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Public Performance Is Easier than Private Devotion

The power of authentic piety in a world that talks the talk
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Adventures in Missing the Point". See series.


If you are just joining us, this is the third week in a six-week series entitled "Adventures in Missing the Point." We have been learning about the Pharisees, those first-century antagonists. The first week, we learned that the Pharisees were not the caricatures that we may have grown up believing in. They were sincere men who were Orthodox in their theology and zealous in their commitment to Scripture. They were righteous in their lifestyles and dedicated to living untainted by the evil of the world. In other words, they were a lot like us. But, in their pursuit of religious activity, they often missed the point.

The second week we looked at Adventure #1: Knowing the Bible is easier than living the Bible. We saw how the Pharisees did some wrong things with the right motive—they created an elaborate system of rules in an honest effort to help them keep God's commandments.

Today we'll be focusing on Adventure #2: Public performance is easier than private devotion. As we'll see, the Pharisees frequently did the right things with the wrong motive.

Have you ever noticed how much pleasure there is in passing judgments on others? I'm not just talking about criticizing people, but presuming to know their motives—their heart and their character. Can we just be honest and admit that we enjoy it more than seems reasonable?

For instance, I am usually extremely confident that every other driver on the Interstate is less skilled than I am. And when their reckless actions involve me, those actions were deliberate and intended to both irritate and endanger me. When my wife or kids are having a bad day, I pass judgment that they are deliberately trying to get on my last nerve. If someone in a store gives me poor service, I instantly take offense and judge them as being stupid and lazy. If I go to the bank and have to stand in line behind slow people, it's because the people in front of me are too ignorant to count.

If I see someone with a style of dress or hair that I don't like, it's not hard to make judgments about their character. I can look at people who make more money than I do and judge them as materialistic; I can look at people who make less than I do and judge them as lazy. A person fatter than me has no self-discipline; a person thinner than me is vain and egotistical.

I do all this naturally and easily in my head virtually every day of my life. And so do you. We love to pass judgment on people, and this tendency gets worse instead of better when we take spiritual matters seriously.

We act as if the ability to see the shortcoming of others is proof of our own righteousness. We love passing judgments on others, because it makes us feel better by comparison. The ability to see the sins of others makes us feel that we are more spiritual, more righteous, and more pious.

When was the last time you heard the word pious used in a positive context? The dictionary defines pious as an adjective meaning "marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship." It can also mean "marked by conspicuous religiosity a hypocrite—'A thing all pious words and uncharitable deeds'—Charles Reade."

According to Warren Wiersbe: "The great sin of the Pharisees was hypocrisy (play-acting) based on pride. Their religion was external, not internal; it was to impress people, not to please God. They bound people with heavy burdens, while Christ came to set people free. They loved titles and public recognition and exalted themselves at the expense of others."

False piety

Today, Pharisaism has become almost synonymous with false piety. But as we've seen over the past few weeks, the Pharisees were probably no more hypocritical than we are. This morning, I want to look at two passages where Jesus talked about the difference between real piety and false piety.

The first is Luke 18:9-14. Virtually every world religion has defined acts that demonstrate adherence to that religion. In this passage we see three common acts of piety that are found among devout people of just about every major religion. Look at the three things this Pharisee focused on: giving, prayer, and fasting.

The Pharisees were doing right things, good things, but for the wrong reasons. As Jesus tells this parable, he is not comparing the deeds of the two men in the story. He is comparing the attitudes of their heart. One came to the temple to pray while filled with pride. The other came to pray while full of humility.

Jesus never criticizes the Pharisees for their acts of piety. He takes them to task because acts of private devotion had become, for them, nothing more than public displays of religiosity. When our faith only affects the externals, pride is inevitable. To this day, people use things like giving, prayer, and fasting as measuring sticks to compare themselves with others.

True piety

Let's look at another passage that clarifies how to do these right things for the right reasons: Matthew 6:1-18. First of all, authentic piety is outward in love—not the act, but the motive. Giving—whether you are talking money, time, or talents—is about attitude in the New Testament. It's not about the legalistic act. Giving and serving and offering all you have is first about your heart, not what you actually give.

Paul clarifies this in 2 Corinthians 8. First he holds up as an example one of the poorest churches in the region, the Macedonians. He expresses their giving in a mathematical equation. Overwhelming Joy + Extreme Poverty = Rich Generosity. When the underlying attitude is right, the expression will be right as well regardless of circumstances.

Second, authentic piety is upward in prayer. The focus is on my relationship with God, not myself. Jesus told the crowd that, when they prayed, they should remember who they were talking to—their Father, Abba. They should remember whose priorities came first—"Your kingdom come …." They should remember the source of all resources—"Give us this day our daily bread …." They should remember to forgive as they had been forgiven. And they should remember to avoid the source of evil.

Third, authentic piety is inward in self-denial. I am continually beating back the tendency toward spiritual pride. Disciplines like fasting are beneficial for spiritual formation. To set aside something you love, something necessary, for a time can either be a means for showing off or a means for saying to God, "You are more important to me than food. You provide me with more satisfaction than anything else!"

The attitude of the Pharisee in prayer was this: "I am not like other men. I am different. I am better. I am special." He compares his acts of righteousness to the unrighteousness of others, and guess what? He looks pretty good. He has established a standard for measuring personal righteousness and a yardstick for judging others.

John Fischer said: "This is one of the great pleasures of passing judgment. It isn't a requirement to explain either the rules or the judgment to anyone; the fact is, one may raise and lower the bar at will. The purpose of this judgment is not the real betterment of anyone, nor is it to find the truth—to know what the real standard of judgment is and to put oneself under its scrutiny. Its purpose is only to establish a self-defined superiority over others. We call the shots. We make the rules. We draw the line in the sand and then step over it, leaving everyone else on the other side. It's a foolproof way to feel good about ourselves."

Proverbs 6:16 says: "There are six things the LORD hates—no, seven things he detests." The first on the list is "haughty eyes." Haughty means "blatantly and disdainfully proud."

Proverbs 8:13 says, "All who fear the LORD will hate evil. That is why I hate pride, arrogance, corruption, and perverted speech." Proverbs 16:18 says, "Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall." Psalm 51:17 says, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."


Our piety becomes nothing more than a public performance when pride is allowed to reign. It is pride that leads us to minimize our own sins and maximize the sins of others. It is pride that leads us to make judgments of others. It is pride that leads us to believe that if I can show that I am better than someone else—anyone else—then I can think of myself as being worthy of God's love.

In reality, the same things that foster pride can foster humility—if you are willing to reexamine your motive for doing them. One example is giving away something to which you are too attached. Another is prayer that focuses on God, not on your wants. A third is fasting—refraining from anything that distracts you from God.

A humble heart changes everything. And that's the kind of devotion the Father loves and desires from every one of his children. Public performance is easier than private devotion. But to care more about impressing people than about connecting with God is just one more adventure in missing the point.

Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).

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Sermon Outline:


I. False piety

II. True piety