Sunday, January 30, 2011

Active and Passive Hypocrisy

In John Steinbeck’s novel The Moon is Down Alex Morden, an inhabitant of the town, kills an enemy officer. The commander of the enemy forces requests that the town mayor sentence Alex to death for the sake of maintaining order. The reluctant mayor finally asks the enemy commander how many of the enemy’s soldiers had been on the machine guns when they captured the town, in the process killing several of the town’s soldiers. Being informed that there were about twenty, the mayor says. “Very well. If you shoot them, I will condemn Morden.” Being told that his request is impossible, the mayor then says “And what you ask cannot be done.” The mayor’s help is requested to maintain order. Yet the enemy’s capture of the town caused the breakdown of order in the first place.

There is a hypocritical element to the story. The enemy commander desperately wants there to be order in the town. Yet he cannot see, or will not see, or could care less that it was his own country’s invasion that caused the breakdown in the first place. As long as the enemy controls the town there will never be order. But if they were to leave, order would quickly be restored.

We can often do the same things in our own lives. We can seek a particular result, but live our lives such that we make that result all but impossible to achieve. We may want to have a good marriage, but never work at having one. We may want to have a good relationship with our children, but are always criticizing them and never taking time to attend their activities or talk with them. We may counsel them to do what we say, but do just the opposite of what we tell them. We may want to have a relationship with God, but never put in the effort to have one. We can cause, by our own actions, the very thing we are trying to avoid. When we do, we live hypocritical lives.

Hypocrisy can be either active or passive. Active hypocrisy is more easily identifiable, for it is overt; like the pastor who preaches against homosexuality while engaging in a homosexual liaison, or who condemns adultery while in the midst of an adulterous affair. We observe it in the person’s actions. Their actions and words are not congruent. But hypocrisy can also be passive, often occurring when we lack desire. We may want something, but not enough to actually carry it through to completion. This type of hypocrisy is more insidious, for it is only observed in inaction. Since it is largely unnoticeable, it may take years before it is uncovered and brought out into the open. It is largely identified by later reflection on the impact of the inactivity, long after the fact. But it destroys relationships just as much as more active forms of hypocrisy do. We are often left with knowing that something isn’t quite right, but are unable to quite put our finger on the cause until later reflection brings it into the open.

A hypocritical lack of desire destroys relationships through inaction. We can want to know God while our closed Bible gathers dust on the bookshelf. We may want to build a relationship with our children, but find ourselves leaving for work before they are up in the mornings, and coming home after they have gone to bed at night. In each case our desire, and the accompanying resolve, are not strong enough to overcome the hypocrisy. How much do you see passive hypocrisy active in your life?

Saturday, January 22, 2011


The early seventeenth century playwright and poet, Ben Jonson , in speaking of hypocrisy wrote “Many men believe not themselves what they would persuade others; and less, do the things which they would impose on others; but least of all, know what they themselves most confidently boast. Only they set the sign of the cross over their outer doors, and sacrifice to their gut and their groin in their inner closets.” Nowhere is the truth of his observations more evident than in Congress in the past year. We have seen Senators Nelson from Nebraska and Landrieu from Louisiana abruptly change their convictions on abortion when it became politically expedient for them to do so. We have seen the members of both the House and Senate, who were strong advocates of the health care reform, reject amendments which would require them to participate in the health care plan they have formulated for our country. Many of the legislators who have called for civility in language have been the most scurrilous towards their opponents. Leaders of both parties, while speaking against ethical abuse, have been caught up in ethics violations themselves. The same type of hypocrisy is evident in the consternation by Congress at the large bonuses paid to corporate executives while salaries for federal employees in Washington are escalating far out of line above similar salaries in the private sector. While talking about the need to reduce our use of energy, congressional leaders jet across the country and around the world on air force jets at public expense and use excessive amounts of energy in their own homes. While selectively railing against corruption, they turn a deaf ear against the abuses of organizations like Acorn. Whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, the abuses tend to be the same. Jonson’s words are proving to be prophetically true.

But lest we attempt to pull the mote from our brother’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, we need to look at ourselves. How often do we do the same thing Jonson describes? We can say that we believe in the power of prayer, but when facing difficulties try to keep them secret so that no one will find out we are experiencing them, never enabling them to pray for us. We can talk about the importance of obeying the law as we speed merrily down the expressway far above the maximum rated speed. Many parents strongly condemn the use of alcohol or tobacco by their children while abusing them themselves. The most difficult areas are those which have an impact upon our own lives. It can be very easy to take a stand for or against something as long as it doesn’t affect us personally. Then we may sing a different tune. But that is when we will discover the true nature of our character. That which is in the depths of our soul will one day rise to the surface and make itself known. Jesus warns that what comes out of a person is more dangerous than what goes in. What arises from our soul will determine whether or not we compromise our character in times of perceived crisis. Then we will discover who we truly are. Then we will find out whether or not we have disconnected our faith from the rest of our lives, living as Jonson describes. Are we as guilty as our legislators or the English citizens of Ben Jonson’s day in effectively proclaiming “Do as I say, not as I do?” May it not be so!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Problem with Evil

