It is nearly impossible for me to keep a surprise. Perhaps I've bought a special gift, or have a surprise party or dinner planned for a friend or a loved one, and before you know it, I'm jumping up and down with a frantic enthusiasm spilling the beans and ending all possibility of surprise. I just cannot keep a secret for long.
Part of this inability comes from my genuine enthusiasm in giving gifts to others. But, if I'm really honest, part of this inability comes from my desire to please. More importantly, I want to be well-liked and known as that great friend, or family member who always does such nice things for others. I don't allow things to stay "under wraps," as it were, because I want to be noticed. In this admission, I acknowledge that I have not learned well 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. Jesus placed his public relations department in the hands of God, even when misunderstood or mistreated. He never had the need to reveal surprises in order to be well-liked.
We can follow Jesus more closely as his disciples by keeping surprises and secrets. We do not have to do things in order to gain the approval of others when our public relations are handled by God. Like Jesus, we can practice 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 Seattle, Washington.
(1) Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, (HarperCollins: New York, 1988), 172-173.
(2) Ibid., 173-174.