All of us have had experiences of hushed whispers in huddled groups as we pass, or quiet conversations from the office next door, people suddenly becoming quiet whenever you come near, memories from childhood of school-yard whisper sessions between you and your best friend about your ex-best friend, or scenes of whispering classmates pointing and laughing in your direction. Telling secrets can be painful when you aren’t in on the game.
On the other hand, haven’t you also experienced the joy of surprise as a result of the whispering? Perhaps those two friends in the next office were planning to take you to lunch because they remembered it was your birthday. Or you arrive home at your house to find a secret gift left on your doorstep—perhaps these whispers were plans to extend kindness to you without you knowing. Maybe whispering in secret is a way to do good deeds in secret without the very human desire to be publicly rewarded for that good. Telling secrets can be good when the motivation is to practice the discipline of secrecy.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks a great deal about keeping things secret. “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…but when you pray, go into your inner room, and pray to your Father who is in secret… [B]ut you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:3, 6, 17-18). In Jesus’s kingdom, there is something to be said for keeping secrets, especially when those secrets nurture humility and protect us from the pride that comes from public lives of righteous living.
Dallas Willard, writing about the spiritual discipline of secrecy Jesus espouses in the Sermon on the Mount, says, “[O]ne of the greatest fallacies of our faith, and actually one of the greatest acts of unbelief, is the thought that our spiritual acts and virtues need to be advertised to be known… [S]ecrecy, rightly practiced enables us to place our public relations department entirely in the hands of God… [W]e allow him to decide when our deeds will be known and when our light will be noticed.”(1) When we desire godly secrecy, Willard goes on to suggest that love and humility before God will develop to the point that we’ll not only see our friends, family, and associates in a better light, but we’ll also develop the very Christian virtue of desiring their good above our own.(2) Paul expressed this very truth to the Philippian church when he told them to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Perhaps this practice of secrecy is why Jesus urged many who he healed not to reveal his identity. Perhaps this practice of secrecy is why Jesus avoided the crowds and would often go off to “lonely places” to pray. Whatever the case, we can follow Jesus more closely as his disciples by keeping secrets: secret piety, secret prayer, and secret giving. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you (Matthew 6:18).
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, (HarperCollins: New York, 1988), 172-173.
(2) Ibid., 173-174.