Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Upside of Hypocrisy

It was the 17th century French writer, Francois de La Rochefoucauld, who first suggested the upside to hypocrisy when he quipped, “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” His point, I think, was that at least when you’re a hypocrite, the morality you’re faking at least looks like morality. Al Gore can get caught consuming 20 times the national average of electricity in his 20-room home, but at least his message against global warming gets heard. Mitt Romney can do his chameleon bit as he races from Blue State to Red State, but at least issues of social significance get debated. The Pharisees could cheat their way around the Ten Commandments and fail to practice what they preached, but at least they preached it. Yet hypocrisy infuriated Jesus almost more than anything else. Why? Is it because God (who alone is able to see the heart) is forced to look at all our inconsistencies? We know that being saved by grace hardly makes any of us sin-free; if anything, it makes the sins we continue to commit seem even worse. Would it be better to let our true selves show instead of trying to keep up appearances? Honesty and humility are the only cures for hypocrisy (empowered by that same grace), but we Christians still haven’t managed to figure how to help one another pull down our masks and risk it. We’re just too afraid of what we’ll see; or worse, we’re too afraid of what others will see in us. Best to leave the darkness of our hearts to the eyes of God?


John O said...

Any earnest and honest act, if scrutinized enough, or harshly enough, will be found to contain inconsistencies. Even the creation of a church blog. Which of us has enough integrity to rightly judge our own integrity?

The more important question is what our response should be to acknowledging our hypocrisy and inevitably mixed motives. Should we give up, curse ourselves and die? Should we stop being charitable because we cannot help blowing trumpets? Should we focus so much on self-examination that we neglect mercy for each other? Shall we bury our talent in the ground, or invest it, tarnished though it may be?

If those who do not practice what they preach confess outright that they are hypocrites, does that make them more or less qualified to preach? Even those we venerate as saints had inconsistencies. Did truth die with Christ, the only true authority, or has God allowed truth to be transmitted through a lineage of imperfect humanity?

Simon said...

"Honesty and humility are the only cures for hypocrisy" - agreed. This is helpful advice, and goes well with what I read the other day at First Things. The main point of the article is that if hypocrisy is doing something you believe is wrong then literally everyone is a hypocrit. But in fact hyporisy is a particular KIND of wrongdoing, hence Jesus' big beef about it.

I quote: "A man is not a hypocrite because he violates a moral norm in which he sincerely believes. [Otherwise] hypocrisy would not be a peculiar kind of wrongdoing but a concomitant of all wrongdoing."

"Hypocrisy is a much worse form of moral wrongdoing. It’s a certain kind of lying, and so can be done only consciously and intentionally. In particular, a man’s moral character comes from what he takes as his final end in life, his understanding of the human good, and the hypocrite is a man who dissembles about what he thinks this good is. The hypocrite pretends to accept and live by one set of values when, in fact, he accepts and lives by quite different ones. " [My emphasis].

The reason for the article was the fall of Ted Haggard last year. The point being that Haggard wasn't pretending to believe homosexuality is wrong, but actually believing it is fine. He believes it's wrong, but did it anyway. That's the nature of most of our sin, but hypocrisy is something different, and worse. Honesty and humility are exactly the virtues needed to oppose hypocrisy.

So john o, I think this somewhat deals with your comment: hypocrisy is a deliberate stance of duplicity (which should disqualify anyone from preaching), not weakness and mixed motives and sinful failing.