All of us have a hard time with hypocrites. Parents who wake up with a hangover on Saturday morning will have a hard time telling their son to avoid the drinking scene on Saturday night. The doctor who is overweight will be less effective at telling her patients they should lose weight. And the teacher who tells his students to be organized but is always fumbling to find the chalk probably won’t inspire his class. Explain it any way you like, but when we see people who do not live the walk they are prescribing, they do not get our ear or our respect.
No doubt this same dynamic is true when people see Christians, and particularly Christian leaders, not living very Christianly. Can we really trust a pastor when he speaks of living an honest and upright life only to find out later that he has absconded with the church funds and the church secretary?! And when a church-going mom tells her children they should “give things over to God” when she is the most worry-filled person they know, do the kids really give any weight to her words? The problem of hypocrisy is true in every arena of life, and for many this hypocrisy is the stumbling block that keeps them from considering the claims of Christ. No one likes a hypocrite, but a religious hypocrite we disdain even more.
Jesus hated hypocrites too!
Fortunately, we are in good company. Jesus hated hypocrites too. In fact, it is not overstating things to say that Jesus reserved his harshest words for hypocrites. Yes, there were those who lived rather shady lives that he asked to walk to a different beat, but he always did that in a rather even keel fashion. Not so when it came to religious leaders who put on a front but could care less about loving others or loving God on any terms but their own. In one particular tirade, he called these leaders out in public, labeling them hypocrites seven times and adding descriptive phrases like “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” and “brood of vipers.” If you think Jesus always spoke in gentle tones, think again. He got in the grill of hypocrites, especially if they had any tinge of arrogance.
But as much as Jesus hated duplicity, he recognized that all of us to some degree or another fail the hypocrisy test. We tell others to be more disciplined but find ourselves watching another game on Saturday afternoon and ignoring the toilet that has been broken for weeks. Or perhaps, we tell our children to speak nicely to their siblings but do so with anger in our voice. Suffice it to say, if we discounted any and everyone on the account of hypocrisy, we couldn’t even listen to ourselves!
Truth from a hypocrite shouldn’t be ignored
This all said, I think it is valuable for us to look beyond hypocrites themselves when we consider the veracity of their words. True, they may be despicable when they yelp about things they don’t even live up to, but that says nothing about the truth of their words. Suppose you had a jerk of an English teacher. She was the rudest teacher you knew. Throughout the year, she told you over and over again the proper use of the words “then” and “than.” Because she never listened to her students if they asked a question, you decide you won’t listen to her instructions. When “then” is called for, you write “than,” and vice versa just to irk her. In one way, your act of rebellion is justified; why listen to a teacher like that? But in another way, you are acting rather foolishly. “Then” and “than” serve different purposes in English writing, and there simply is a right way to use them regardless of your teacher’s behavior.
Or consider this example. You live in a small town far away from sophisticated medical care. You have not been feeling well of late, and though you hate to do so, you visit the town doctor who is rather full of himself and has proven himself rather untrustworthy in a host of business related transactions. He runs a test on you and even sends the results to a big city lab where it is determined you have an aggressive cancer. He says you are in bad shape, and if something isn’t done immediately you are going to die. Now, you are in a dilemma. You can’t stand this doctor. In fact, you would love for him to be wrong for no other reason than that it would take him down a notch or two. But shunning the truth of his words about your cancer would be very costly. So you follow what he is advises, even though you don’t like him.
Many today have had bad experiences with Christians or with the church or with those who are religious in any form or fashion. I understand that. I have had bad experiences with people like this as well. They are not fun to be around. And sadly, I must admit that sometimes I have been the Christian who has given others a bad experience. But when you are around such people, you still must ask yourself if what they are saying is true. Ultimately Christianity is not about Christians or about how they conduct themselves. Ultimately it is about Christ and his words. If Christ is found wanting, then you can go on your merry way, but if Jesus’ words are well-grounded, you would be foolish to ignore them regardless of what Christians say or do.
Sign on with the original
No one likes to be blamed for something they didn’t do. Let’s suppose you start up a new delivery service called OTET (for “On time, every time”). Your number one priority is customer service, and you’ve worked hard to maintain a near perfect on-time delivery record. Seeing the success of your company, someone starts using the name OTET to secure business, but does not provide the level of service you do. Before long, bad reviews start showing up on your website. You don’t understand. Your delivery record is impeccable. Soon you discover the problem. Someone is using your name, but not living up to it.
I am afraid this kind of scenario is what happens when it comes to Christianity. Christians use Christ’s name but often don’t live up to his name. No wonder people want to stay clear. As the owner of OTET you hope that people will not blame the poor delivery service on you and are still willing to sign on with the original. I think this is the case with Jesus too. He knows that those who use his name will often fall short and hopes that while you might be discouraged with Christians at times you nonetheless sign on with the original.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.