I have known Christians who thought they were exhibiting hypocritical behavior but were not. I have also known many who would never consider they were acting out hypocritical behavior but probably were. And I have known those whom unfairly and inaccurately accused others of being hypocrites. So what is hypocrisy and what are the characteristics?
Sincere Christians who try to do their best who fall short of Christian ideals are not hypocrites. I had someone come into my office many years ago feeling like he was a hypocrite because of a set of recurring failures he was struggling to overcome. Behaviors not consistent with his Christian faith and values. My response was “You should thank God that your failures are not worse than they are and you are working hard to overcome them.” I went on to say, “God is not surprised you failed and are struggling.” I explained, if it were not for the grace of God and the opportunity to be forgiven throughout our Christian life we would be even more vulnerable than we are: grace and forgiveness decelerates the frequency and gravity of our failures. It is the starting point for change, even if it is incremental. Without failure there would be no need of forgiveness and grace. The Christian life consists of trying, failing and forgiveness. This process is not consistent with the characteristics of hypocrisy. It is the process of behavior modification through the grace of God and forgiveness.
I had a person tell me that they would not go to church because “there are too many hypocrites in the church.” I remember thinking if you would go to church this Sunday there will be one more! So to speak of course. The truth is, if this same person became a sincere member of that same congregation they were suspicious of visiting it would not be long until they did or said something that was inconsistent with the values and ideals of the their Christian faith. So even the critics become vulnerable once they are immersed in the faith-life process of trying, failing and forgiveness. So once again, they would not be a hypocrite, they would be a Christian struggling to exemplify the Christian life they know they should live.
In the Bible, Jesus characterized many believers as unfaithful, unbelieving and misguided. He also had compassion and a non-judgmental disposition toward those who had moral and unethical blemishes: the unbelieving and unfaithful disciples, the adulterous women and an unethical tax collector to name a few. None of these were labeled as hypocrites nor was their behavior spoken of as hypocritical. They were weak morally and ethically, they were unfaithful and misguided but they were not hypocrites. They wanted to be better and eventually they did.
Conversely, Jesus did label the Pharisees as hypocrites. The Pharisees were not inwardly sincere about their faith. They were interested in outward impressions and personal advancement. They were intoxicated with their own self-importance. They were rule driven and legalistic teachers and leaders. They perfected and promoted inordinate religious ceremony, pomp and loved pontificating. It was hard to pin any unethical or immoral failure on the Pharisees, but inwardly they were spiritually bankrupt. Those who followed them were spiritually anemic at best.
The Pharisees were not introspective or open to new ways to think about their faith or improve themselves. There way was right and no one was going change their thinking, not even Jesus. They crafted an inflexible and mixed up belief system. This system had little or nothing to do with faith, grace or mercy. They misapplied and misinterpreted passages of Scripture and added man-made mandatory “administrative laws and commandments” to keep people in line. Their religion was harsh and hard to follow, even for them. This is what hypocrisy looks like.
Joseph C. Hutchison
Rochester Hills, Michigan
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