Human relationships on the personal and international level must rate as the greatest challenge for the world’s future. The cold-blooded invasion of Ukraine reveals an oft unspoken issue that confronts us: flawed human nature.

The Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once commented, If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

And the 19th century Scottish minister and evangelist, Robert Murray McCheyne observed, The seeds of all sins are in my heart, and perhaps all the more dangerously that I do not see them.

Let me make a suggestion. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent that continues through to the day before Easter Day. The six weeks of Lent can be a special time of spiritual re-awakening through consistent Bible reading, honest reflection, and prayer.

Indeed, the prayer for Ash Wednesday and for Lent, focuses on God’s forgiveness of the repentant person and spiritual renewal. The Lord Jesus challenges us to know the Scriptures, reflect on them, and to pray throughout the year.

However, such is our flawed nature that we can all deceive ourselves. We can be two-faced, saying one thing and doing another. We may even read the Bible and pray, attend church, and give to the poor, but our hearts can remain unchanged in our relationship with the Lord, as well as with one another.

Consider Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy in his Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

Earlier in his sermon Jesus says: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven…” (Matthew 5:16). In both places he is talking about being seen by others, yet he seems to contradict himself. Is he inconsistent?

In chapter 5 he speaks of the moral qualities of our life in public. In Matthew 6 he warns against using our faith to win approval. There is a sharp difference between living as God desires and our desire to make a name for ourselves. The first glorifies God. The second only brings fleeting applause.

The attention-seeking ‘religious’ get what they delight in – accolades and celebrity. But Jesus warns, they will miss out on the true reward that comes from the living, all-righteous God. All they have is a counterfeit religion, empty and without value. Two examples follow.

Counterfeit giving. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2).

Jesus is saying that when we give so that others know what we are doing, whether in public, church or at a charity function – we are being two-faced. We’ll get what we’re after – celebrity status. But that’s all we’ll get. There is no genuine faith and no reward from God. It is a two-faced life-style.

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4).

To be rewarded by the Lord is the ultimate blessing. The approval of others is transient; the approval of God is eternal. Being aware of the deceitfulness of our hearts, we need to pray for God’s grace to avoid counterfeit giving.

Counterfeit prayer is another area where we can be two-faced. In verse 5 we read: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward…”

To lead the prayers in the synagogue was a mark of distinction, especially as the leader prayed at the front of the congregation. Jesus knows how easy it is for any one of us leading prayer to focus more on the literary quality of our prayer and our tone of voice, than God.

Now Jesus is not saying that prayer must always be in secret. He and his disciples attended services in the Temple and synagogue. The first Christians regularly met for prayer. Prayer in public was not so much the issue as the attitude of the pray-er.

In fact, the main point Jesus makes is our need for private prayer, for who we are in the privacy of our room is who we really are. Without others around us we are less likely to be motivated by self. This is the prayer God hears.

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Our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine at this time of an evil, unprovoked war. Let’s pray especially for God’s people and for the Lord’s mercy on the country – for all who suffer and have lost loved ones; that the Lord will intervene and thwart the purposes of war-makers and bring about a just peace.

Let’s also pray that this evil will be a wake-up for many – that they will see the two faces of human nature and the need for us all to turn to the God whose nature is to show mercy and forgiveness. This is the news the world needs to hear afresh.

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, so that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

A prayer for peace: God of the nations, whose kingdom rules over all, have mercy on our broken and divided world – and especially on the people of Ukraine at this time. Shed abroad your peace in the hearts of all men and women and banish from them, and the leaders of the world the spirit that makes for war. We ask this so that all races and people may learn to live as members of one people and in obedience to your laws; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A prayer for those in need.

Almighty God, we commend to your fatherly goodness all who are in any way afflicted or distressed, especially those who suffer and grieve in this time of war in Ukraine and those who are impacted by the floods in Australia. We also pray for those who are known to us. May it please you to comfort and relieve them according to their needs, giving them patience in their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. All this we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(c) John G. Mason