Forgetting Ourselves, Remembered by God

Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reasons May Sound Ideal, But We Can Never Be Sure We We’ve Done so Adequately.

Ian Olson / 3.12.21

Jesus was known for several hard sayings, but the Sermon on the Mount as a whole is surely one of the most difficult. It is an uncompromising vision of the kingdom he has inaugurated, a glimpse of the age to come, coming to speech in the fallen present. It is daunting because it straightforwardly presents that kingdom’s principles and instructs Jesus’s followers to live now in accordance with a new creation yet to come. It makes little concession to our frailty and proclivity to fail even our own dearest ideals.

The living heart of that kingdom has come amongst us and bridged the gulf between the ages. He is the substance of the future Israel had been awaiting, dawning where and when no one could have anticipated. His incarnation within the wreckage of this age links what is and what will be, such that he can translate the future tense indicatives of the Decalogue (“You will not…”) to the present tense in the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are you…”). 

This doesn’t utterly collapse the future into the present, but it does bring the two to meet in him (1 Cor 10:11) and urges us to forget what we have done and where we’ve gone wrong so as to press into the future embodied in him.

But that isn’t all we are called to forget. In Matthew 6:3-4, Jesus instructs his disciples in how they are to give alms and perform other works of love: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Jesus has no illusions that practices, however good or inherently necessary they are, will transform us to become more like him. He has seen and been amongst hypocrites and knows that one can present an appearance of piety that goes no deeper than the surface. What we do relates to who we are, but never perfectly. They belong together, but what we do isn’t enough to decisively transform us into lovers of God rather than lovers of self. 

But Jesus’s realism doesn’t lead him to denigrate practices — he simply emphasizes how they are insufficient to the task of growing in Christlikeness. Neither does he direct us to cripple ourselves with a scrupulosity that ensure our practices are pure, either. Doing the right thing for the right reasons may sound ideal, but once we go down that route, we can never be sure we have examined everything hidden in our hearts or examined its contents adequately. Or we can turn the microscope toward others and endlessly judge their motives. 

Jesus’s solution isn’t to put these practices on hold until such a time as our intentions have been utterly, consciously purified. The alternative to rote practices can’t be that we take no action whatsoever until we have exhaustively mined the depths of every compulsion and inventoried every impetus. What good would ever be done, then? God isn’t content with a world in which no compromised or hypocritical acts take place.

We can probably assume that there will always be motivations hidden in the recesses of our hearts so deeply embedded we are not even conscious of them. But rather than submitting ourselves to interminable morbid introspection, endlessly examining possible intentions beyond our awareness, we are called to forget ourselves: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” Secret, that is, even from ourselves. 

For if we subtract our egos from that dilemma entirely, we thereby nullify every compromised motive and impure desire. By forgetting ourselves in this way we clear away the obstructions which regularly hinder us from remembering that we are seen by God. It absolves us of introspective self-doubt, of the need to satisfy perfection to be loved. 

We often don’t know what it is that we need; we simply know that we are in need. And so we look to others to provide the existential ballast we assume is necessary to endure this vale of tears and manufacture opportunities for them to applaud us and assuage that needfulness. But we are continually disappointed as that needfulness never completely vanishes, and so we seek it all the more tenaciously.

At bottom, we fear being overlooked by our companions, by those we live amongst, and ultimately by God. Israel received the summative words of their covenant with God but when Moses remained in the darkness on the mountain they turned from the way they had sworn to follow, afraid they had been abandoned (Ex 24:18, 32:1-6).

The postponement of our felt needs is ammunition for our self-pity. We interpret that postponement as our being ignored. But our preoccupation with shoring up approval from others and even ourselves filters out the quiet, compassionate attention of God. When we loom large in our own thoughts God’s inconspicuous gifts usually go unnoticed. We tend to miss what God secretly gives us through our fellow, frail saints.

The economy of grace in the overlap between the ages draws upon the self-forgetting charity of the saints and directs it to fulfill our needs. Covidtide may be in its final phases (possibly), but this Lent presents us with several opportunities for acts of kindness done in secret, whether in line at a drive-through, at a gas station, or any number of other un-ostentatious ways. The inherent reciprocity of gift-giving may create relationships of mutuality and the exchange of thankfulness and fellowship, but in the hands of scrupulous sinners dying for attention they so often become instrumental means of manipulation and self-aggrandizement. Anonymity and self-forgetfulness are a safer course. 

One such self-forgetful saint was W. H. Auden who, in 1956, learned that a homeless shelter operated by Dorothy Day was being shut down by the New York City Fire Department unless she could immediately pay for some expensive repairs. Day left the shelter in a hurry one day to appear in court and encountered a group of homeless men, one of whom pressed something into her hand and said, “Here’s two-fifty.” She was surprised to learn that the shabbily-dressed man had given her check not for two dollars and fifty cents but the two hundred and fifty dollars she needed to keep the shelter in operation.

Auden pursued these secret routes to good works in order to obey the call to sacrificially love the neighbor while removing his ego and even his own conscience from the impetus to obey. 

We may not have the opportunity to disguise ourselves but there are other ways we can find to separate ourselves from the works we contribute to one another.

All of us need the radiance of the approval and praise of those we love and it hurts us to no end when we cannot perceive its nearness. But God has not crossed the distance of ages to close a door in our face. He has come to open a passageway out of barriers and to transform our most painful points of need into sites of superabundant generosity and fulfillment. What we do is secret, and in and through those things God supplies and encourages us in the secret place of our hearts.


2 responses to “Forgetting Ourselves, Remembered by God”

  1. Bradley Gray says:

    Beautifully written, Ian. So many thought-provoking lines. Your Incarnational musings are always evocative for me.

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