In spiritual disciplines, or practices, we submit ourselves to the regular habit of participating in the life of service to God with our time, money, energy, and even our very bodies. In this submission, over time, we find that the Holy Spirit uses these practices to shape and form our hearts and our lives. Fasting reminds us that we are dependent not on food but on God. Tithing reminds us that we can trust God with all parts of our lives, especially our finances and the well-being of those who depend on us. We practice the disciplines because those practices form us. Although you might be familiar with practices like tithing or fasting, if you’re like me, you might be less familiar with the practice of secrecy: the discipline of consciously refraining from having our good deeds and qualities publicly known. The discipline of secrecy is what Jesus in the New Testament referred to as the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

The discipline of secrecy goes against the current expectation of our culture. Right now the cultural expectation is for people to share their whole lives with the world. In every social media post or video we create, we want to be valued. We want people to see our generosity, our kindness, and our support of particular causes. This impulse is exacerbated by but not limited to social media. The need for public affirmation is close at hand for all of us. We can find it in our telling of stories where we make ourselves the hero or publicly sharing our acts of generosity with friends or a small group. In reality, our desires and actions can be complicated. So much of what we do is a complicated mixture of true generosity and self-centered desire for affirmation. We want to help others, but our hearts are torn by the desire for people to see what we have done.

The struggle with humility can vary acute depending on personality, but the pull of public righteousness is a temptation that impacts us all. We all find that our desires to do good can be easily disordered, and in this disorder we may confuse the popular with what is truly good for our soul.

As Dallas Willard perfectly states in The Spirit of the Disciplines: “One 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. The frantic efforts of religious personages and groups to advertise and certify themselves is a stunning revelation of their lack of substance and faith.”

“One 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.”

Within a Holiness tradition like the Church of the Nazarene, the situation can quickly become more complicated. Along with the cultural expectation to be publicly successful, the shadow side of our holiness theology can become a demand for large public displays coupled with the denouncement of great public sins. The demand to prove ourselves and our spiritual qualities to others become a matter of inclusion versus exclusion, which in turn can have profound impacts on the life and death of our faith. In a world that tells us we must be famous to be meaningful, and in a church that frequently elevates the vocally pious, how are we to find our way? The discipline of secrecy offers us some guidance.

Consider the root desire of your actions. Before you post, tweet, share, or reveal some action, ask yourself if are you being moved toward love as the primary motivation. Or, is there a hidden hope for approval or affirmation? If your motivation is public approval, gently invite God into that need. The invitation becomes asking to receive from God what we seek to receive from others.

Be generous. Quietly. For a season, whether a week or a month, consider keeping all your acts of kindness and generosity between you and God only. Give to a GoFundMe anonymously. Donate time to a local nursing home or soup kitchen. Shovel a neighbor’s driveway. Give of yourself—and then move on without telling anyone you did it. Trust that God sees your heart and that this will be enough.

Finally, consider your season. As we think about the spiritual discipline of secrecy, we should, as with all spiritual disciplines, approach it with a spirit of discernment. While it’s a discipline for all people, it is not a discipline for all seasons. Maybe you’re a stay-at-home parent or the primary caregiver for an elderly relative. In these roles, you give of yourself in countless small and unseen ways. Your actions will never fully be seen and possibly never fully acknowledged or appreciated. For all who find themselves in seasons like this, it can be said in confidence that you are already practicing the discipline of secrecy! For you, it’s far more likely that what you need is less secrecy and more celebration. This can mean time away with friends or loved ones. It can mean a focus on laughter, openness, and allowing yourself to receive the affirmation of others. If you find yourself in this season, take a moment to receive the gift of God’s love for you and sit in the knowledge that God sees you, and consider how you might invite others to see you too (though not in self-aggrandizing ways).

May we, in exploring and practicing the discipline of secrecy, find our hearts moved from external affirmation toward hearts that are rooted and oriented by love. May we experience the goodness that this hiddenness can bring.