Can you keep a secret? 

Of course you can. Of course you do – it is second nature to make secrets out of the more salacious or embarrassing parts of our lives. Children don’t need to be taught to hide their misdeeds and mistakes any more than they need to be taught to appreciate sugar. We are hard-wired to publicise the parts of our lives that bring us advantage, and to conceal the parts that might work against us.

Some of us are naturally private; some of us wear our hearts on our sleeves. Yet we all keep secrets. Most of us have a general idea that secrets are bad, and transparency is good, but few of us live our lives with full disclosure.

So why do we keep secrets? At the most instinctive level, we have all kept secrets to hide away mistakes and shame. The more cunning among us might conceal potential provocations like their politics, religion or sexuality to avoid stigma and conflict. Some secrets are calculated to increase our social status or to win friends. And in an overtly strategic way, we might keep secrets to protect a competitive advantage, whether in personal or professional circumstances.

In the age of the smartphone, the rise of social media has led to a counter-movement that celebrates authenticity. Amidst the ubiquity of hyper-curated profiles, there is a cultural hunger for ‘keeping it real’ and ‘being true to yourself’. Added to this mix is a longitudinal trend away from social assimilation toward self-expression. The conventional wisdom is now teaches that we ought to accept parts of our lives that might be unconventional or controversial, to affirm them, and then to be open about them. In this line of thought, shame is our enemy, and secrets are a sure sign of shame. So we are proud and vocal about who we are, sometimes in ways that might make our grandparents blush.

In the church, there is also a general sensibility that rejects secrecy. Confession is a central practice of our faith. We hold honesty and justice to be virtues, both of which can be undermined by secrets. And with institutional child sexual abuse looming large in public discourse, we are well aware of the dangers of an opaque culture.

But is it really so simple? Beyond our hidden transgressions, we are also well familiar with the kinds of secrets that stem from good intentions. We keep secrets to protect our loved ones from harm, or in sensitivity to their feelings. We honour confidentialities, keeping secrets that we don’t consider to be ‘ours’ in the first place. We can remain anonymous for good purposes as well as bad.

As followers of Jesus, the Bible gives us pause for thought on secrecy. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents the nuanced principle of secrecy in the Kingdom of God. He appeals to the gathered crowd in Matthew 5:14-16:

“‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Yet later in the same sermon, he preaches secrecy:

“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 honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Matthew 6:2-4

For Jesus, context is key. Knowing many of his budding followers would be tempted to keep their beliefs private in the face of trials, he exhorts them to shine the light so that others may see and be pointed to God. Yet when it comes to charity, he comes down hard against virtue-signalling, teaching instead to relinquish reputational gains for the sake of uncorrupted generosity. In the Kingdom of Heaven, we uphold anonymity in our good deeds, honesty in our faith, and confession in our sins, where our worldly nature would have it the other way around.

So how did Jesus model this in practice? We know he did good deeds, and he didn’t hide them all from public view. Yet many of the deeds we recognise as good were contentious in his day and made him a pariah to the elites. He didn’t make a show of his status-raising deeds, often telling those he healed not to tell others who had healed them (eg Matt 8:4, 9:30; Mk 5:43, 7:36; Lk 5:14). He was also secretive about his Messianic identity (eg Mk 8:30; Lk 9:21). Yet he was overt in his status-limiting deeds, such as associating with tax collectors, Samaritans and lepers (eg Lk 15:1-2; Jn 4:9; Mk 1:41). 

From Jesus’ words and from his life, we see what matters is motive and glory: are our secrets designed to avoid the status ‘costs’ of our worst deeds, or are they intended to give God the glory from our best deeds?

In order to help us interrogate our motives, here are some practical questions for ministry and for life we can ask about a secret:

  • Could the secret lead to somebody being hurt?
  • Will the secret lead to deceit?
  • Does the secret aid self-promotion?
  • Does the secret break our neighbour’s confidence?
  • Does the secret bring glory to God?

The kind of philanthropy that sees buildings named after benefactors has no place in the kingdom of God. The kind of mercy that expects a favour in return is not really mercy at all. The moment our good deeds are calculated to generate a return, we corrupt the source of our love.

Therefore, let us not make secret the shameful or scornful parts of our lives, but rather let us keep secret the deeds that bring glory to our names, so that God would be glorified in our place.

Written by Peter Edwards