By John Lee
Serving the God ‘who sees in secret’ in a world where there’s pressure to post everything.
Snap, post, chat, tweet, like, send—the gestures of social media, where a stubby thumb or an index finger is mightier than the sword and pen combined. Such is the world in which we live. However, one inherent weakness of social media is its inability to understand the beauty of hiddenness. In fact, there is nothing that I can think of that is more antithetical to the hidden than the proliferation of social media.
One inherent weakness of social media is its inability to understand the beauty of hiddenness.
The whole premise of social media is to reach as many people as possible, the more, the better. The frightening part about this logic is that it might be changing how we think about life. Can we enjoy a concert without capturing at least a part of it with our smartphones? Can we have a beautiful engagement without a hidden cameraman in the bushes to record the proposal? In short, without some sort of digital proof can something exist? It seems to me that it is increasingly impossible to conceive of something without footage. As the internet adage goes, “pics or it didn’t happen.” We seem to only value what can be witnessed by others or shared socially.
Love of Honor
In the midst of a world obsessed with what can be observed by others, Colossians 3:3 says something very foreign: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” These words were penned in a context not dissimilar to our own. The ancient world might not have had smartphones, but the ancients cared about their public persona. Ovid, the Roman poet, reminds us that people roamed ancient streets and venues both to see and be seen.
The Colossians were just like any modern urban dweller. In some sense, they were more concerned with public recognition than we are when we consider that the love of honor (philotimia) was deeply entrenched in their society. What they did and why they did it was to gain further recognition from others. This is why anthropologists and historians of the Greco-Roman world say that honor was the pivotal value in this culture.
All we need to do is to look at the remains of inscriptions, statues, coins, and busts—all of these are ancient versions of social media—to see how important honor was. Xenophon frankly admits that the Athenians excel others not so much in singing or in stature, but in the love of honor. Likewise, Augustine in The City of God insightfully states that the Romans were able to overcome many vices by the love of honor and praise. From these references, we can see the ancients were very much like us.
The New Testament, as a Greco-Roman book, shares that same worldview. Matthew 23 offers Jesus’ shorthand analysis of the main problem of the Pharisees. Jesus point outs that they do everything for the sake of honor. They make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long to gain honor (Matt. 23:5). Likewise, they zealously proselytize (Matt. 23:15) and tithe (Matt. 23:23) to gain the admiration of men.
The problem is that this love of honor is hollow. It is selfish, self-centered, and, if left unchecked, leads to death. By the end of the chapter, Jesus essentially calls the Pharisees the walking dead: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matt. 23:27).
As one can see, this analogy between the Greco-Roman love of honor (philotimia) and our culture has some traction. Technologies change, hearts do not. Who of us does not want to be honored and recognized by our peers? Who of us has not taken shortcuts to seem like something rather than actually be that thing? I think we will all agree “seeming to be virtuous” is far easier than actually “being virtuous.”
If this is so, Colossae, Ephesus, and Philippi have more in common with New York, Seoul, and Los Angeles than we can imagine. The heart of the love of honor and recognition beats in all of these places with equal vigor. We tweet and post where they chiseled, but the intent is the same. So, when Colossians 3:3 says that your life is hidden in Christ, it was a bombshell to these ancient urban Christians, completely distasteful and undesirable—just like it should be to us.
Of course, as the Colossians continued to grow in Christ, they began to appreciate the beauty of the logic of hiddenness in Christ. I am sure it was neither simple nor direct. In time, this truth became radiant because by the power of the Holy Spirit they began to realize the emptiness of life even when they had great honor. Earthly honor always fades, people pass away, and all audiences are fickle. So they began to realize that what they really needed was not more exposure or increased honor but something entirely different.
Here is where Paul’s gospel proclamation comes into focus. We died in his death, we rose again in his resurrection, and we will appear in glory when he returns in glory (Col. 3:1–3); in short, our lives are hidden in Christ. More importantly, God did all these things as an act of grace. To use the language of Colossians, God reconciled aliens and enemies to himself through the death of Christ (Col. 1:21–22).
Meditating on the power and beauty of hiddenness brings a number of pieces of wisdom to the fore. First, being known is not all that it’s cracked up to be. In success, we are tempted to become egotistical, which is never good, because all streaks of success come to an end, and in failure we are tempted to become falsely humble (self-loathing), all the while gripped with that same self-centered heart. The outcome is insecurity. To be released from such a state is life-giving.
Moreover, why do we put ourselves out there to be viewed in the first place? I am sure that there are many reasons, but isn’t it fundamentally to be affirmed and validated? But what if we can only have both by hiddenness? One of the glorious truths of Christianity is that we are thoroughly known and even more thoroughly loved by being in Christ. When our lives are hidden in Christ, Christ covers our nakedness.
John Bunyan said it best when he remarked that Christ wove a perfect garment of righteousness for 33 years only to give it away to those who trust him alone. True security, peace, and wholeness come from being in Christ’s love. In short, affirmation and validation do not spring from what we do or who witnesses it; it is rooted in the work and person of Christ.
Second, Matthew 6 offers further incentive to live a life of hiddenness by employing the words “in the secret” (en tō kruptō). Rather than being flamboyant with spiritual disciplines, Matthew urges his readers to do them in secret. So, when his readers give, they should not announce it with trumpet sounds but do it in secret, and when they pray, they should not pray on street corners but in closets because God who sees will reward them (Matt. 6:1–8).
The wording of the Greek is particularly powerful because both injunctions not only bid people to practice righteousness in secret, but it literally says that God is in the secret (en tō kruptō). Here is a literal translation of Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray, go to your closets and closing your door pray to your father, the one in the secret (en tō kruptō), and your father seeing in the secret (en tō kruptō) will reward you.” The point is profound. To be with God, we need to be “in the secret” because that is where he is.
Finally, if we take a step back and look at Scripture from a panoramic perspective, then we see that the people who did the most amazing works cultivated a hidden life. Joseph was hidden in the bowels of a prison before God elevated him to be the savior of Egypt in a time of famine (Gen. 45:4–11). Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness with God prior to taking his first step towards Pharaoh, starting ministry as an old man (Ex. 7:7). David was able to slay Goliath because he was alone with God on the hills tending sheep as a boy. In hiddenness, he learned to protect his sheep from lions and bears, which gave him the courage to face a giant (1 Sam. 17:34–37). Nehemiah was in exile and yet God used him to rebuild and repopulate Jerusalem because Nehemiah remembered his God in hiddenness in the Persian Kingdom (Neh. 1). Ezra brought about a covenant renewal in Jerusalem, but before that he committed his heart to studying, teaching, and practicing the law in hiddenness in Babylon (Ezra 7:6). Paul became the great missionary to the Gentiles only after spending three years in Arabia with God (Gal. 1:16–21). It is particularly noteworthy that the Scriptures do not tell us what these men actually did during these intervals; they were hidden, but we can be sure God used these times to prepare them.
If this pattern holds true, then in times of hiddenness God refines hearts, generates convictions, and gives strength. The essence of a person is really who they are in secret. When these people become public, then the years of hidden strength will emerge. The church would do well to relearn this lesson on many levels. God incubates to release in his perfect time. The more we learn to be and do in hiddenness, paradoxically the more fulfilled and powerful we will be when hiddenness turns to openness. I pray that we will move into a season of profound strength which has been forged in hiddenness.
John Lee is the head of the Upper School at The Geneva School of Manhattan, a Christian classical school. His most recent book is Paradoxes of Leadership (Elevate, 2017).