This post originally appeared as a podcast episode in 2012.
From Christ’s own parables to the teachings of the desert fathers, some of the very best lessons we learn in Orthodoxy are the simplest ones.
When I think of St. Nicholas — whose feast day is coming up shortly — it seems to me that his story offers a beautiful and simple truth that our kids should spend some time considering.
In addition of course, to being a wonderworker who healed the sick and sometimes even raised the dead, St. Nicholas has a great story. Odds are, you’re already familiar with it.
Nicholas lived in a time when a young woman needed a dowry to marry. There once was a man who had three sweet and lovely Christian daughters, and he had enough money to pay all three dowries so that his girls could be married to nice young men and live good lives. Unfortunately, the man had a weakness, and he gambled the money away. All of it.
He so loved the thrill of the gamble that he took his own daughters’ futures into his hands, and gambled them away.
Stop for a moment to think what that means. These girls should have been married to good men, but now there were no dowries.
When we do something terrible like what this father did, we often feel so desperate and reckless that we compound the problem — and that’s what he did. Without money for dowries, he calculated that he’d have to start selling the girls in the streets as they came of age. He didn’t trust in God to provide some other way, he didn’t look for a better plan, but he resigned himself to giving his daughters a terrible future.
St. Nicholas, who not yet a Saint but rather a Bishop who knew this family, could see what was unfolding for these girls, and he knew that the Lord wanted better for them.
As the first girl came of age, he quietly snuck around her house one night, and threw the exact amount of money for a respectable dowry — in gold coins — into her window. The family rejoiced, and she was married to a good man.
When, a while later, the second girl came of age, once again our Nicholas snuck through the darkened streets, and threw the dowry in gold coins into her window. Again, the family rejoiced and a wedding followed, though they were very curious as to how their salvation happened to fly in through that window.
Finally, the third girl came of age — and this time, her grateful father was determined to learn the identity of their benefactor. He waited outside, and sure enough — he caught the bishop throwing gold coins through the window! In fact, it is said that the coins landed in the girl’s stocking as it hung to dry — the root perhaps, of our modern traditions of finding gifts in our shoes on St. Nicholas’ Day, not to mention the gifts in our stockings on Christmas morning.
Although he was eventually caught, Nicholas was trying to give in secret.
He could easily have thrown a big party and made a generous announcement, publicly displaying his generosity and his thoughtfulness. He could have chosen any kind of presentation for these gifts, but instead he chose to sneak around at night and toss them anonymously into darkened windows, as if the coins had been lying there on the floor all along.
Why give in secret? What’s the point?
Well, Nicholas understood some things.
He understood that by throwing the money through the window, he was restoring things to how they should have been. He was correcting the mistake that the gambling father had made, making the girls whole for their loss.
By not making their predicament public, he allowed the girls to keep their father’s sins private. There was no disgrace for their family, so the girls could marry nice boys and have a good life.
Nicholas was thinking about what the girls needed.
He wasn’t thinking about what kind of punishment the father deserved, as surely he did.
And he certainly wasn’t thinking about how everyone in town would be impressed by his grand gesture — by keeping it secret, in fact, he protected himself from the pridefulness that comes when you become famous for being so generous and good.
He gave in secret, because it was better for the people he was helping and because in the end, it was better for the state of his own soul.
Ultimately, he gave in secret because that’s what Christ teaches us:
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
Once again, the hypocrites are our negative role — do not do as the hypocrites, Christ teaches. What are those guys doing? They’re sounding trumpets to announce their good works. People do that all the time. Charitable gifts are presented in public, people write huge checks and present them with a handshake in front of a crowd. That shouldn’t be our way. We should be scurrying to avoid the crowd. We should do our good deeds like Nicholas — in the dark of night, when no one but God is watching.
When the hypocrites give, they seek glory from men. They have chosen their reward. I love the way that Christ presents the reward here — there’s really no punishment, God isn’t penalizing anyone. There’s simply an array of rewards for good works, and you can choose one.
Some people choose to do good works so that they can have glory among men. And that’s fine — they’ve done a good thing, they’ve received appropriate glory. Done and done. They wanted the glory, and they got it. All is well.
The trouble is that they have chosen a temporary reward. They have chosen glory among men. Now, at best, that could last for your lifetime here on earth. Once you die, that glory is finished really. You can’t collect it anymore. And of course, as we all know, fame and fortune and glory among men are fleeting — the crowd is fickle. One moment, they love you for your generosity, but the next moment, they love the next guy. They might even turn on you if you run out of money or if your generosity dries up. Glory among men is a temporary reward, but if that’s the reward you want, God will allow you to choose it.
