Let not thy left hand know that thy light so shines before men

November 5, 2009 | 20 comments
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For over a year I’ve wanted to write a substantive post about the contradiction between two of the best-known biblical injunctions, “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” and “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works.” My thought was to approach the issue from a sociological perspective, focusing on the competing notions of behavior modeling. Because I’ve been unable to dedicate the time to study the issue out for myself, instead of a substantive essay you’re getting these half-baked musings.

Why should Christians be called to be “an example of the believers” in only some regards?

If the reason were related to humility or pride then we’d expect that Christians would be encouraged to hide all of their good acts under a bushel.

As someone who thinks our society should be more generous, and less concerned with our own comfort and convenience, and less driven to consume in order to demonstrate our social standing, I wonder why the selfless people we should most want modeled are told to cover their light. If people who served missions, did their home teaching, or married in the temple were told not to let anyone know about it, fewer people would serve missions, home teach or marry in the temple. Because Christians who give to charity are told not to let anyone know, Christians probably give less to charity. They’ve seen less modeling and receive fewer social rewards. Which probably means that the poor of the world are worse off because Christians are rewarded with attention at church when they buy a new toy or show up with vacation stories, but not when they give that money to a needy family.

20 Responses to Let not thy left hand know that thy light so shines before men

  1. Jamal on November 5, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    The scriptures are rife with such seeming contradictions. The only answer I’ve come up with (and one I truly believe in) is that both are right in certain circumstances, and that the Holy Ghost together with a dollop of common sense is the means to know which fits which circumstances. The further I go in life, the more I see how powerful, practical and not-at-all esoteric the Gift of the Holy Ghost is.

  2. Rob Perkins on November 5, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    The scripture about the left and right hand is given in second person singular, signifying individual action. The scripture about light shining on a hill is given in second person plural, signifying community action.

  3. Coffinberry on November 5, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Funny. I just finished re-reading “Magnificent Obsession.”

  4. Matt Evans on November 5, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Rob, but we still have, in second person singular, “be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” And of course there are innumerable recommendations from church leaders that we each be an example to those around us. The (lone?) exception is in charitable giving.

    But the singular/plural distinction is interesting, and the Church does sound a trumpet for it’s humanitarian (alms giving) program. But what is the moral distinction between the singular and plural, or is it a distinction without a difference? Does the plurality exception allow a ward to announce the number of quilts and humanitarian kits they donated, or do they then “have their reward”? A Laurel class? A married couple?

  5. Rob Perkins on November 5, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Ah Matt, I can’t claim to know everything, except that Jesus said the first two things in one sermon, and Paul the others in a separately packaged meme. Perhaps there’s something to that.

    Perhaps also, the full sentences in that first sermon are important: “When thou doest alms… [and also] when thou prayest.” Those are two specific activities which don’t fully encompass all charitable action.

  6. James Olsen on November 5, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    I think we see this sort of vacillation between the two injunctions in how the church has handled welfare/humanitarian aid over the past two or so decades. It’s one of our gems, one of the things we inevitably show off to dignitaries who come through, and yet something most members no little to nothing about – at least in terms of quantity and detail. I suspect there is disagreement in how exactly to go about it right; certainly a sticky question.

  7. jks on November 6, 2009 at 2:02 am

    “Christians probably give less to charity”
    How sure are you about this?

    I see plenty of anonymous giving. When someone wanted to fly a father of 5 home for Christmas, I had no idea who else was donating. Someone just called with the idea and asked if we wanted to contribute and we knew it was going to be anonymous.
    I grew up in a family where my parents gave anonymously in ways I was unaware of, but also in ways that involved us children in anonymous charitable giving so we grew up with it being a part of life.
    I think Christians are often a part of a collective group (class, congregation, school) that gives. So together they know among themselves that they are giving but outside the group they know they are not getting praise.
    I think this is why church members often don’t know how much the church does. We are used to making the sacrifice and giving, but then not thinking about it and expecting a lot of fanfare about it.
    I think that giving in secret has a place, but so does a more open idea of service which is specifically taught in Christianity. The good samaritan gave charity and service and didn’t wear a mask for it.
    I think the point is that we not go around giving charity just to get worldly praise for it.
    Letting your light shine isn’t about getting worldly praise either. It is about having integrity. A humble person doesn’t go around hiding. They do what the Lord wants them to do and realizes that their talents and opportunities and accomplishments and their very lives come from God.

  8. Bill of Wasilla on November 6, 2009 at 4:27 am

    Probably just about every significant statement in the scriptures is contradicted by another scripture – not surprising, since they were written down over thousands of years by mere mortal men.

  9. Peter LLC on November 6, 2009 at 6:59 am

    I’ve noticed an interesting correlation: everytime I give anonymously, a building with my name on it sprouts on some college campus somwhere.

