For one who knew no sin, Jesus taught with a masterful understanding of the sinful human heart. The “Sermon on the Mount” (Mat. 5-7) point out subtleties of the human heart that are, frankly, terrifying to reflect upon. Two principals have gripped my heart lately.
First, is the fearful eradication of binding sins. Jesus says, “If you right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Mat. 5:29)
Jesus is being hyperbolic here, but the spiritual principle is almost as harsh as the illustration. Jesus is illustrating our gripping depravity. Fallen humans have the capacity to be consumed by any sin. We can drive ourselves to our own destruction. It is moral insanity and all of us are in danger of it. Jesus calls us to fear this and take any measure to avoid it.
The next principle is that of living for God’s acceptance and not man’s. In the beginning of Matt. 6, Jesus contrasts his true disciples with the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees. They do things to be praise by men. Jesus says repeatedly, “they have received their reward.” Jesus’s disciples must do things for our Father, “who is in secret.”
Jesus, again, is showing himself to be a master of the human heart. Each of us is constantly drawn by the subtle and deceptive desire to do things (even good things) to impress other people. We often times do this without even realizing it. Jesus says that when we have this motive, the praise we receive from others is our full reward. And, anyone who has tried to receive praise from others knows that this is a shallow reward. Praise from others is short-lived. Each person seeks their own praise often enough that their praise for others can quickly turn to cursing as soon as they find more benefit in it. Christians, on the other hand, must find their praise from God, who is not fickle in his admiration.
How do these two principles go together?
The fear of man is at constant odds with our attempts to grow in personal holiness. What the first principle shows us is that we need to be ever watchful of our own hearts that sin not consume us. This means that the battle with sin is incredibly personal and existential. Only you yourself can know whether your metaphorical eye needs to be gouged. This kind of sanctification is impossible if one is simultaneously enslaved to please others.
I’ll give a common example from my own life: I constantly struggle with narcissism. When I talk to others, I spend nearly the entire conversation thinking about how I come across. This is because I am consumed with a fear for how others perceive me. In order to shake that narcissism, I have to put my constant focus on the other person. Lest my narcissism consume me, that metaphorical eye needs to be gouged. I have found that, in order to do this, I must, at the same time, completely shake my fear of what the other person thinks. I have to leave the fearful realm of pleasing man, and pass into the realm of faith, where I seek to please only my Father, who is in secret. Both principles need to be acting in tandem for any growth to take place.