Discussion of Hypocrisy Builds Relationships
Hypocrisy is a common and humorous topic of conversation with students who stop by to talk or listen at the free book at USU. Our white board sayings seek to stir conversations and get people to laugh at themselves and think more deeply about life. Hypocrisy is a common criticism expressed to me about religious people or churches. It isn't the biggest complaint. Far and away the most common criticism I hear is judgmentalism. Both are hot topics and both easily and naturally lead into conversation of law and gospel.
Students are generally very aware that hypocrisy is a bad thing and that it is a big problem in other people. We have an intuitive sense that it is bad, but in not thinking carefully about what causes it, we are rather insensitive to it in ourselves. When is the last time you thought or said something like, "Whoa, that was rather hypocritical of me."? Likely you have thought or said this about someone else, why not about yourself? Truth is truth, isn't it? This is common human experience and a good point for us Christians to identify with others and learn to laugh together at ourselves for our prideful reactions. Is it possible to escape these reactions? Does one even want to escape? The way of escape surprises those I discuss it with.
What is Hypocrisy?
What exactly is hypocrisy? It isn't simply doing something wrong. A person can do all sorts of evil and not be a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is not a way of acting but rather a way of thinking. When I think of myself as a failure, hypocrisy isn't in the picture. But when I think that I am succeeding at doing what is good--what ever that means--then I open myself up to the possibility of being a hypocrite. Have I actually done what is good or have I lowered the standard so as to honor my performance and protect my reputation? In 1978 when in college, a Christian shared the gospel clearly with me. He told me that forgiveness was a free gift paid for by the death of Jesus. I revolted at the idea of forgiveness as a gift. I, an agnostic, told him in no uncertain terms that a person had to be good to get forgiveness, and "if I wasn't good enough then the line behind me was really long." I had been trusting that if there was a god, then I had succeeded at being good enough to merit his forgiveness. How did I know that I was good enough? My pride kept me from hearing my conscience and made me oblivious to my hypocrisy. My self-deception was multifaceted that day. Likely you recognize several aspects of it.
The word hypocrisy comes from the world of Greek theater and means play acting. This is fitting but ironic since in theater, play actors know that they are pretending to be something they are not, while in real life a hypocrite has fooled himself--and often only himself--into thinking that he is something he is not. We all know that we should be and do what is morally good. A hypocrite thinks he is succeeding when he isn't. The only reason he could possibly think he is succeeding is by deceiving himself--maybe with the help of others--into cheapening the standards of his conscience and of truth.
In the last 20 years I have asked thousands of people, "Are you a good person?" Nearly all have said yes and many have expressed being confident of their answer. Such confidence is an open door to conversation. I generally follow up by casually asking how they have come to their conclusion. Nearly always people have calmly said that they simply compared themselves to other people. One woman said that she was good compared to everyone else. At this point I generally dryly ask what would happen if they were to compare themselves to Jesus. Suddenly people stop smiling and sheepishly declare that they would not be good. I have no memory of ever comparing myself to Jesus before that fateful conversation in 1978. When I have asked these people if they had ever previously compared themselves to Jesus, all or nearly all have said that they had never done so. Hmm...
I was surprised a week ago when an agnostic, former-Mormon, student friend stopped by the free book table, read the whiteboard pictured above, and said that in the Mormon Missionary handbook, Preach My Gospel, is a statement that one should always compare oneself to Jesus and not to other people because the latter leads to competition. This seemed odd as I had no memory of a Mormon missionary, an active Mormon, or any other Mormon ever mentioning this except in response to my question. But this week two returned missionaries affirmed what this friend said when I asked about it. Why don't they follow their own handbook or volunteer this information?
Lately I have intensified discussion at this point by asking people if they have ever been looked down on by others. All have said they have and then added that such wasn't good and they didn't like it. The conversations really open at this point about hypocrisy as I ask them how it is that they don't like others doing it to them but they freely do it to others. They say that it doesn't bother them to do it to others because it helps them feel good about themselves. They seem surprised by this contradiction and by having not noticed it before. I often ask if they like being hypocritical, suggest that it isn't difficult to escape hypocrisy, and quote my agnostic philosophy student friend who said, "If you judge by perfection it is impossible to be a hypocrite." This simple insight surprises people and they freely admit that by that standard everyone is a failure--we are all equal. I suggest to them that Jesus came to show us what perfect love looks like, that we should always compare ourselves and everyone else to Him, and that doing so will keep us from being prideful, hypocritical, or judgmental. No one has fought when I have encouraged them to think this way. A few atheists who said that they didn't believe in Jesus, did agree that they should compare themselves to the voice of their own conscience which tells them to always do good. This has achieved the same end.
