The Dangers Of Looking Good
Warning, Truth, Purity, Lies, Grace, Giving, Faith, Honesty
A number of years ago I officiated at the wedding of Jane Ann Fort. For those who didn’t know Jane Ann, to say Jane was spirited would be an understatement. Jane taught music in La Harpe for 20 years and was our choir Director for many years as well. Whenever she was in front of a microphone you never had any idea what she might say.
When Jane got married, it was a big deal. She had been single for a long time. She married her high school sweetheart. The church sanctuary was filled beyond the limits of capacity. As the ceremony began Jane and Tom stood at the bottom of the steps and I asked everyone to pray. My prayer, I thought, was honest and fairly typical for a wedding. I acknowledged God as the author of life and love. I acknowledged that the two people before me (like all of us) are stubborn and rebellious people.
After I got to this part in the prayer I heard snickering. Now I have to be honest. I am not used to hearing people laugh during a prayer. The reaction made me a little uncomfortable because I wondered what was going on. Had I said something really stupid? Had a dog or something wandered into the sanctuary? Was my zipper down? I kept praying but the snickering became more evident. When I said “Amen” I looked up and saw Jane and Tom shaking trying to hold in the laughter. Then it dawned on me. My prayer about stubborn and rebellious people described Jane perfectly. I had no idea how to deal with this wild situation. So, I looked at the congregation and said, “Never lie to God.” The congregation erupted.
There is no story in the Bible that conveys this message: “Never lie to God” better than the story of Ananias and Sapphira. But this account in Acts chapter 5 is really about much more than the need to tell the truth. This morning I want you to see some important principles that we learn from our text.
TRUE CHRISTIANITY HAS A PRACTICAL EFFECT
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37)
The passage begins with by describing the practical effect of being indwelt by God’s Spirit. These people who had all come from different backgrounds and lands were one. They shared what they had to meet the various needs that existed. They celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. They cared for the needy. Sometimes they participated in extravagant acts of generosity, as in the case of Barnabus.
These people cared for each other for two simple reasons. First, they had the love of God in their heart. God had enabled these people to see each other as He did. They understood that people were more important than stuff. They felt a bond and a commitment to each other.
Second, they loved because they knew what it was like to be loved. They had been forgiven. They were set free from their past. They had hope for tomorrow. They had experienced God’s love and wanted others to experience it too.
The book of James underscores the practical nature of true faith. True faith leads to a difference in the way we treat others. In 1 John we are told that a true believer loves his brother. We do not earn Heaven by what we do. We cannot do enough good to even get close to Heaven. We live different lives not to be saved . . . but because we are saved. This is what the Christian community is supposed to be.
THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY IS NOT PERFECT
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 5:1-2)
In the midst of this generous spirit there were those who sought to use the community of the faithful to advance their own cause. Ananias and Sapphira were a part of the church community. They participated in all that had taken place. They may have been genuine in their conversion. But the faith they professed was not the faith they actually possessed.
The biggest criticism you hear about the church is that it is full of hypocrites. Let’s admit the church is not perfect. Every church has its problems. The church is made of people who are in the process of growth. We still have areas of weakness, we still rub each other the wrong way on occasion, we still think impure thoughts, and we still sometimes try to manipulate the system.
Someone told Charles Spurgeon once that they were leaving his church because it had so many flawed people. Spurgeon who had a way of being direct said, “I wish you well in your search for the perfect church. If you find it, please do not join with that congregation because it won’t be perfect anymore.”
CHARACTER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN POPULARITY
3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:1-4)
I really think this is the key teaching of the passage. Notice several things. First, Ananias and Sapphira did not have to sell anything. This was not a requirement. There is nothing wrong with owning property.
Second, they did not have to give all the money from the sale. They could have given only part of the money. They could have sold the property and given none of it to the church. There would have been nothing wrong with selling the property and telling Peter, “We sold our property and took some of the money to pay some bills and we want to give the rest to the church”.
We have to ask “Why, did Ananias and Sapphira lie about the sale of their land? Why did they say they were giving all the money from the sale when in reality they were only giving a part of that money to the work of the Lord?
It seems apparent that they were not giving the money to the work of the Lord, they were trying to impress the people around them. They were using the sale to try to appear more spiritual. They were playing a game.
You can imagine what happened. They were at the worship service where Barnabus gave the proceeds from the land he had sold. They heard the people talk about what a generous man Barnabus was. Ananias and Sapphira wanted the people to talk about them like that too. They were more concerned with “looking good” than there were with being good. They were more concerned about appearances and their reputation than they were with their character and their heart. They focused more on the affirmation of the crowd than the “Well done of the world.”
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy,
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. 25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (Mt. 23:23-25)
These men were experts at gaining popularity in the polls. They put on a good show . . . but it was just a show. Their spirituality was superficial.
M. Scott Peck wrote the book The People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil (Simon and Schuster, New York). In this book he deals with a very specific kind of evil that is both chilling and fascinating. He describes the people he calls evil as follows (on page 75):
Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them . . . they dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, and outwardly seem to live lives that are above reproach. The words “image,” “appearance,” and “outwardly” are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness” is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. That is why they are the “people of the lie.” Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach.
