It’s the season of Lent again. Christians, especially in the older churches will know what I’m talking about. This is the season when people make a special effort to get closer to God. You might say it’s a time to try to get more holy; more spiritual, if you please. It’s also the time for those questions in the church hallway: “What are you giving up for Lent?”

As for me, I’ve given up telling people what I’m giving up. And don’t translate that into “he’s given up something really big, and doesn’t want to boast.” It’s quite possible that I’m indulging myself shamelessly, and this is my way of covering it up!

I’ve given up telling people what I’m giving up for lent!

In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us that our good deeds should be done secretly, certainly not for show. I’ve heard this text used as a sort of set of rules for doing good deeds. “Make absolutely sure nobody knows!” someone says. “If someone finds out about it, it’s no good!” But I suspect Jesus had something a little deeper in mind.

The real question is: “Are you being holy or sanctimonious?”

Or are you spiritual or just of no earthly good, righteous or self-righteous, close to God, or just hypocritical?

Jesus might ask whether you’re a well designed building, or just a whitewashed tomb, hiding what’s actually inside.

It’s not just Jesus who talked about this problem. Isaiah addresses it (chapter 58) when he tells the people that they are eagerly seeking God, but wondering why they don’t find Him. Why not? Because they engage in oppression while they fast. They do acts that look like holiness, but there isn’t any holiness inside.

I once heard this concept also expressed by a Muslim speaker explaining the fast of Ramadan. The purpose of the fast is to make one sympathize with those who have to go without because they are poor. One could fast, doing the act of holiness, without actually being holy.

How does your life match up to the question of holiness versus sanctimony?

I’ve been told many times that church attendance drops when there’s a guest speaker. The pastor is absent and people don’t show up. Why were they going to church in the first place? Is the pastor that much better a speaker than all the guests? Or are we attending church so we can be seen?

We talk about helping the poor and homeless, but what happens when we are called upon to actually give to them or work for them? Do we need to have our name on the aid we give? Do we need someone to see what we’ve done, or are we satisfied just to do the good deed? Will we do the good deed for anyone or must they be interested in our spiritual message first?

Does the label you put on your church reflect who you are in the Lord, or is it about how sanctimonious you are?

Does the label you put on your church reflect who you are in the Lord, or is it about how sanctimonious you are?

This same distinction between holiness and sanctimony can be noted in our titles. Have you ever been told, or perhaps claimed yourself that yours was a “Spirit-filled” church? Was the label used to provide needed information, or was it a way to make the church and its members feel superior? Was it whitewashing? What about “born again” or “on fire?” All of these can be legitimate descriptions when used to provide information. But the same words, used to elevate yourself, or your church above others can be a sign of sanctimony. As you do whatever you do during Lent, consider whether you are really getting more holy, or just more sanctimonious?

Does your life say holy or does it scream sanctimonious?