“Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” You’ve probably heard people say this. You may have even read it in Scripture. But what does this mean for us? Should all our giving be done in secret?
These 2,000 year-old words come from Jesus' most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus taught his followers how to live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. He spoke about how to deal with anger, lust, divorce, prayer, money... and giving! Here are Jesus' words:
“When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. 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. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2-4)
Don’t Let Your Left Hand Know
Jesus calls attention-seeking givers "hypocrites." They give in order to be seen by others. Their generosity is an advertisement for themselves, not a spotlight shining back on God. Jesus wants his followers to avoid this trap.
In our age of public philanthropy and corporate giving Jesus' words should come as shockwaves. We, who follow Jesus, are to give quietly and humbly. We are to give as if we’re blind to our own actions, aiming to please our “Father who sees in secret" and will reward us.
But then the question arises: Does this mean Christians should never talk about their giving? Is this a command to always give anonymously?
7 Reasons Why We Talk About Giving
This is a very relevant question since our ministry uses films, articles, books, and sermons to highlight the stories of generous men and women.
We don't believe Jesus was instructing us to never speak about our giving. In fact, here are seven reasons why we talk about giving:
1. Jesus also instructed us to pray in secret
Right after Jesus' instruction to give in secret, he taught us to pray in secret: "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:5-6)
I've never met a Christian who understood this verse to forbid public prayer. Jesus himself prayed publicly. (John 17) Pastors pray publicly in church every Sunday. Small groups pray out loud together. Friends meet and pray with one another. And we never think we're disobeying Jesus.
What we know instinctively is that Jesus was challenging the motivation of the hypocrites who pray "that they may be seen by others." And the same applies to Jesus' instruction on giving. Jesus' teaching to give in secret is not an absolute command for every circumstance; it's a warning against the self-righteousness and pride of the hypocrites.
2. In the same sermon, Jesus said, “Let your light shine”
A little earlier in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, before "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," Jesus said, “You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
According to Jesus, secrecy is not the answer in every situation. Sometimes our good deeds should be done “before others, so that they may see” and give glory to God. Giving is certainly a rare and beautiful good work, a light that's meant to shine.
The question we need to ask is: Would God be most glorified for my giving to be known or anonymous? A.B. Bruce, a Scottish theologian, offered great counsel when he wrote: “Show when tempted to hide, hide when tempted to show.” If your motives are to be recognized, be careful. But if you’re hesitant to be seen by others, you’re probably a bright shining lamp that needs to be put on a stand.
3. Jesus publicly highlighted generous people
Jesus himself announced the generosity of others. He publicly praised the poor widow who gave her last two copper coins and took away her anonymity. (Mark 12:41-44)
Jesus also publicly praised the generosity of the woman who anointed him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment. He said, “Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:6-13)
Not only did Jesus highlight people's acts of generosity, but the Bible also acknowledges many generous people by name.
4. The Bible names generous people
Zacchaeus is specifically described in Scripture as being a man who was “a chief tax collector and was rich.” But through an encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was changed and publicly announced, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
Does Jesus respond, “Shh. Zaccheaus, you shouldn’t talk about these things"? No! Instead Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9)
Zacchaeus’s changed relationship with money was the evidence of a transformed heart. It was good that Zaccheaus talked openly about his giving.
The New Testament names many other generous people too:
- Mary, Joanna, and Susanna are called out for providing for Jesus’ ministry. (Luke 8:1-3)
- Paul’s patron, Phoebe, is specifically named to the church in Rome. (Romans 16:1-2)
- Barnabas is named for his act of selling his field and donating the proceeds to the early church leaders. (Acts 4:36-37)
- The Macedonian Church is highlighted for their example of generosity. (2 Corinthians 8:1-5)
- The Philippian Church is acknowledged for their generous partnership with Paul. (Philippians 1:3-5, 4:14-18)
- Gaius is thanked by the apostle John for his generous hospitality to a few traveling preachers. (3 John 5-6)
It's good to talk about giving because generosity is the work of real people, who choose to step forward in faith and give instead of keep. Telling their stories doesn’t nullify their heavenly reward otherwise the Bible wouldn’t do it.
5. The Bible records specific amounts of money given
Many who would speak about generosity do so in vague terms, not mentioning specific amounts or figures. But surprisingly, we see the opposite in Scripture. Nehemiah and David, two Old Testament heroes, both recorded the amounts of money their people gave to building projects as well as their own generosity.
Nehemiah wrote: “Now some of the fathers’ houses gave to the work. The governor [Nehemiah] gave to the treasury 1,000 darics of gold, 50 basins, 30 priests’ garments, and 500 minas of silver. And the heads of fathers’ houses gave into the treasury of the work 20,000 darics of gold and 2,200 minas of silver. And what the rest of the people gave was 20,000 darics of gold, 2,000 minas of silver, and 67 priests’ garments.” (Nehemiah 7:70-72)
David did the same thing with the offering for the temple, but began by sharing his own generosity: “I have a treasure of my own of gold and silver, and because of my devotion to the house of my God I give it to the house of my God: 3,000 talents of gold, of the gold of Ophir, and 7,000 talents of refined silver, for overlaying the walls of the house…They gave for the service of the house of God 5,000 talents and 10,000 darics of gold, 10,000 talents of silver, 18,000 talents of bronze, and 100,000 talents of iron. (1 Chronicles 29:3–9)
David’s conclusion was that “the people rejoiced because they had given willingly, for with a whole heart they had offered freely to the Lord.”
When our hearts are humble before God, there are times and ways we can give openly and speak freely about the amount of our giving without falling into the trap of the hypocrites, but instead rejoicing at the opportunity to give.
6. We need models of generous believers
We naturally follow examples, whether they’re good or bad. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg have set a public example of philanthropy, but how does Christian giving look differently? As believers, we need examples of generous men and women who are following Jesus and motivated by eternity.
I believe one reason Christians are not more generous is we haven't seen compelling examples of biblical generosity modeled for us. In a world that loves money, few of us can imagine what a biblical alternative even looks like because we've never seen it in our homes or our churches. I am convinced that more of us need to let our generosity light shine.
7. The next generation needs encouragement
The Bible says generosity is a spiritual gift that God gives. (Romans 12:8) I have met many people with this gift and they beautifully see needs and opportunities all around them. But the Bible also says that spiritual gifts need to be cultivated and grown. (2 Timothy 1:6)
The next generation of believers who've been given the gift of generosity will need our stories of faithfulness and sacrifice to discover their gift and grow in it. When we open up and tell our stories, God can take our five loaves and two fish and feed the next generation of Gospel Patrons.
Love Is Our Motive
Jesus wants his people to be motivated by love, love for God, and love for people. It's possible to give sacrificially and have it count for nothing before God, as the Bible says,
“If I give away all I have and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3)
Giving away everything, even your own body, is unprofitable unless love is your motive. From God’s perspective, love is the most important factor for when to give in secret and when to share your giving stories.