The spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice. . . . Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction. . . . We are sure that humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that [we] can ever have.”
Matthew 6:1 cautions against the practice of a public display of righteousness or piety, because if you do, that is all the reward you get. Verses 2 to 18 then looks at three basics aspects of Jewish piety: almsgiving or charity (2-4), prayer (5-15) and fasting (16-18). These three are representative of all other “acts of righteousness.” The message is clear. If you make a public display of your piety, you aren’t actually being pious.
There wasn’t social security or welfare in Biblical times. Deuteronomy 15:11 said there would always be poor people. “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” So voluntary charity and contributions to the poor were one of the three most important demonstrations of Jewish piety. But when you gave to charity, Jesus said, don’t make a big deal about it—don’t blow your own horn. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” (Matt 6:1)
Individuals who didn’t give anonymously were fake—they were play-acting. They were hypocrites. Their words and actions were done for effect and not truly because they had a concern for others. What they were really trying to do was gain a reputation for righteousness. “Thus, 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.” (Matt 6:2)
The Mishnah (the written record of the Judaism’s Oral Torah) spoke of a “Chamber of Secrets” in the temple where the devout Jew could leave gifts in privacy. The poor of a good family would come later to receive help without knowing who their benefactor was. Leon Morris in his commentary on Matthew noted that the Torah said: “A man who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses our Teacher.” So someone making a big deal about giving to charity was violating the spirit of the commandment in Deuteronomy at the same time they were fulfilling the letter of the commandment. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt 6:3)
The standard set by Jesus here in the Sermon on the Mount out-midrased even the Chamber of Secrets in the temple: Give so anonymously that even your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing! There was no wiggle-room. When you made a public display of your giving, you were not being charitable.
D. A. Carson referred to this as “pseudo-piety.” Christians, he said, must not delude themselves that all giving is pleasing to God, or that giving itself is an act of righteousness. “The human heart is too crafty to allow so simple a suggestion to stand.” Anonymous piety or spirituality neutralizes the instinctual action of the human heart to say: “Look at me!” And anonymous spirituality is the heart of Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A.
One of the spiritual parallels between A.A. and the church is the teaching on anonymity found within Matthew 6:1-4 and A.A.’s Twelfth Tradition: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” Both Twelve Step recovery and biblical Christianity see anonymity as essential for true spirituality. The above opening quote was from Bill Wilson’s essay on Tradition Twelve in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The only change was where I substituted the word “we” for “Alcoholics Anonymous” in the original essay.
In July of 1955 Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal minister, spoke at the convention commemorating the 20th anniversary of A.A.’s founding. He believed A.A. was one of the great signs of spiritual awakening in our time. Shoemaker also thought A.A. had indirectly drawn its inspiration and motivation from the insights and beliefs of the church. When Bill Wilson had introduced Sam to the convention, Wilson acknowledged that Shoemaker himself was the connection between A.A. and the church: “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come.” In his closing remarks, Shoemaker said:
Perhaps the time has come for the church to be reawakened and revitalized by the insights and practices found in A.A. I don’t know any fields of human endeavor in which the Twelve Steps are not applicable and helpful. I believe A.A. may yet have a much wider effect upon the world of our day than it has already had and may contribute greatly to the spiritual awakening which is on the way.”
One of the best ways someone can be reawakened and revitalized is by applying the A.A. principle of anonymity to their spiritual life. The discussion here looked at how it was applied by Jesus in his teaching on alms giving. But anonymity is relevant to all other expressions of piety—even prayer and fasting. Don’t let your left hand know what your right one is doing! Practice your piety before God, not other people. Don’t blow your own horn.
Where could you apply the principle of anonymity to your spiritual life?
This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”