A hypocrite is defined as “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings”. While it is sometimes applied to successful, respected individuals in the secular community, it is most often applied to those of a religious persuasion and of the church. In most cases, a hypocrite puts on a false appearance of pious virtue. Many people point to hypocrites as the reason for their objection of Christianity. Unfortunately, there is truth to their assertions, for we are all sinners who do not live up to the standards and virtues that we proclaim.
Yet in one sense hypocrites have an important role in society. They point to certain things that are good and proper. Under the definition above, hypocrisy applies equally to holy men and women as well as sexual perverts, child pornographers, gangsters and terrorists. If they are not consistently acting in accord with their stated beliefs, they are hypocrites. Thus the avowed child pornographer, the avowed hit man, and the avowed terrorist who are refraining from acting in accord with their beliefs are hypocrites. The gangster who puts on a façade of being a respectable citizen is also a hypocrite.
But why is it that the majority of people who are labeled as hypocrites come from a Christian perspective? Why doesn’t society label non-practicing child pornographers, gangsters, terrorists and gluttons as hypocrites? Why does it only seem to apply to religious and virtuous people who fail? John Mark Reynolds, in an essay on Scriptoriumdaily.com notes that “Hypocrites are drawn to the great things, because they use them for their own ends.” He adds: “Perversely the very success of moral men tempts the immoral to try to gain the benefits of virtue without the work.” It’s interesting that it doesn’t work the other way around. We never refer to those who have fallen away from their immoral lifestyle as hypocrites. We don’t try to put on a façade of immorality while actually living moral lives. It is only those who have fallen from a higher moral plain whom are called hypocrites.
Since the time of Jesus, the church has always spoken out against hypocrisy, even in its own midst (although sometimes not as quick as it should). Yet hypocrisy has its place. It points beyond itself to something better. It gives us nostalgia for a higher moral plain. It points to a wistful desire for something beyond us that is good and right and moral and proper. It causes us to compare our own lives with God’s standard so that we can see where we ourselves are lacking. When looking at the lives of individuals whose hypocrisy has been exposed, have you ever asked yourself “How close am I to doing that same thing?” It’s a worthwhile question to ask.
This is not to say that society needs more hypocrites. We would be better off is there were none. But hypocrisy does show us more of God’s standards for society and helps us to be accountable to them. It allows society to affirm what is good. It also provides a check and balance for those of us who embrace the Christian faith, allowing us to see more of how God desires us to live our lives. It points to a standard, outside of ourselves, to which we are accountable. So the next time someone calls you a hypocrite, be thankful. Their condemnation of your behavior just might just be the voice of God, calling you to repentance and a renewed relationship with him.