The charge that Christians are hypocrites is a common one. Many people cite the hypocrisy of Christians as a reason they don’t go to church or consider themselves Christian. According to Webster, a hypocrite is “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion” or “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings”. As a Christian, I take this charge seriously, and so I feel compelled to address it.
In this world of fake news, we seem to be on hyper alert to what is fake. If Christians claim to be virtuous or religious, but they act like everyone else, most people would consider them “fake”. If Christians have ascribed to certain standards of morality and conduct, but don’t live up to those standards themselves, most people would call them hypocrites.
As I survey the Christians that I know and have known in my life, I find myself having to concede that Christians are guilty as charged. In fact, I need look no further than myself to come to that conclusion. I fail in my life on a regular basis to live up to the standards I believe in, though I recoil at the thought of putting up a false front about it.
Still, the answer is clear and obvious: Christians are hypocrites.
We are religious. It isn’t a pretense, for most of us. We try to be virtuous. That usually isn’t a pretense either, but we fail to live up to the standards we hold out. There can be no doubt of that.
Calling Christians hypocrites is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s that easy. You literally can’t miss.
But, that isn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. It’s only the beginning.
People often work morality around their own strengths and weaknesses. If I am strong in one area (let’s say not eating too much), I might be tempted to have a strong ethic about eating right. If I am weak in an area (let’s say fudging on my taxes), my ethic will tend to be forgiving in that area.
It’s easy to throw a dart at a board and draw a target around where it lands. It’s easy to create a personal ethic around our own strengths and weaknesses.
For the Christian, the target is already drawn for us. We don’t get the luxury of creating our own targets. It’s easy to see where we fail because the target that is drawn for us is a very public one. The non-Christian can pretend that he hit the mark he was aiming for without ever having to disclose the target (or even having one). The Christian can’t do that.
But there’s another thing. I have been around long enough and have known enough people to realize that everyone is a hypocrite. Not everyone claims (or even tries) to be virtuous or religious, but everyone has an ethic, a set of moral standards we hold ourselves and others to. Even people who don’t claim to live by other peoples’ standards, have standards of their own. We all fall short of the standards of morality set for us and the standards of morality that we set for ourselves.
Don’t believe me? The civil laws that we live under are the most basic of moral standards, but who among us has kept every law. Who has not exceeded the speed limit? We are all guilty of moral shortcomings, like speeding, and if we fail at any point, we have failed to live up to the standards of civil morality that are set for us.
As for personal standards we set for ourselves, who has perfectly kept a diet, or succeeded in never hurting anyone or reduced their carbon footprint to the absolute minimum? No one. We routinely make New Year’s resolutions. Why? If we kept those resolutions, we wouldn’t have to make them again next year.
None of us perfectly live up to the standards we set for ourselves. It’s even harder to live up to standards that are set for us.
Christians accept that there is a standard, and we aren’t the determiners of that standard. It’s God standard. God is the standard.
Many people fault Christians for holding up such a high standard while failing to live up to it. That is certainly an understandable complaint. Why claim such a high standard when we obviously don’t live up to it?
Should we change the standards because we don’t live up to them all the time? If we didn’t have speed limits or traffic laws, traffic deaths would increase exponentially. Do we abandon the traffic laws because of all the hypocrites? Do we stop driving because others don’t follow the law?
We live in a world of hypocrites. Christians and non-Christians alike fail to live up to the standards of morality that we adopt and that are set for us. The fact that we fail to live up to those standards doesn’t mean that we should abandon them, and it doesn’t mean that we should cease to associate with people who fail to live up to them. We would have to stop associating with ourselves!
But here’s the thing: the Christian worldview understands that none of us live up to a perfect standard – not a single one of us. (“None are righteous….” Romans 3:10) We are all hypocrites because none of us live up to God’s standard, and we don’t even live up to the standards we set for ourselves.
And this is where misunderstanding begins. Religious and irreligious people alike misunderstand the fundamental purpose of a standard of conduct in the Christian worldview.
The Pharisees (religious leaders) in the time of Jesus didn’t understand it. The issue isn’t so much that people fail to live up to the standards of morality, but that they pretend that they do. This is, perhaps, what people find most troubling about some “religious” people. This is also
what prompted Jesus to say, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31) Jesus spoke these words in response to the Pharisees’ criticism that Jesus was hanging out with sinners. The only difference between the Pharisees and the sinners is that the sinners knew they were sinners.
