NOTE: This post originally appeared in the INNER CIRCLE blog series here on Patheos as part of our continuing exploration of the sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas.
Saying 6: His disciples asked him and said to him, “Do you want us to fast? How shall we pray? Shall we give alms? What diet shall we observe?” Jesus said “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate, for all things are plain in the sight of heaven. For nothing hidden will not become manifest, and nothing covered will remain without being uncovered.”
As in our previous saying, Jesus responds to this question in a slightly different way than we find in the New Testament Gospels.
In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus addresses pious deeds such as these in chapter 6, speaking about almsgiving [v. 2-4], prayer [v. 5-6], and fasting [verses 16-18]. There, he urges disciples to give alms in secret rather than in public, to pray in private rather than publicly, and to fast without making it obvious to everyone else. He doesn’t say we shouldn’t do these things, but rather that, if we do them, not to practice them in order to promote our piety. His concern seems to be more about our motives for giving alms, or praying or fasting, and he invites us to examine our own inner self before engaging in these religious practices.
So, here in the Gospel of Thomas, the secret teaching to his inner circle takes that one step further. In this saying, Jesus once more urges them to reconsider their desires to give alms, or fast or pray at all. When his response to their questions about these things begins with “Do not tell lies and do not do what you hate,” he is shining a spotlight on their motives and challenging the notion that suffering and abstaining from food, or pleasure is what God desires from us.
Why? Because, as we’ve already seen, in this Gospel, Jesus is more concerned with our understanding of the lie of separation between God and Humanity. So, if we are already connected to God at the core of our being, then there is no point in fasting to get God’s attention, and there’s no reason to beg for God’s attention in prayer. God is already living and breathing within every single one of us.
This realization undermines the religious practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving as a means to curry favor with God.
What God desires is for us to rest in the reality of our inseparable connection with God; to understand our Oneness with God, and to live out of that perspective.
All of this is fully in line with the messages Jesus gives us in the New Testament. For example, just before Jesus teaches his disciples “The Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew, he takes the time to reassure them [and all of us] that God sees us, and God hears us, and God knows what we need before we ask. This provides the context for our prayers: God is not far away. The Kingdom of God is within us.
Therefore, our prayers can be silent, private and intimate simply because God is already living and breathing inside of us. Separation from God is a lie. Oneness with God is the foundation of our faith.
This is also why, I believe, Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father” and to be concerned about “Our daily bread” and to ensure that everyone in our community receives forgiveness for “our trespasses” – because we are all connected to one another, even as we are all connected inseparably with the same God who dwells within us.
This same connection with God and with one another is echoed numerous times throughout both the Old and the New Testament scriptures.
For example, the concept of shalom in the Hebrew scriptures teaches that until everyone in the community has enough food, or shelter, or clothing, or safety, etc., then no one truly has shalom; until everyone has the same experience of peace, no one really has it. Because we are all one in Christ [as the Apostle Paul explains], and there is no longer any room for us/them notions of Jew and Gentile, Slave or Free, Young or Old, Rich or Poor, Gay or Straight, etc.
This is also why Jesus can say in Matthew 25 that we will all be evaluated on one simple scale: Did you love one another? And this is expressed explicitly on the premise that we are all connected to Christ and therefore to one another when Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did it to me.”
Love for one another is the same as love for Christ, and love for ourselves is love for others, and love for Christ is expressed in the ways we love those who are inseparably infused with Christ, as we are.
Everything is connected. Everyone is in Christ. So, these questions about “should we pray, or give alms, or fast?” are the wrong questions. They presuppose that God is far away and we need to get God’s attention by engaging in these practices. Instead, as Jesus urges us here in Thomas and also in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we should begin by recognizing that God is already within us, and we are already one with everyone else, and once we realize this we will understand that caring for the poor isn’t a chore, it’s like feeding ourselves when we’re hungry, or clothing ourselves when we’re cold, or providing shelter for ourselves when we’re homeless. Praying isn’t about trying to get God’s attention, it’s about realizing we’re already surrounded by God’s presence and taking time to collaborate with God about the needs of our community. Fasting isn’t about giving up food in order to leverage God’s favor, it’s about sharing our food with the hungry and meeting the needs of Christ who is incarnate in everyone we see.
To be clear, Jesus is not instructing us to stop praying, or giving alms, or fasting. Not at all. Instead, Jesus wants us to realize that our motives for these practices is often based on the false assumptions of separation and duality. He wants us to realize that pious religious acts performed under this deception will not bring us closer to God or to the Kingdom. If anything, these so-called spiritual disciplines will only keep us from seeing the Kingdom and prevent us from experiencing God’s presence as long as we continue to practice them from those perspectives.
So, what we need to do first of all is to step back and remember that God is always alive within us, and that we are always one with Christ, and that there is no need to strive after those things.
Once we realize this profound truth, everything else will fall into place.
The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.
We cannot talk about God with any degree of certainty, because God is, by definition, a Being who transcends imagination, expectation and comprehension. What we know is this: there is more of God to know than any of us will ever fully know in this life.
So, let’s begin by embracing the mystery of Christ to discover the endlessly unfolding beauty of uncertainty.
This is the Sola Mysterium.
Keith Giles is the author of the 7-part best-selling “Jesus Un” book series from Quoir Publishing. Keith is also the host of Second Cup with Keith [a new solo podcast available now on the Ethos Radio App, for Apple and Android and on Spotify; and the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast [along with co-hosts Matthew Distefano, Dr. Katy Valentine, and Derrick Day], and the new Apostate’s Anonymous podcast with Matthew Distefano.
Keith’s new book, SOLA MYSTERIUM: Celebrating the Beautiful Uncertainty of Everything releases June 28th on Amazon.
He and his wife, Wendy, currently live in El Paso, TX.