Christ’s advice to us continues:
“Do not lay up for your selves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yoursevles treasures in heaven, whee neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
Rewards on earth, like everything here, are subject to corruption and decay. Glory among men fades, and wealth is destroyed by moths and rust and stolen by thieves. Earthly rewards are temporary.
So what’s the other reward available to you? The alternative is to look for a reward in heaven, where rewards are eternal and cannot be taken from you.
This sounds simple, but it requires faith and trust.
You see, if you do your good works in secret, intentionally avoiding the glory of men, you must trust that God is storing up rewards for you in heaven. You won’t be able to see them and you won’t know exactly what the rewards are. You have to trust in God, and trust in the Word of God, and prefer that trust to earthly rewards.
If you look closely, you’ll see that Christ promises a transformation: you may begin giving in secret to earn that heavenly reward, but in time, “where you treasure is, your heart will be also” and soon your own heart will be in heaven, and you will find yourself giving in secret and loving your neighbor not because God will reward you, but simply because you love God. When your heart is in heaven, you have no greater desire than to love and to show love. That’s because God is love, and love just grows and love fills us and spills over.
When you’re teaching children, it’s not usually enough to discuss something — it’s best to find a way to make it concrete. Help them translate the idea you’re teaching into a real action that they can take, something that imports the abstract concept into their daily lives in a tangible and understandable way.
For young children trying to see how to build up rewards in heaven, you can help them make a treasure chest, and they can fill it with little coins that stand for the various good deeds they’re secretly doing.
Of course, a treasure chest is on earth and the little coins are earthly valuables, so unless you feel like your kids NEED that craft, that physical manifestation of the lesson, maybe you can avoid it.
So often, kids are motivated by the approval of their parents, their teachers. That’s a wonderful thing, and it’s right and proper that they be pleased by positive feedback from authority figures.
But this lesson is about something else, isn’t it?
This is about giving in secret — about doing good without any earthly reward, and sometimes even your approbation is a reward.
Maybe you can just sit and talk and help them brainstorm some good deeds they could do in secret.
And as we often say in Raising Saints, we should be letting the kids come up with the ideas. Not only might they come up with BETTER ideas than we do, but they will OWN those ideas and that will make them more likely to LIVE those ideas.
Here are some ideas to get the conversation started: if their sister forgets to put away her boots, maybe they could quietly do it for her. It’s a tiny silent gift, that no one will notice. If their brother running late, maybe they could quietly help load up his backpack with a snack and a bottle of water. It’s not about having the ability to go buy secret gifts for people, like a year round Secret Santa party, but about watching the people in our lives and understanding their needs, and filling them secretly without looking for thanks or reciprocity.
What if each kid did a secret good deed every day, and what if they accompanied that deed with a little prayer —
Lord, please multiply this blessing.
When we recognize that what we can do for someone is really only a tiny thing, and when we ask God to multiply it and make it bigger and more helpful, then we protect our humility by recognizing that it’s always God who turns our tiny offering into something beautiful.
You know, talking about this makes me think of Crazy John. In an earlier podcast, I recommended it as a great reading choice for Nativity Lent for older kids.
If you’ve read it, you know that John lives in a modern Athens neighborhood among disconnected, isolated people, and that he likes to give in secret. He gets to know people and sees their needs, then sneaks around leaving just the right gifts. When he gets caught, he claims the gift came from someone else. He’ll say, “Oh, the baker wanted you to have this, but he wanted it to remain anonymous. Please just pray for him whenever you go to church.” What a beautiful thing! He preserved his own secret, and caused neighbors to pray for one another. These prayers and the goodwill that comes of these supposed gifts, built a community where there was none. What a lesson for all of us! Just as gossip and nastiness can tear apart a community, generosity and prayer can build one.
I don’t know if we can do exactly what John did — if we it in our homes and parishes, we might well get caught like St. Nicholas. It’s hard to keep your giving secret, and yet it’s really worth trying, isn’t it?
We can build connections and community through generosity. In fact, with this simple lesson, aren’t we also teaching kids how to grow good relationships with people? Whether you’re trying to hold together a community, or to keeping a marriage alive — when we are in the habit of seeing people’s needs and doing small things that bring joy to the people around us, without asking for something in return or even for gratitude — if we can be sweet and thoughtful and generous without keeping score and looking for personal glory — then we can begin to love like Christ loves, selflessly, with joyful generosity.
This is a simple idea, but please try to picture what it would be like if all of the children in our lives began to do good deeds, intentionally keeping them quiet because they trust in the Lord, who sees everything they do and who loves them. This may be a small and simple thing, but it is the beginning of a beautiful life in Christ, of a lifetime ministry of being Christ’s hands on earth.