In our modern world, evil has become ideological. Perhaps it has always been that way in the history of mankind, but the concept of evil as an ideological entity has certainly escalated in the past fifty years. Society considers something to be evil largely upon the extent that we identify with, or oppose the causes connected with the perpetrator of the action. For instance, during the Viet Nam war, protestors condemned our killing of the North Vietnamese, but were silent about the massacres perpetrated by the Viet Cong as they took over control of the South, as they also were silent about the bombing of campus ROTC buildings by their members. In the Middle East, those on the side of the Palestinians condemn Israeli attacks, but consider Palestinian suicide bombers to be heroes, while Israeli leaders, condemning the suicide bombings of the Palestinians, ignore excessive brutalities committed by their own soldiers. Some abortion protestors find little fault with the killing of abortion practitioners while pro choice advocates find no problem with denying the unborn a choice. Accepting that evil is ideological, we turn a blind eye to the evil perpetrated in our midst. By viewing evil in this way we divorce it from truth. What is right or wrong becomes relative. In society today, there is no absolute standard by which to measure what is evil. Without such, it becomes very easy to legitimatize evil, as happened to many people in Germany during the Nazi regime.

But in the biblical world evil is never considered to be ideological. It is always based upon absolute truth. When the Old Testament prophets speak against evil it makes no difference whether the perpetrator of the evil is Israel’s enemy or Israel itself. Frequently the prophets hone in on the transgressions of their own nation, whether Israel or Judah. Things are inherently good or evil and must be dealt with accordingly.

The mantras of political correctness and tolerance may be the areas causing us the most difficulty in today’s world, for they allow legitimatizing many questionable activities and prohibit condemnation of any sins associated with them. They turn a blind eye to and excuse immoral behavior by making it appear to be ideological. Their devotees champion political incorrectness as the greatest sin in the world, further distancing evil from truth as those who disagree are reluctant to speak the truth for fear of condemnation. Against them the prophetic words of Jeremiah ring out “Truth has perished. It has vanished from their lips.”

If we are to consider evil as the Old Testament prophets did, we must throw off the encumbrance of political correctness which is so prevalent in our society today. We must become like Jeremiah who, when contemplating succumbing to the political correctness of his day, concluded that he had to speak out because it was like a fire in his bones. We must be willing to speak the truth. We must speak out against all forms of evil. But we must do so in a spirit of love instead of hate. We must condemn the evil while showing love to its perpetrator. Too often we have been hypocritical, demonstrating more of the spirit of Lamech (Gen 4:23-24) than of Christ in our condemnation of evil. Basing the concept of evil on ideology leads to hatred. Viewing evil as Christ did, on its relationship to truth, leads to love. How do you view evil? Is it based upon the concept of truth or upon ideology? Can you speak against it in love?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Medium or Message?

Several years ago Marshall McCluen wrote that “The medium is the message.” While this has become increasingly true in today’s world, (witness the influential role of the media in swaying public opinion), his statement is far from true in the spiritual realm. In God’s eyes, the medium is a channel used solely to proclaim the message – the good news that Jesus came to save sinners and reconcile them to God.

But because of the constant bombardment of the primacy of the medium in today’s culture, we often find the medium too attractive. Thus we are always seeking the latest fad or program, constantly changing direction and focus. The Holiness Manifesto, produced by the Wesleyan Holiness Study Project points out two of the dangers associated with this approach.

The first danger is that we become ineffective in our ministry. The Holiness Manifesto” states “The power and zeal of churches has been drained by the incessant search for a better method, a more effective fad, a newer and bigger program to yield growth. In the process of trying to find the magic method for growing healthy vibrant churches, our people have become largely ineffective and fallen prey to a generic Christianity that results in congregations that are indistinguishable from the culture around them.” We can easily lose excitement about the latest fad knowing that we will soon be moving on to another one.

The second danger is that we can confuse the medium with the message. When this happens, we can easily corrupt the message. The Holiness Manifesto states concerning church leaders that “They have become so concerned about ‘how’ they do church that they have neglected the weightier matter of ‘what’ the church declares.” We can focus so much on the program that we lose sight of the fact of God’s holy love being declared through the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. We can lose sight of God’s desire that we live holy lives ourselves.

There are also additional dangers to be aware of. The third danger is that we can focus upon the form and lose the function. It is easy to emulate such programs as Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Church”, or Willow Creek. What we often forget is that the form they are using was designed to serve a particular function in their particular church. Merely duplicating the form, without replicating the underlying function, will lead to frustration, and ultimately failure.

The fourth danger is that this approach can lead us into spiritual adultery. The book of Hosea points out how Israel, though very religious, was constantly chasing after foreign cultures and their gods. They sought to emulate the “successful” societies around them. Hosea refers to this as adultery. If we seek to follow all the church growth fads more than God himself, we are in the same danger of spiritual adultery.

If we are to reach out to those around us we must avoid the dangers listed above and focus on our own personal and corporate holiness. This must begin with repentance and humility. We must become a holy community with a strong message of the love of Jesus who died for our sins. We must be a community which demonstrates love for each other and the world around us. By focusing on living holy, transformed lives, we will become a magnet, drawing people to Jesus. By living this way, a program, while helpful, won’t even be necessary to see people coming into the kingdom. Which do you find more attractive, the medium or the message?