  10. Jared on November 6, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Lehi taught that there is opposition in all things. In other words, things exist in compound. For example:

    “thou shalt not kill”. Exodus 20:13

    Yet, in certain circumstances it is necessary to kill.

    “…the Nephites were taught to defend themselves against their enemies, even to the shedding of blood…” Alma 48:14

    A scripture shouldn’t be read in isolation, “companion scriptures” must be considered in order to understand a given principle.

    When a prophet is addressing a topic, often he will be speaking to one side of a “compound”.

  11. Eric Nielson on November 6, 2009 at 8:38 am

    I am beginning to believe in a ‘golden mean’ where moderation in all (on nearly all, or many..) things is a virtue. Thus extreme cases of just about anything can be a negative thing. Thus keeping ALL good deeds secret is likely not the right thing to do. Neither is broadcasting EVERY good deed. Thus the scriptures warn about excessive behaviors of both ends of the spectrum, and so being somewhere in the middle is likely where we should be.

  12. Kevin Winters on November 6, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I think the ‘answer’, if there is just one, is that we are to cultivate selfless giving so that “social rewards” don’t matter and are inconsequential to the giving. It is unfortunate that we as a culture are duped into the behavioristic/selfishness-based understanding of action when there is a wide store of selfless action that we can tap into.

  13. Rick on November 6, 2009 at 9:48 am

    I wonder if the difference is in motivation? With alms and prayer, the hypocrites discussed aren’t really trying to better someone else’s life (or their own spiritual life) with their actions. They’re just trying to better their own social standing.

  14. DavidH on November 6, 2009 at 11:51 am

    I agree with 12 and 13. We should do good regardless of whether someone knows or gives us credit. When I was growing up, I heard quite frequently, “It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

    The passage of not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing, in my opinion, goes to not seeking credit for the good we do.

    The passage about letting the light shine does not contradict that. It suggests that people should see the good we do to”glorify God,” not to give us credit. Thus, we can let our anonymous good works be seen, which allow people to give credit to God.

  15. kumquats in clover on November 6, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    Perhaps this experience I had as a child will help reconcile the warring scriptural injunctions. I was 8 years old. A new family with a boy my age moved into the branch around mid October.

    By mid December we were close buddies, and he reported that his mother told him they couldn’t afford a Christmas tree that year. My mother caught wind of this, and (since we always went out to a leased ranch property to cut our own tree for free) determined to provide the new family with a Christmas tree.

    When we delivered the tree, we did so anonymously. They had no idea where that tree came from. The family was very grateful, but they couldn’t thank us….they didn’t know our identity. But they did thank someone.

    On their knees that evening in family prayer.

    That is the focus of the scripture, which reads:

    “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

    It is the good works that we must shine a light on, not on the worker. When that focus is maintained, the receiver’s sincerely felt thanks and praise and (on rare occasions of dire need) even effusive devotion will be voiced toward the only really worthy recipient of those expressions of gratitude.

  16. Matt Evans on November 6, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Kevin, I agree that the ideal is to do what is right without concern for social rewards, but that is true for everything, not just charitable giving.

    Rick, the recipient benefits the same whether the giver is trying to glorify God or make his girlfriend think he’s a generous chap.
    My point is to question how strongly we focus the moral analysis on the motives of the giver rather than the relief provided the recipient.

  17. Martin on November 6, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    There is a practical struggle that goes along with this scriptural contradiction.

    Our ward is really looking for ways to give meaningful service where the participants can actually see the benefit their service provides. It’s harder to learn to give when what’s given just seems to disappear.

    On the other hand, we have several families really struggling because of the economy who could use a little service and charity right now.

    Perfect match, right? Wrong. The struggling families are new to the experience, and don’t want to be publicly seen as needing charity. Consequently, they’ve received quiet anonymous assistance from some very Christian members (as well as directly from the church).

    The problem is, the people most needing the experience to give (eg., the youth) completely miss out on it, and the connections of mutual love and appreciation that come from serving each other are missed.

    Part of me cries out that if we as a Christian people can’t somehow breach this gap, then what good are we?

  18. WJ on November 6, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Interesting post Matt. I think a good example of this dilemma is Mormons cleaning up after natural disasters clad in bright yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” shirts. They’re doing a very good thing, while making sure everyone knows they’re doing that good thing.

  19. Sinclair on November 6, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    I think the difference comes in what follows the “let your light so shine” passage. In that, it states that we should do so with the intent of bringing glory to God.

  20. Kevin Winters on November 8, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Martin,

    Isn’t that also an issue of selflessness: the family is so concerned about their self-image, about how they appear to the world, that they are not willing to own up to their situation: the reality that they are struggling financially. I know this will sounds too strong, but there is a word for that: delusion. The active denial of the reality of the situation, all to “save face”. So, even on that level, there is still this difficult balance needed (i.e. without becoming needy and attention grabbing) to have genuine selflessness, even on the receiving side.

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