This is a wonderful lead in to the gospel of our compassionate creator God coming into a broken world marked of pride, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism, to honor goodness and die the death that all people deserve, to provide reconciliation, in order to call all people out of the darkness of self-righteousness under the condemnation of God's goodness and into the light and celebration of the gift of righteousness--a new identity in grace, free to love motivated by a vision of perfect love received, free from the pressure and pollution of obligation.
Freedom From Hypocrisy Heals Community
To reveal the practical value of judging by perfection I often inject into the above conversation what a North African Muslim student told me, "If all Muslims judged by perfection all wars would stop immediately because all would realize that they all are failures together in the same boat. And this would be true for other people also." The implications of this should be obvious. A community free from competition and pride, free from seeking to find hope in personal performance, free to see perfection as the only good way of life, free to love and bless as much as desired without the pressure of manageable standards--such a community would be beautiful to watch grow and mature.
The above agnostic philosophy student, who is from a Mormon background, said to me on another occasion something like, "Mormons think that they are a light on a hill. They seek to keep their standards, preach their standards, and invite others to join them. And they are all a bunch of hypocrites." I agreed and suggested that such was true of most other religious people, too. He smiled in surprise. I then asked him what would happen if a group of religious people thought they were a light on a hill and preached perfection as the only standard. He said that they couldn't possibly be hypocrites, but would have to find another way to live because they couldn't live by that standard. The Christian with me then explained to this friend how grace is that way of life. Christian grace is not about living free from performance. The beautiful surprise is that grace means living in the performance of Christ every second every day--free from the pressure of my own performance.
The Choice That Excludes Hypocrisy
All people live life moment by moment with a mind set either on perfection or some manageable set of performance standards. God calls all people to honor His perfection by resting in Christ's finished work as the necessary and sufficient thing to fulfill all goodness. The first time a person does this is called conversion. Life doesn't end at this point, but actually just begins as the person is now alive from the dead morally (spiritually). God calls every saint to maintain that same mindset every moment every day in interaction with every person--while changing a diaper, watching a sporting event, eating breakfast, changing a tire, singing at church, or helping the poor. It is not a special thing to do in life but a way to thinking while doing all things--one moment at a time.
As you read the Bible notice how often it calls the reader to completeness, fullness or perfection (ex: Deuteronomy 4:1-10, 6:25, 8:1; Matthew 5:48, 7:12, 22:40; Col. 1:9-12, 3:8, 4:5-6; James 1: 25, 2:10) "Therefore, preparing your minds for action, keeping sober, fix you hope COMPLETELY on the grace brought to you in the revelation of Jesus Christ...but like the One who called you is holy, be holy in ALL your conduct." -1Peter 1:13,15 This language of completeness is either an exaggeration or a real expectation on God's part. I am persuaded that God means perfection and that it is rationally impossible to obey this by focusing on behavior. Is it really possible for me to notice all aspects of my behavior simultaneously, or to think that I am noticing them honestly? But it is possible and simple to set my mind right now on perfection as the standard. One friend said recently that when the mind is in the right place then the behavior is in the right place. Could it really be this simple: that behavior flows out of mindset? It is important to realize that this contrast is not between wanting to do what is right versus wanting to do what is wrong. The contrast is between thinking that perfection is required versus thinking that some level of imperfect or manageable obedience is satisfactory.
God calls you right now to make the choice that excludes hypocrisy. While you are obeying that call, hypocrisy is excluded from your life. The apostle Peter declares that hypocrisy was excluded in conversion and that a person should keep it excluded while growing as a Christian. "Therefore having put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes crave the pure milk of the word that you may grow in respect to salvation." -1Peter 2:1-2 The apostle calls us to grow in grace by craving the pure (without deceit, unadulterated) milk of the word. I am persuaded that the pure word is adulterated by the addition of manageable standards. Let's heed the call to see ourselves and all others through the eyes of perfect love in the present moment. When we lose focus the call is simply to look again to Him who is perfect love and has freed us to love with all His energy.
Therefore hypocrisy is always the fruit of a bad choice--the choice to mentally dishonor perfect love by cheapening standards to some form of manageability. Since a mind set on perfection (perfect love, perfect law) excludes hypocrisy automatically, how could it be otherwise?
Which will you choose?