The conversation started over sushi. A friend and I were eating these incredible chili rolls, and we started talking about growing up in Christian homes. Somehow we got on the topic of our bygone friends of faith, the kids we’d gone to youth group with — the ones who’d challenged us and prayed for us and helped us grow.
“The sad thing is,” I said, “a lot of those friends don’t walk with God anymore.” And we’re not talking an I’m-going-through-a-phase-trying-to-find-myself kind of thing. More like Christianity-is-an-evil-oppressive-not-possibly-true-religion-that-nearly-ruined-my-life.
My friend nodded. “Yeah, I know people like that.”
We pondered this some more and decided hypocrisy had something to do with it. The outward appearance all those years did not match what was really going on. I assumed that what I saw in my friends at church was the norm — because it was for me. Later I found out it was an act that was covering up things that were going very, very wrong in the home. Hypocrisy is toxic.
Drop the Act
The word hypocrite comes from the Greek hupokrites, which translated literally means “an actor.” In ancient Greece, hypocrisy was the tool of actors and debaters. It entailed taking a side in a debate that was not your true opinion or acting a part on stage that was contrary to your true self.
Jesus hated spiritual hypocrisy. He regularly challenged the falseness of the Jewish religious leaders of His time, comparing them to graves full of decay and pits of poisonous snakes. Since Jesus and His Father are One, I’m sure it frustrated Him more than anyone to see these guys “playing the part” when He knew how far their hearts were from God.
Matthew 23 is the hypocrisy chapter. In it, Jesus describes four types of hypocrites: the poseur, the pusher, the preventor and the preoccupied.
The poseur makes a show of what a good Christian he is and finds his worth in looking good. He makes sure people see and hear when he does Christiany stuff like giving to the needy or praying or fasting. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:16).
The pusher is the hypocrite who forces others to do what he himself is not doing. Peter fell into this kind of hypocrisy when he tried to force gentiles to follow the same Jewish laws he himself had been freed from (Galatians 2:11-13). The pusher is the guy with a chunk of wood in his eye who is trying to remove the speck from someone else’s. Jesus says: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matthew 15:8-9).
The preventor is the sorriest hypocrite of the bunch. (Unfortunately some Christian parents fall into this category.) This is the person that through his hypocrisy prevents others from experiencing God. “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13). Jesus’ response to this hypocrite is most severe: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).
The preoccupied hypocrite cleans the outside of the cup and dish while leaving the inside filthy. These hypocrites are described as whitewashed tombs — shiny and fresh on the outside but containing death and decay within. Their focus is on the wrong thing. Jesus says: “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
Hypocrisy: The Great Excuse
One thing I know about hypocrisy is that it’s everyone’s excuse. Unbelievers cite hypocrisy in the church as one of their top reasons for rejecting Christianity. They point to the Jim Bakkers and Ted Haggards and claim that all Christians are fake. They sniff in disgust (and self-righteousness) at a group of people who proclaims a moral standard while appearing to fail miserably at it.
Christians also use hypocrisy as an excuse. A few of my friends have dropped out of church because of it — they feel justified in distancing themselves from an institution where hypocrisy exists. Others use it to get off the hook in obeying biblical commands. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:12, Paul instructs believers to judge members of the church who are living in unrepentant sin. But more than once, I’ve heard a fellow Christian say, “I can’t judge. I’d be a hypocrite.”
Matthew 7:5 says, “take the plank out of your own eye,” and the average Christian takes that to mean there is permanent chunk of wood lodged in his eyeball. Ouch. And so he fails to exercise vital disciplines of the faith because it’s easier to avoid the discipline of saying no to sin and instead feel good about the fact that he’s not judging anyone.
Challenging others to holy, Spirit-filled living while recognizing your own sin is not hypocrisy. English writer William Hazlitt penned: “He is a hypocrite who professes what he does not believe; not he who does not practice all he wishes or approves.”
This may be a newsflash, but it’s possible to live a non-hypocritical life. As a follower of Christ, I have a lot to live up to. But failure alone does not equal hypocrisy. King David took some pretty big tumbles on his spiritual journey — adultery, deceit, murder — but he still achieved the title “man after God’s own heart.” Why? For all his faults, David did not live a double-life. When he recognized his sin, he repented and continued to seek God.
When I fail, I am tempted to “fake it” until I get my act together. And too many Christians handle failure that way. In shame, we seek to hide what we’ve done from those who might think less of us for it. Presenting a bright, shiny exterior, while allowing sin to rule us becomes a bad habit — a habit that kills and destroys.
Praise God we are not powerless to stop hypocrisy. Consider what Jesus is really saying in Matthew 7:5: “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” This is an action step. Start by purifying your life through confession, repentance and receiving renewed power from the Holy Spirit. Then you will be equipped to help your fellow Christian.
When I was growing up, things were not perfect in my home. My mom had a short temper and sometimes sinned in her anger. But each time, she would come to me, sit on my bed and say, “I sinned and I’m sorry. I’ve asked the Lord to forgive me. Will you forgive me, too?”
I am so thankful for the way my mother modeled conviction, repentance and restoration to me. I understood that sin was a part of life, and no one, including parents, was exempt from it. I also learned that dealing with sin brought restoration and renewed spiritual power. As I told my sushi buddy: “Christianity worked in my family.” And that is the beauty of faith without hypocrisy.
Striving for Sincerity
As I looked at the uses of hypocrite in the New Testament, I made a discovery: There is also a word for anti-hypocrite. This word is anupokritos and means “without hypocrisy.” In the NIV it is translated sincere.
Anupokritos is the word Paul uses when he says “let your love be sincere” (Romans 12:9). He uses it again to describe Timothy’s faith: “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5). Timothy and his family exercised faith that was free of hypocrisy.
James uses this word when he says, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is … sincere.” And Peter exhorts: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22, emphasis mine).
You may very well be a hypocrite, but you don’t have to be. Sincere faith and love are possible. For the Christian, hypocrisy is not a permanent state.
Faith that is anupokritos is not faith without sin; it is faith lived out with openness. Make mistakes without hypocrisy, confess your sin without hypocrisy, accept God’s grace without hypocrisy, seek to obey His commands without hypocrisy, forgive without hypocrisy and most of all love without hypocrisy. This kind of steady sincerity brings life and reflects Christ to others.
If Christians are to make an impact on this world, hypocrisy has to die. Those who do not know Christ are quick to cry “Hypocrite!” How wonderful it would be if instead they said, “I knew a Christian, and he was sincere.”
Copyright 2008 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.