David really slipped up to the delight of his neighbor, who then called him a hypocrite. “You Christians talk about right and wrong, and then this? You are a bunch of hypocrites!” Hypocrite is a word that unbelievers don’t actually understand. I even hear Christians misusing the word. Come on brothers and sisters! One cannot be both a hypocrite and a Christian. You are not hypocrites!
Instead of nodding sheepishly next time you hear someone ranting about a Christian being a “hypocrite,” offer this little vocabulary lesson. The word “hypocrisy” comes from the Greek and entered the English language via the Bible. The word refers to either: 1. The role an actor takes, or 2. To the position one takes when participating in a formal debate. For instance if Joe and I were on the school debate team, debating whether the world was round or flat, whoever took the position that the world is flat, “for the sake of the debate,” that person would be the hypocrite. Hypocrisy is not failing at the standard you hold to be right and good. Hypocrisy is simply pretending to be doing something that you aren’t actually doing. In the debate, the hypocrite appears to be trying to convince us of the world's flatness. In fact, he is trying to win an argument. Moral success is not the opposite of hypocrisy. The opposite of being in hypocrisy is simply being genuine.
When Jesus called someone a hypocrite, He wasn’t talking about people caught in some sin. He was talking about people doing blatantly pious things such as praying, fasting and giving of alms. What made these hypocrites was that they were only pretending to be doing these things. Here are three examples in Matthew 6: giving, praying, and fasting:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.”
These people pretend to be giving, but they are really taking. They are in fact not giving at all, but purchasing the honor of men. They are pretenders! Their actions appear giving, but they are taking.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”
These people pretend to be praying, but they aren’t even focused on God. They are pretenders. Praying is an act of devotion to God, but they are concerned with gaining the notice of others.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.”
See? These make their faces up pathetically to appear to be depriving themselves. In fact, they skip meals to gorge themselves on the awe of undiscerning people. They are pretenders! What they are doing appears self-sacrificial, but in fact, they are self-indulging.
Real biblical hypocrites don’t get caught at some brothel or iffy bar. Falling short of God’s standards does not a hypocrite make! It is a wrong use of the word. Christians caught in a sinful act have erred for sure! But if the Holy Spirit indwells them, they will soon repent. And truly repenting people are genuine. And in response, truly spiritual people are instructed carefully to help “gently restore” them to the path that God had set them upon. Nonspiritual people point and gasp and cry something inane like “hypocrite!”
“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”
Nowadays it’s people holding to biblical standards of morality, who are accused of being hypocrites, when they don’t measure up to the standards they hold dear. That’s not hypocrisy! It's a temporary failure. Get over it! They aren’t pretending! They just failed. Hypocrites pretend!
Pondering: Perhaps there were some self-flagellating monks in the 15th century, who secretly liked pain. If so, then I guess you could call them hypocrites: but not the struggling believer who has slipped into sinful behavior or thought patterns. For such hurting brothers or sisters, there remains confession, repentance, and hopefully they have a community of Holy Spirit filled believers around them who know how to gently restore them to their calling.
Think of a time when you or someone else, were accused of being “a hypocrite.” Almost always it will be that they were caught doing something that they themselves don’t even believe is God’s will. When Christians fail, we admit it, and look again to Jesus. That’s being genuine.
What unbelievers don’t get is that in order to even know Christ, Christians have to confess that we have not lived up to the standards of God. That is why we need Jesus, duh! When using the word “hypocrite,” Jesus was not talking about stumbling believers! He was talking about those who were not actually doing the very pious acts that they were pretending to be doing.
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives.”
1 John 1:8-10
Christians look to God’s standard. Mature believers rarely expect to reach heavenly perfection while on earth. Instead of pretending to have arrived at perfection, we eagerly confess our failings to God and to each other, so that the light can dispel any darkness in us. We long for wholeness, freely confessing that we have not yet attained it.
Note: Yeah, I know that there are “Christians” who teach that they have or can achieve sinless perfection right now. Come on though! Every religion has its lunatic fringe!
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
It’s fine to hold up a standard that one cannot themselves yet reach. This has nothing to do with hypocrisy! Hello! We call them “goals!” Or in Christ, “the prize.” If we aren’t hiding our failings, then we are being genuine.
Hypocrites are pretenders. They aren’t tapping their toes in bathroom stalls, or skulking about adult bookstores. Every instance of hypocrisy mentioned in scripture finds hypocrites boldly appearing to be religious. They are pretending to be perfectly pious. Christians don’t claim personal perfection.
The Apostle Paul himself claimed not to have yet been perfected:
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Today’s cry of, “hypocrite!” is a smoke screen to get you to stop holding up God’s standard. Fearing failure, the unregenerate will keep lowering standards until they can achieved them. Christians have no such qualms about holding up God’s standard because we enjoy faith. Like sailors following the North Star through darkness, we are content to keep heading north. We don’t expect to reach the North Star itself. Not in these earthen ships. That would be absurd! God’s standard becomes that of the believers. Sure, sometimes we get off course. That is not being a “hypocrite.” Learn the word!
When God points out hypocrisy in us, we repent. When the Apostle Peter and Barnabas were caught in hypocrisy, Paul did not call these brothers “hypocrites.” They were Christians. But Paul did confront them for the church’s sake. The incident is described in Galatians chapter 2.
Jewish believers came, who observed the Jewish laws in their eating and customs. Prior to their coming, Peter had not been keeping Jewish law. But fearing losing the visitors’ respect, he began avoiding the non-Jewish believers and suddenly acted kosher. He was pretending! This hypocrisy could have led to ethnic division in the early church. In verse 13 Paul writes:
“The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”
They were appearing to be under the law for piety sake. In fact, they were not seeking to honor God but were rather, avoiding criticism. They were being pretenders. They appeared God pleasing, but in fact, they were people pleasing.
If you are being genuine, you are not a hypocrite. If you pray for God to expose any hypocrisy in you, then you are no hypocrite! And don’t be thrown off next time someone throws out that smoke screen. They simply don’t know the meaning of the word.
Another David writes:
“Test me, O Lord, and try me,
examine my heart and my mind;”