By Rosie Moore.
Years ago, when I used to read books aloud to my children, I remember how my son loved our big book of Greek myths. He was fascinated by the story of the Sirens in the myth of Odysseus, the Greek hero. The Sirens were birdlike temptresses, who lured sailors to their death with their enchanting music. Men would smash their ships on the jagged cliffside of the island where the Sirens lived, leaving the helpless men drowned or stranded. My son studied the gory illustration in much detail!
But, determined not to be enticed by the Sirens, Odysseus asked his crew to tie him to the mast to prevent him from steering the ship onto the rocks and he put wax in his ears so that he wouldn’t hear them. The Sirens have become symbolic of the many temptations which lure men away from their purpose, with the ultimate consequence of death.
The Sirens sound so dramatic! We can all imagine sex, drugs, prostitution, porn and phone addiction being sirens. But isn’t the siren of self a much more subtle one that steers us away from our purpose as human beings?
The Westminster shorter catechism asks the question: “What is the chief end of man?” And it answers: “To give glory to God and enjoy him forever.
In contrast, the worldview in which we are born and raised worships self above all else. Most of us are steeped in self glory from the moment we leave the womb. Just think of how everyone coo’s and praises a baby for smiling, burping and eating its porridge, even filling its nappy!
We are trained to enjoy ourselves; seek rewards from others; uphold and affirm ourselves; pick ourselves up from our bootstraps; develop our own strategies to deal with troubles; re-brand ourselves; motivate ourselves; pursue financial independence; convince ourselves that we’re enough, worthy of loving, admiring and praising.
Of course, most of these things are good in moderation, but the siren of self is a dangerous enchantress which can lure even believers to act like hypocrites who have long forgotten our life’s purpose, which is to give glory to God and enjoy Him forever.
Jesus pointed this out in Matthew 6, in the heart of His Sermon on the Mount. He was talking to his disciples about three religious activities that they would regularly engage in as Jewish believers. These activities were giving, praying and fasting, habits of grace that should still be part and parcel of the Christian life.
Giving, fasting, praying.
Of course, they are very good habits to cultivate. But Jesus recognized that even in the midst of worthy pursuits, the natural inclination of the human heart is to draw attention to ourselves and steal the glory that belongs to God alone. We are self seekers by nature. See how Christ warned his disciples against hypocrisy and the siren of self which would try to entice them away from their life’s purpose:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Sirens of admiration
Don Carson comments beautifully and succinctly on this passage, and he uses a word which is so apt. The word is ‘admired’. Listen to what Carson says:
“Jesus recognizes how easy it is for sinners to engage in worthy, philanthropic and even religious activities, less in order to do what is right than to be admired for doing what is right. If being thought generous is more important than being generous, if gaining a reputation for prayerfulness is more important to us than praying when no one but God is listening, if fasting is something we engage only if we can disingenuously talk about it, then these acts of piety are becoming acts of impiety.”
In every religious act we perform, it may be good to ask ourselves, “Who is being admired? Who gets the glory?”
Who gets the glory?
Giving, fasting and praying are ways that we humbly express our utter dependence and gratitude to God, thereby giving him all the glory:
We give to the needy, because God graciously gave to us the gift of forgiveness and the unshakeable blessings we have in Christ. We give, because we know just how fragile we are and depend on the providence of our faithful God in the midst of our own physical and spiritual neediness. When we give and help those in need, we reflect back praise and thanks to God. When we give, we take our minds off our own little aches, pains and inconveniences, and become more interested in the lives of people around us.
We fast, because we know that we are utterly empty and helpless without Christ’s filling and deliverance. We are desperately hungry for his Spirit to fill our lives and make us whole. We fast because we see our own sin and weakness and we’re hungry for mercy. We long to taste with our spiritual taste buds and see with our spiritual eyes that the Lord is good. We recognize that physical pleasures pale in comparison with the eternal banquet at the end of time, when we will be truly satisfied. When we fast, we empty ourselves of self to seek his guidance, wisdom and grace in a particular way, for a particular time.
