When my son was a teenager, he had some friends over to the house on a Saturday afternoon. As the afternoon became evening, he announced, “You’ll all need to leave soon because tomorrow is church.” To which one of his comrades (who didn’t know what I did for a living) responded, “Why go to church? They’re all just hypocrites.” My son answered, “Well, duh.” I was proud. My son had learned that church was a place where people who were “simultaneously sinners and saints” (Luther) hung out.
These days I still hear Christians accused of hypocrisy with great frequency. I also hear more and more faithful people wonder whether they are being hypocritical. In an age where climate change is a growing reality, we might wonder if we are hypocrites if we talk about being better stewards of the creation but, at the same time, feel like we personally can do so little to address the problem. Are we hypocrites if we call for an end to hunger in the world and eat three good meals a day? If we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” and then struggle to make peace with someone, are we hypocrites?
I have good news – well, partially good news. If you speak about, pray for, are committed to something but your actions fall short of bearing much fruit, you are probably not a hypocrite. You may be a sinner. You are most certainly finite. You are, however, likely far short of being a hypocrite.
Hypocrite comes from a Greek word associated with the theatre. Greek actors wore masks to portray a character. So, the word comes from the intentional act of putting up a false front. Hypocrisy involves an intentional deception. If I say something to gain favor while knowing I never intend to follow thru on my words, I am a hypocrite. If, however, I make a promise sincerely, and then fail to live up to the promise, I’m no hypocrite.
Falling short of what we intend happens all the time. It happens because we are, indeed, broken people - sinners. Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:15-20) While there is little help for a true hypocrite, committed to living the lie, sin is one of the specialties of Jesus. Forgiveness is available every single time we fall short; every time words and deeds do not match up. That forgiveness frees us to get up and try again; to adjust our perceptions, to grow.
Falling short of what we intend is also due to the reality of our finitude. We live within limits. Our power, our control, our knowledge, our strength, even our living and breathing have limits. When we long for the hungry to be fed and the earth to be preserved and then notice that we can do precious little in a given moment to bring about our hopes, we are not hypocrites – we are finite humans. This is also a specialty of Christ, who has risen from the dead and connected us through the power of the Spirit to God’s eternal being and future promise. We may not be able to solve every problem we long to see addressed, but God can.
The church has some hypocrites who use the façade of faith for their own ends with no intention of following Jesus. The church is full of broken, sinful folks who fall short of the hopes and dreams to which Jesus points us. When that happens, we are forgiven. The church is made up of finite people who can sometimes manage to live in the “already” of God’s reign, and often have to face the “not yet” of what God has shown us in Christ. When that happens, we rest in the promises – but we keep uttering the words of promise.
For now, stop worrying that you are a hypocrite. Live forgiven and free; live in the light of God’s eternal presence. You’re going to be just fine because you are God’s beloved.
Pastor Tim Olson