We wouldn’t need Jesus if we were free from sin. We wouldn’t need a savior if we were perfect.
Many people feel they are “good people” because they “don’t hurt anyone”. And they think that effort makes them a “good person”. The standard, however, is much higher than that. Christians don’t abandon the standard just because the standard is high. Maybe that is the difference, and maybe that is why non-Christians have such a hard time with Christians. Christians aren’t willing to bend the rules to accommodate their shortcomings.
Then there is the flipside: many people who are willing to be candid (or unwilling to carry on the charade), respond by abandoning both the pretense and the standard. But the fact that we have a hard time with the standard of God doesn’t mean that we should abandon it. We abandon it to our peril, just as ignoring traffic laws would make travel on our roads a much more dangerous proposition than it is.
With God’s standard, there is another important, crucial dynamic going on. There is a perfect standard, God’s standard, and none of us meet it. In fact, that is the very point!
Unless we come to that realization and acknowledge it, we have set ourselves against God and are lost in our clutches of sin. But if we throw up our hands and give ourselves over to the imperfection, we are also lost, having abandoned any hope of relationship with a holy, perfect God. What are we to do?!
We come to the end of ourselves when we realize and understand that we don’t measure up on our own and that we need God to do in us what we can’t do in ourselves. That is where God meets us. Again, Jesus didn’t come for the healthy; he came for the sick. He didn’t come for the righteous; he came for the sinners.
The Christian proposition isn’t about being perfect – because we can’t be perfect. We are imperfect beings. When we acknowledge and seek forgiveness from God, He is there to give us that forgiveness. The Christian story involved God who became one of us to release us from the demands of justice by taking on the sentence we deserve and to release us from the guilt and shame of our failings. For those who receive that forgiveness and yield to God relationally, Jesus also gives us healing in the inner recesses of our lives where our sin and imperfection brews, and He begins to change us from the inside out.
Until we reach the end of ourselves and our own attempts to be acceptable and “righteous”, we remain lost in our sin. We remain lost in the trap of doing it our own way. We remain lost in our pride that separates us from God. Coming face to face with the realization that we are failures at meeting God’s standard is the first step toward salvation; it’s the beginning of forgiveness and new life; because it’s the beginning of coming to the end ourselves and of yielding to and receiving the life that God wants to give to us.
But we can’t just throw up our hands and resign ourselves to our sin. God wants to release us from it and to take up residence within us so that we can be changed, from the inside out, into the righteous (right) person God intended us to be. Although a person often experiences a dramatic, sudden change in that direction at the moment of yielding to God and soo thereafter, it’s a lifelong process.
This is the real work of God in the life of a Christ follower. This is the real miracle. God takes up residence in us and begins to rework us from the inside out. The proof is in the pudding, but often the proof of the pudding isn’t as evident to those around us, as it is within us. Over time, though, that proof should bear out in our lives as the fruit of grows, nourished from the root of God’s Holy Spirit within us. Not in this life, but in the next, that fruit will blossom into the fullness of new life in which we become as God intends us to be – fully ourselves, as He created us.
This is not of our own doing. It’s nothing about which we can boast because it is all God’s doing.
Meanwhile, as we fail, which we will do, we continue to go back to God, time and again, to obtain the forgiveness that He offers. As we continually yield to Him, developing a habit of going back to God and yielding to Him, we allow Him to have His way within us, He changes the desires of our hearts so that we no longer want to do the things we know that we shouldn’t, and we want to do the things we know we should.
Paul talks about the old man in us being at odds with the new man who is born within us at the moment of our first yielding to God (being born again). That initial yielding begins a war of natures within us that will not end until we take our last breath. Slowly, though, little by little, over the course of lives, God works His character into us and within us as we yield to Him, again and again, so that we are changed within. Like a chrysalis changing into a butterfly, we are being changed within so that will become who we were meant to be when we shed this life and take on the next.
Yes, Christians are hypocrites, but there is room in our churches for many more! If you haven’t considered joining the crowd, it’s not too late. More importantly, if you haven’t experienced forgiveness and new life that God offers through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God awaits your acceptance. He is waiting for you to yield yourself to Him and to receive His Holy Spirit by which we cry out within us, Abba! Father! God is looking for more hypocrites that He can transform into His perfect likeness in the next life.