“We live in a world where anonymity is the key to keeping yourself.” (Quotes About Anonymity, Dominic Riccitello)
Matthew 6:16 -18 applies the principle of anonymity to fasting, the third and final aspect of personal piety discussed in this passage of the Sermon on the Mount. As with the first two (almsgiving and prayer), fasting was supposed to be done anonymously. But as D. A. Carson pointed out, what began as spiritual self-discipline, was eventually prostituted into pompous self-righteousness. “What was once a sign of humiliation became a sign of self-righteous self-display.” So Jesus is saying here that if you made a public show of your fasting, then you have all the reward you are going to get. It wasn’t a true act of piety.
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
A self-righteous day of fasting at that time meant you would intentionally neglect your appearance. But this was more than just a bad hair day. Your hair wasn’t to be brushed or combed; your face wasn’t to be washed—you get the picture. And by doing this, EVERYONE WOULD KNOW WHAT YOU WERE DOING—without having to say a word. The look on your face and the way you were dressed was enough to let everyone know how “spiritual” you were by fasting that day. This kind of false humility can be found in a wide variety of human activities.
D. A. Carson observed: “Almost anything that is supposed to serve as an outward sign of an inward attitude can be cheapened by this hypocritical piety.” The truth of Carson’s observation has been embodied within the Eleventh Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.): “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” Personal anonymity meant that A.A. was saying, “It wished to publicize its principles and its work, but not its individual members.”
Bill W. observed that A.A.’s Eleventh Tradition was much more than a sound public relations policy or an institutional denial of self-seeking. It was “a constant and practical reminder that personal ambition has no place in A.A.” Anonymity is further embedded in A.A. within their Twelfth Tradition: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
Here again is the foundation of what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 6 on anonymity: Do not mix self-promotion with personal piety or spirituality. D. A. Carson voiced a helpful question for individuals who think they may be doing just that:
Who am I trying to please by my religious practices? Honest reflection on that question can produce most disquieting results. If it does, then a large part of the solution is to start practicing piety in the secret intimacy of the Lord’s presence.
Again, Bill W. captured this truth in the opening statement to his essay on the Twelfth Step: “The spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice.” Bill went on to describe how A.A. learned that “anonymity is real humility at work.” Moved by the spirit of anonymity, its members try to give up their natural desire for distinction both within A.A. and before the general public. “We are sure that humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that Alcoholics Anonymous can ever have.”
Humility is a safeguard for the church as well as A.A. Jonathan Edwards said that humility prepares the mind for divine light, clears the eye to look at things as they truly are, and keeps believers out of the devil’s reach. Another Puritan, Thomas Brooks said: “God delights most to dwell with the humble, for they do most prize and best improve his precious presence.” Remember that your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous [and the church of Christ] believe that the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all (the long form of Tradition Twelve).
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.”