We pray, because through prayer we relate intimately with God, our Father in heaven, who has adopted us into his family. It is in this affectionate and confidential communion with the Maker of heaven and earth, that we come to Jesus as a little child and find rest from all our labours. Prayer is like a wonderful room where a child of the King is invited to cozy up to his/her dad, to share the details of the day and be shown the secrets of the kingdom.
In these three ‘religious’ activities that Jesus names– giving, fasting and praying–we remember our humble estate and give all the glory to God for our extraordinary privilege. Christ is our reward and our treasure. He is the focus and the axis, not ourselves.
The siren of self.
But see how quickly the siren of self can turn even the best endeavours into acts of hypocrisy. The sirens start to scream, “What about me?”
And so, we start chasing our rewards now, saying, “Look at me! See how good I am! See how much more I’m doing or giving or praying than these others who are so indifferent to the needs around them! See what great rewards I’m storing up in heaven! See how God is using me in his kingdom! See how I’m suffering for his sake! See how many I’m leading into his kingdom!”
Or the siren of self may use a sneaky song to deflect God’s glory: “See how useless and unworthy I am, I can do nothing for God’s kingdom! Surely the world would be better off without me? What difference can giving, fasting or praying make when the world is so hopeless? Why did all these bad things to happen to a generous giver like me?”
The sirens of self are not always easy to identify and can sneak up on us quite unexpectedly. But when they lure us away from Christ, we deflect all the glory due to God, to ourselves. We look to people to recognize, admire or feel sorry for us. We develop a ‘God complex’, believing ourselves to be the saviour. Or we can become so self absorbed with our own dark feelings, troubles or moods that we sail horribly close to the jagged cliffs.
Oh dear, how can we be free from the Sirens of self? Can we be like Odysseus and ask someone to tie us physically to the mast of our ship, so that we just stand immobile and not do anything? Shall we block our ears with balls of wax, so we can’t hear the Sirens? I don’t think so! God’s Word tells us that we are Christ’s workmanship created for good works that He has prepared in advance for us to do (Phil 2:10). Jesus tells us that He means us to hear his Word and be fruitful, producing a crop that yields a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (Matt 13:23).
Our works are for His glory and our joy, so paralysis is not the answer. But I think probing the heart is.
Probe the heart.
Jesus reminds us throughout Matthew 6 to examine our hearts. In the realm of money, He says to “store up eternal treasures,” because our hearts will inevitably pursue whatever we truly value. In the realm of worry, Jesus says the antidote is to trust and ask God to give us what we need.
Whatever captivates our dreams and imaginations, our longings and desires; whatever sparks our fears and anxiety—these things will become the sirens that enchant us. Jesus teaches us to turn our hearts away from these self destructive sirens, and towards Himself. When Jesus is our compass, we forget about ourselves and are kept on a steady course.
“Therefore, seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt 6:33) What a simple but profound solution to the siren of self. This verse is the key to the whole chapter.
For His eyes only.
And so, Don Carson suggests that the only way to stop our religious activities being wrecked by the sirens of self, is to “do them so quietly that no one but God knows we are doing them.”
Be generous with your many blessings, but tell no one that you’re giving, and ask the recipient to keep it anonymous too. The rewards of eternity are imperishable, even if we do something as small and invisible as giving a thirsty person a cup of water for Christ’s sake (Matt 10:41-42).
Pray more where no one but God can see you, than you pray in public. Forget about whether you feel like it or not, just remember who you are and lay everything at his feet.
Fast, but do it with a cheerful face and attitude, so no one but your closest people know you’re abstaining from what you usually enjoy.
And don’t be bold enough to ask God for forgiveness if you’ve been unwilling to forgive someone else (Matt 16:14-15).
We cannot stop the Sirens of self blasting in our ears and we cannot tie ourselves to the mast to purge ourselves of impure motives. But we can make sure that we perform good acts with a simple, sincere desire to please God, not to create the impression that we are pleasing God.
Impressions are seldom accurate, and admiration is always short lived, but pleasing God is the one reward not ruled by the law of diminishing returns. It’s the only reward worth living for.