Our Problem with Public Piety and One-Upping

Curtis Farr | OnFaith Voices By on

The church may be responsible for a multitude of calamities in history, but Lent happens to be one great gift it has given the world. We need Lent, perhaps now more than ever.

Lent is like this gift that we didn’t ask for — we didn’t put it on our wish list, and as soon as we opened it, confusion smeared across our face. We don’t know quite what to do with it, and it may or may not work with Bluetooth, but the last thing we ought to do is hide a gift like Lent.

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Courtesy of the author.

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

This warning always stirs within me great curiosity, which is probably a preferable state of mind to enter at the beginning of Lent. Anyone who’s attended an Ash Wednesday service has heard the preacher mention the irony that when we read these words, we respond by smudging ashy piety on our foreheads and marching into the world for all to see. And anyone who’s read a reflection on the practice of piety would surely recognize the expression, “It is what is on the inside that counts,” just as easily as they would remember those who incessantly argue the opposite.

We are all guilty of some form of piety not for piety’s sake. There is always a self-beneficial element in the things we do, even if it is merely to “feel good.”

Nowhere is publicly practicing piety easier than on social media. The #ashtag was quite popular last week — an elevated form of wearing one’s ashen cross around all day (or all Lent if you’re not much of a bather). When you give a goat to a family in Zanzibar, you’re encouraged to share with your friends — groups that encourage sharing do so in hopes that your public expression of piety will bring them more money, but wouldn’t it be nice if we all figured out how to be charitable without sounding a trumpet on Twitter?

I don’t mean to criticize these practices. The truth is, advertising goat-giving probably increases goat-giving, and the #ashtag reminds those who live in the caves of their computers that they, like their Macbooks, will one day return to the dust from whence they came.

Actually, our Macbooks will sit in a landfill far after we become extinct.

We are all guilty of some form of piety not for piety’s sake. There is always a self-beneficial element in the things we do, even if it is merely to “feel good.” I did the ice bucket challenge, I blog regularly, and now I’ve just linked you to both of those examples of practicing my piety before others, which has got to be some lethal combination for my soul. And now, of course I’ve exempted myself from criticism by being the first one to do so, which in and of itself is practicing piety publicly . . . this can go on and on, and it’s not helpful. Unfortunately, too much public discourse among those seeking to be pious reflects this character of one-upping.

If we are going to take Jesus’ words about piety so seriously, we ought to at least read what he says. He does not say not to practice piety in front of other people, but he does say that we should be aware of our motivations when we do. While this hints that it is what is on the inside that counts, Jesus does not condone doing nothing. Prerequisite to not sounding trumpets when we give and not praying in synagogues and on street corners is that we do make a point of giving and praying.

What we do matters. Why we do it matters. And Lent is the time we are explicitly invited to try new whats and think more about our whys.

Give and pray, he encourages, but for the sake of your heart or soul or spirit or whatever, be aware of why you give and why you pray.

Piety = good.

“Notice,” Jesus seems to say, “notice the temptation we all have within us to want to appear awesome, and then, remember that you’re not . . . I mean, you’re okay, but don’t go crazy . . . you have some work to do. What’s that? You have an entire liturgical season in which you are called to stop pointing fingers at others (or to stop one-upping others on social media), and you do this publicly after having other terribly flawed people (clergy) smudge ash on your foreheads? Now that is awesome.”

What a great gift Lent is!

What we do matters. Why we do it matters. And Lent is the time we are explicitly invited to try new whats and think more about our whys. Feel free to share your whats with others — you never know what a gift your story might be. Though keep in mind your why, and if your why doesn’t satisfy your conscience, you could always turn to prayer . . .

. . . as long as you’re not on the street corner.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.