangelism. To try to make it mean that would remove the discerning, thoughtful elements of giving, praying, fasting, and all spiritual disciplines.
Can this verse mean it's always wrong for others to know we've given? No. Acts 2:45 tells of Christians selling possessions and giving to the needy. Did people know who'd done this? In many cases, the answer would be obvious. These people knew each other—if you no longer had your prize camels, coat or oxcart, people would figure out why. Acts 4:32-35 tells us about more people liquidating assets. Names that would mean nothing to us aren't recorded, but they were surely known at the time.
Some were named. Acts 4:36-37 tells us that Barnabas sold a field and brought the money to the feet of the apostles. If Barnabas was looking for men's reward, his motive was wrong. But it's impossible that it be wrong others were made aware of his gift, since it's Scripture itself which tells us! Barnabas's act of generosity was commonly known among the believers, and it was publicly recorded in Acts.
Did public recognition tempt others to give for the wrong motives? Absolutely, as we see in the very next verse, Acts 5:1. Ananias and Sapphira gave for the wrong reasons. Then they lied to make their gift look better than it was. But the possible abuse of something doesn't nullify its legitimacy. The body of Christ can benefit from seeing open models of generous giving such as Barnabas's. The world can benefit from seeing the generosity of the church, as an attractive witness to the grace of Christ. The risks of disclosing someone's giving are sometimes outweighed by the benefits of disclosure.
Earlier in the same sermon, Jesus said, "Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). Here we're commanded to let men see our good deeds—and not to hide them. Giving is a good deed, isn't it? This passage and Matthew 6 balance each other. There's a time for giving to be seen, but only at the right time and for the right reasons.
We need to stop putting giving in a class by itself. If I give a message on evangelism, biblical interpretation or parenting, I run the risk of pride. But it may still be God's will for me to share with the church what God's taught me in these areas. Paul spoke of himself as a model—"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). I could write books for the wrong reasons, even though I seek God's face and ask that this wouldn't be the case. I could send every email with the wrong motive, to seek man's approval, not God's. But I write books and send emails anyway, partly because if we refrain from doing everything we could do with a wrong motive, we'll never do anything at all. (If your pastor only preaches when there's no temptation to pride, he'll never preach.)
If Matthew 6:2-4 means that other people shouldn't ever know what someone gives, then Acts 4:36-37 violates it. There's no way around it. Numbers 7 lists by name the donors to the tabernacle. 1 Chronicles 29 tells exactly how much the leaders of Israel gave to build the temple, then it says "the people rejoiced at the willing response of their leaders, for they had given freely and wholeheartedly to the LORD" (v. 9). Philemon 7 is likely a reference to Philemon's generous giving, and 2 Cor. 8:2-3 is definitely a reference to the Macedonian's generous giving. (They were a church, but churches can be guilty of pride too).
Whatever Matt 6:2-4 means, it must allow for the disclosure of giving that we see in these other passages.
In Matthew 6, it's clear that whatever's true of giving is also true of praying and fasting. Jesus says in verse 6, "When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen." He's clearly swinging the pendulum away from the self-conscious, self-serving, image-enhancing prayers for which the Pharisees were notorious. But did he mean that all prayer must be private? No. Scripture has many examples of public and corporate prayers. Every time the pastor or worship leader prays in church, every time parents pray with their children, husbands pray with wives, people pray over dinner, or someone prays with the person he's leading to Christ, it demonstrates the falseness of the notion that it's always wrong to be seen or heard by others when you pray.
Jesus tells us to pray in secret, and God will reward us (Matt. 6:6). Yet gathering for group prayer is certainly important (Matt. 18:19-20). God wants us to pray secretly sometimes but not others. He wants us to give secretly sometimes, but not others. It all comes down to the motives of our hearts, and the purpose of disclosure.
As Matthew 6:6 doesn't mean it's always wrong to let others hear you pray, Matthew 6:3-4 doesn't mean it's always wrong to let others be aware of your giving. Since Jesus groups giving, prayer and fasting as the three acts of righteousness in this passage, whatever applies one to applies to the others.
When the poor widow gave, she gave publicly—Jesus could actually see the two coins. He used her as a public illustration (Luke 21:1-4). So, it was right that she gave in public, and right that people were told the exact amount of her gift. Her motives were right. The public disclosure did nothing to nullify her good heart.
Though confidentiality in giving records makes sense, it creates another temptation. Many believers take advantage of giving's veil of privacy by using it as a cloak for their disobedience in not giving. With all today's talk about accountability, what are we doing in churches to hold each other accountable to generous giving? People may notice if you don't obey Hebrews 10:25's command to attend church, but how will they notice if you fail to give?
The body of Christ needs to let its light shine before men, and we need models of every spiritual discipline. We dare not let the risk of our pride keep us from faithfully disclosing God's work in this area of our lives. And if we must be silent to avoid our own pride, we should support others who can humbly testify to Christ's faithfulness in their giving. God looks on the heart. He alone knows the real motives for our giving (1 Cor. 4:5). Scripture never says a giver receives no eternal reward simply because others know about his gift. Donors could be known, yet still have given to please God, not men.
What may force me to swallow my pride more than anything is talking about giving when it runs the risk of appearing I'm patting myself on the back. Our motive for not talking about our giving is not always humility. Sometimes it's fear, doubt and, yes, even pride. To vulnerably express to others where I'm at my giving pilgrimage can be an act of humility. Though we must always check our spiritual pulse, it certainly doesn't have to be an act of pride.
I shouldn't be bragging about my Bible study, prayer, evangelism, parenting or giving, but I shouldn't be covering it up either. It's easier for people to follow footprints than commands. If we aren't willing to openly and humbly discuss giving, how can we expect to raise up givers? The church has plenty of examples of consumers—we need to see examples of givers. Hebrews 10:24 tells us to "spur one another on toward love and good deeds." We can only be spurred on by what we can see.
For more on this subject, see Randy Alcorn's book Money, Possessions & Eternity.