The subject of faith creates discussion about being religious. In fact it is hard to imagine how one might have faith without being religious. Praying, ritual practices, service, and giving to others are all regular parts of life for people of faith. This is not just a specifically Christian matter either. It is also true for almost any known religion. Being religious, or as Jesus puts it, “practicing your righteousness,” is almost a universal aspect of human life.
However, faith is not the only reason for being religious. In human society religious activity has also been a way to gain approval from society. Engaging in religious activity actually requires no faith at all. One can give to charity, go on restrictive diets, participate in worship, offer public prayer and numerous other activities without a shred of faith. Like an actor that portrays a doctor on stage. He may seem very wise and competent during a play, but you would certainly not go to him with your serious medical condition. He was playing a role. He was doing it not to serve medical science, but to entertain and please an audience.
The same thing can happen for those who “practice their righteousness.” When being religious is primarily done from a desire for audience approval rather than reverence for God, then it has become hypocritical. The word hypocrite simply means a play actor; one who acts out a part that is other than who they really are. Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount about this reason for being religious. He teaches that hypocritical religion only pleases human beings and serves no eternal purpose. It is like a play about a doctor, which only serves to entertain an audience, not to really make sick people well.
As we have said, religious activity is a vital part of faith, so people of faith need to engage in religion. Jesus recommends that religion be as quiet as possible. Where feasible it should only be between the person of faith and God. However, such things as public worship, service work, and charitable giving often have a public face. And yes, we will be motivated by our need for peer approval. But here is where Jesus promise of forgiveness is most powerful. For only by God’s grace and forgiveness can we dare to be religious at all.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites… But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret… (Matthew 6:16-18)