Christian Hypocrisy

Christian Hypocrisy?

I don’t think deeply about the question of hypocrisy, but it fleets across my mind on a regular basis. Especially when we’re talking about religious hypocrisy, and that of my own tribe, Christian hypocrisy.

It gnaws at the corners of my thoughts while I’m reading a book by an author, especially a Christian author, who has rubbed me the wrong way in person. It demotes the power of a sermon or devotional from someone whose way of life shows more concern for deployment of power than walking the way of the cross.

There is something right about this. We should be wary as we commit ourselves to teachers. “By their fruits you will know them.”

And yet…

The times when I really worry about hypocrisy is in my own work. In my own writing. In my own preaching.

I am often more acutely aware than anyone else could ever be how vast the disparity is between what I write and say on the one hand and my life on the other. I’m haunted, at times, by the possibility that this makes me just a big ol’ hypocrite.

But here’s the thing. ID-100131021

For me, and I imagine for a lot of writers and preachers, the beautiful pictures of how to navigate life here on earth, or of what the Kingdom of God looks like–the things I love to write about and preach on–these are not claims I’m staking to my own perfection, but the ideal I want to strive toward.

I write and I speak to create a vision of what might be, a vision that I hope will take such deep root in my own imagination that it will become the way of life into which I am molded.

When we say “hypocrite” we tend to mean that the “real” person is the jerk who blew me off at coffee hour. But for many of us who write and speak for a living, the “real” me is the one who has the courage to say those things that the shadow-self jerk from coffee hour hasn’t yet figured out how to live into.

It’s like Paul calling the Corinthians (of all people) those who have been sanctified (perfect tense!) in Christ Jesus.

As a strong J on the Myers Briggs and an 8 on the Enneagram, I am super quick to call b.s. on the books I read or sermons I hear. As I say, this includes what I read on my own screen as I type and what I hear coming from my own mouth when I preach.

But I’ve had to flip the script a little. Because what I would claim for me, and what I know a lot of other preacher types especially would claim for themselves, is that they are more who they truly are, more integrated and their best selves, in that moment of speaking the truth that we stumble to put into reality.

The act of writing or speaking is often the way that the religious professional engages in the crucial business of calling b.s. on the life that doesn’t live up to the beautiful and powerful ideals that infuse our Christian story.

You might have a hard time believing this, but I often struggle to say or do what I’m thinking.

Yesterday I got a crappy, watery espresso shot in my cappuccino. I didn’t say anything. (I know, how on earth can I be an Enneagram 8 and be insecure about engaging in face to face conflict?! Note to self: work through this with the therapist.)

There’s a paradoxical safety in numbers when speaking–in white church, anyway, they won’t tell you you’re wrong. There’s a safety in writing–I don’t have to see your faces or your reactions. I can be myself, and you help me to do it.

So what are we to do when our “Hypocrite!” sirens start going off?

First, take a second to name the disparity you’re seeing.

Second, try to give a generous read on whether this someone painting beautiful pictures to hang in the living room of her malice or self-absorption, or whether is it someone pointing the way toward a more beautiful land that she hopes we can all help each other get closer to.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, look at how the person handles their crap. If you see the disparity but the person never admits to doing anything wrong in particular, you might be on the trail of a hypocrite. If this is a person who cannot apologize, cannot ask for forgiveness, admits to no awareness of the disparity, then you might start backing toward the door, or leaving that book (or blog!) unread.

Maybe what I’m saying is that we have to extend to our leaders the grace to be simul justus et peccator (at the same time justified and a sinner)–just as long as they are able to own up to the sinner part.

Let’s be slow to play the hypocrite card.

If our only measure for playing it is whether there is disparity between a person’s religious vision and the life they actually live then what we’re really saying is not, “You’re such a hypocrite,” but really, “You’re such a human.”

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominic

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6 thoughts on “Christian Hypocrisy?

  1. i think you are broadly right that we all want grace but tend to not want to give it to others.

    But charges of hypocrisy, especially Christian hypocrisy from non Chhristians that I know are usually about Christians that want to complain about others sin but ignore their own prevalent sin, usually without preaching grace in connection with the sin.

    I don’t think it is simply ignoring our own sin that is really the problem, but ignoring grace when preaching about others’ sin and not acknowledging our own sin as also problematic at the same time.

  2. I think we need to distinguish carefully between hypocrisy and inconsistency. It seems to me that in the mouth of Jesus ‘hypocrisy’ denotes a general course and manner of life that contradicts what one says. That is not the case with someone who slips up, loses his temper, behaves with uncharacteristic unkindness, etc. That would not be hypocrisy per se. The Pharisees were hypocrites, and were denounced as such, because their whole direction of life (in some cases anyway) was a contradiction of their professed teachings. I think it important to make this distinction so that we ensure we are beating ourselves up for the right crimes.

    1. I think that I’m tracking with you in general, John. But there are also larger themes about what it looks like to practice the way of Jesus that demand so much that the idea that my life would ever put them on full display is beyond me. Some require so much sacrifice that I easily speak these things than enter into them.

      1. If you are lamenting your own imperfection, acknowledging your own consistent inability to reach the mark, comparing your mind with the mind of Christ, and finding your own to fall short, then of course you are right to do so. Who wouldn’t? But that’s not hypocrisy. Hypocrisy would be pretending that you do reach the mark. Obviously you can beat yourself up for anything you think appropriate, but to use the term ‘hypocrisy’ to describe your state seems to me to misuse a word that was applied by Jesus in a very particular way–a way that clearly doesn’t apply to you. That has two effects: first, it weakens, dilutes and diverts the condemnations applied by Jesus to the Pharisees. Second, it opens you, and those who hear you, to the wrong kind of personal misery, with the potential for hopelessness.

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