It would be nice to say that this kind of lie does not take place in the church. But it does. When we “pretend”, we act as if God doesn’t really care about the truth. When we seek to gain the “well done” of others before the approval of the Lord, we are guilty of putting the applause of men ahead of God. In simple terms, that is called idolatry. When we “play to the crowd” instead of focusing on building a godly character we find that our life is constantly driven by the latest opinion poll rather than the Word of God. When we live this way we forfeit peace and joy becomes a stranger to our lives.
Kent Hughes speaks with absolute clarity,
We must be absolutely clear as to what Ananias’ sin was. It was not casual deception. Rather, he feigned a deeper spiritual commitment than he had. We share Ananias’ sin not when others think we are more spiritual than we are, but when we try to make others think we are more spiritual than we are. Examples of Ananias’ sin today include: creating the impression we are people of prayer when we are not; making it look like we have it all together when we do not; promoting the idea that we are generous when we are so tight we squeak when we smile; misrepresenting our spiritual effectiveness (for example, saying, “When I was at the crusade in New York, I ran the whole follow-up program,” when the truth is, you were a substitute counselor). When a preacher urges his people toward deeper devotion to God, implying that his life is an example when in actuality he knows it is not, he is repeating Ananias’ sin! When an evangelist calls people to holy living but is secretly having an affair with his secretary, he is an Ananias! This gives us all a lot to think about, if we dare.
GOD CARES ABOUT THE PURITY OF HIS PEOPLE
5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. 7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” 9 Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” 10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:5-11)
People have a hard time with this story. God seems so harsh. After all “all they did was lie.” But that is the problem isn’t it? We see these kinds of lies as really no big deal. But all sin is deadly. And at this time, when the church was in its infancy, this kind of self-righteous deception could destroy the church.
Look at it this way. Suppose you went to the Doctor and he said he “saw a small spot”. The Doctor brings you in for a biopsy and the report from the biopsy says the spot is a malignant tumor. What do you do?
Do you tell the Doctor that since the spot is little you choose to just overlook it? I doubt it. It is more likely that you will have surgery to remove the spot and might follow surgery with chemotherapy and even radiation. Why? Because you know that this little spot could kill you.
In truth, we think that the worst sins are those of sexual immorality or illegal activity. In reality, deception and self-righteousness, (pretending to be what we are not), are far more deadly. The former sins are obvious. We can see them. We know they are wrong. The sins of deception, however, are subtle, behind the scenes and they erode a person’s character from the inside out. These are the sins that give the Devil a foothold. And if they are left unchecked you end up with a church that is just a bunch of rules that everyone is pretending to obey.
So, since it is obvious that God cares about the character of the church, let’s try to be very practical.
First, we need to be people who tell the truth even in the little things. This is the only way to make sure that Satan doesn’t find a place in our hearts. We can’t be honest in our relationship with God unless we are willing to be honest in all aspects of our life. Genuineness begins in the little things,
- Giving credit for the work someone else did
- Avoiding exaggeration when telling what “really” happened
- Being honest about your own struggles. One comment we hear over and over again is the statement “I really appreciated hearing that you still struggle with _____” I thought I was the only one who had this problem. We don’t have to be perfect. But we do need to be honest. Honest people can grow. People who pretend to “have it all together” are kept in a prison of their own making.
- Refusing to blame others for our own failures. The honest believer takes responsibility for their own failures and mistakes.
- Eliminating “little lies” that we use to cover up our own neglect. Our favorite is to respond, “I forgot” or “I don’t know”, when in reality we didn’t want to do something and we do indeed know.
- Being honest about your expenses, the time you worked, the miles you traveled, the tax you owe.
If we are honest in the little things, it will be easier to be honest with ourselves and with the Lord.
Second, we must depend on God’s grace and not our works. It is essential that we remember that we are not saved because we are good, but because God is merciful. There are people who say that they want nothing to do with theology . . .they just want to follow Jesus. But you can’t follow Jesus unless you are clear in your theology.
We must remember that we can do nothing to effect our own salvation. We cannot be “good enough”. Our only hope is to receive the gift of God’s grace that is made possible through Jesus Christ and is received by faith. Satan will always try to move us into “performance” mode. He will work hard to get us on that treadmill of futility. If Satan can get us to focus on our behavior instead of God’s grace he will have injected us with a deadly virus called self-righteousness.
If we remember that our salvation is not contingent on how we appear, or how we compare to others, maybe we will be less likely to worry about how we compare to others. We will spend less time “selling ourselves” and more time being honest about our struggles and this in turn will make us more effective as we share the gospel with the world.
Third, we need to learn to do “our acts of righteousness” before God and not others. Jesus warned us to beware of doing our “acts of righteousness” to be seen by men. It can happen quite easily. We start praying to the crowd, showing off our knowledge, telling everyone of the good works we have done, drawing attention to our donations. It happens so easily.
Personally, when I make the right choice or do the right thing I often want to tell the world. Part of that comes from the reality that I do so many stupid things that I’d like to balance the record. But for the most part I want people to exalt me . . . just like Ananias and Sapphira.
Jesus warns us that if we do our “acts of righteousness” to be seen by men then we will have our reward in full. In other words, you will be seen. The crowd may applaud just as you hoped they would. But, your eternal reward will be gone.
Our focus needs to be on our private life with the Lord. If we spend time with God in secret and live our lives for Him and not others, we will not need to tell people we have been with Jesus, they will be able to see it for themselves.