I once paid for gas with a counterfeit bill. At the time, I had no idea it was counterfeit. I thought the $20 I pulled from my purse was valid, perfectly real. Paying for gas with it was supposed to be a routine transaction. Only when the cashier used a bill detector and told me she couldn’t accept my money did I learn the truth. It was embarrassing, and I almost tripped over myself trying to explain that I wasn’t a criminal. It also made me angry. Somebody who’d bought something from me had paid me with that bill the day before, so someone else’s dishonest actions led to my public embarrassment.
Most other people in my situation would’ve felt the same way. Nobody likes counterfeits, and all of us would rather not experience the disappointment and anger of feeling cheated on any purchase. But the feelings we have about being sold counterfeit goods are even stronger when we sense that we’re dealing with counterfeit people—phony people who pretend to be one thing when in reality they’re something (or someone) else. Some of us have trusted such people and found ourselves annoyed, frustrated, and in some cases deeply hurt by them. Such things happen in life often enough, of course, but when they happen in the context of Christian community or Christian churches, the pain that results from them can become spiritual pain that might even threaten our faith. If we feel that we cannot trust those who claim to be God’s people, mistrust of one person can quickly become mistrust of everyone who claims to be Christian. We might even find it much more difficult to trust God.
Hypocrisy—the performance of counterfeit character—is often associated with the church. Many people who shy away from or outright condemn Christian churches charge them with being “full of hypocrites.” Sometimes these charges are justified: when Christians who are supposed to be loving (John 13:34), generous (Luke 10:34-36) and humble (Luke 18:14) also gossip, cheat, abuse people, and preach racist rhetoric, such “Christians” are rightfully called hypocrites. They are not behaving like Christ. They’re using the label Christian to identify themselves, but their actions are totally out of sync with God’s character and will. And if we take an honest look in the character mirror and see someone who is calling him or herself a Christian while not behaving at all like Christ, then guess what? The person in the mirror is a hypocrite.
Even if we haven’t had personal experience with our own or other people’s hypocrisy, many of us can point to Christian public figures who’ve been exposed as hypocrites because of financial wrongdoing, moral scandals, abuse, or other criminal activity. The televangelists that most people think of are probably the ones who’ve been involved in such scandals. The result is a tarnished reputation for televangelists, churches, and Christians in general. That is why people who are guilty of hypocrisy and of helping to damage the reputation of the church have so much to answer for. Even Jesus condemned this kind of counterfeit character, comparing one group of hypocrites to “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). He uses this kind of strong language more than once (Matthew 15, Matthew 16, Matthew 22, Mark 7).
It’s clear, then, that Christians, non-Christians, and God himself hate hypocrisy, which is ultimately a form of lying. But in our rejection of the hypocritical, we need to be careful about a couple of things. One is this: one person does not represent all of Christianity. Five or 10 people don’t either. There are many, many people in churches all over the world who are doing their best to demonstrate their faith through kindness, truthfulness, and compassion. It’s a sad and terrible thing what hypocrisy has done in the church, but there are many people who are working hard to undo that damage by restoring relationships and offering apologies to those who’ve been hurt by counterfeit character in the church. These authentic Christians shouldn’t be lumped in with the ones who’ve done wrong. I didn’t throw out all my other 20 dollar bills because that one bill was counterfeit. We shouldn’t throw out the whole church because some people are counterfeits too.
The other thing to be careful about, I believe, is this: there’s a real and important distinction between a hypocrite and a person who is in the midst of a genuine struggle to transform his or her character into Christlike character. If you generally abide by God’s command to be truthful, and lie to your boss about the reason you’re not coming into work one time, then you’ve sinned and failed to live up to your beliefs. But if you feel guilty about it, confess your sinful action to God, accept the forgiveness that is available to you because of Jesus’ death on the cross, and recommit to honesty as value, you are not a hypocrite. You are a person who failed and then repented. There are a lot of such people around. We’re called Christians. And all of us stumble, many of us daily. But because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we not only have forgiveness, but we also have power to recover from our failures so we don’t have to fall into hypocritical life patterns.
For example, if a former addict moves into recovery, remains clean and sober, and starts telling other people not to abuse drugs, is that person a hypocrite because she is now telling people not to do something she once did? I hope it’s clear that the answer is no. She’s not pretending to be one thing while doing something else. She’s made a break with her past and is working to be something new and better. Hypocrites are people who continue pretending to do right while doing wrong when no one is around to witness their performances. That’s what Jesus meant about being a “whitewashed tomb”: pleasant enough outside, rotten and disgusting inside. But if those same people who had heard Jesus’ strong rebuke had admitted that they were rotten inside and asked Jesus for help to get clean, they wouldn’t be hypocrites anymore. They’d be people who know their weaknesses and are humble enough to ask God for strength to overcome them.
Some scholars say that it is a show of this kind of humility that the Apostle Paul is referring to when he admits in Romans 7 that he often ends up sinning and doing some of the things he hates and doesn’t believe in (Romans 7:15). His candor shows us that even people as venerated in the church as Paul have also failed to live up to God’s standards. But Paul was no hypocrite because he didn’t pretend there was nothing wrong with him. He didn’t consistently ignore or gloss over his sin in the way a hypocrite would. In fact, he calls himself out for sinning: “what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24). Thankfully, for Paul and for the rest of us, there is rescue: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).
This is not to say that there is no such thing as hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is real and dangerous to ourselves and to those we hurt by our behavior. Any of us, Christian or non-Christian, can become hypocrites if we consistently and unrepentantly say we believe one thing and then act in a way that contradicts our beliefs. However, I believe that we sometimes use the label hypocrite to judge and condemn people who are simply struggling. I think that too often, we point to a Christian’s single failing or maybe even a series of recent failings and condemn them with the label hypocrite. Maybe the Christian we condemn is ourselves, in which case we’re often left feeling pretty discouraged. But we need to remind ourselves of the truth that struggle is not the same as hypocrisy. Indeed, hypocrites don’t struggle because hypocrites don’t acknowledge that there’s anything wrong with their repeated behavior. That’s why Jesus called out that group of Pharisees: because they were blind to their own sin. Once we see our failure for what it is, confess it to God, and begin seeking God’s help to overcome it, we’re in a different place, a place in which God’s grace can enter, heal, and transform our character. The important point is this: the failure that sometimes happens in Christian lives—even when it is serious failure—does not have to define us. If we’re okay with doing the wrong thing and we act as if everything is fine, then we are hypocrites and we have a problem: we’re counterfeiting our Christianity, and we’re probably damaging the reputation of Christians in general. But if we recognize our sins and failures, confess them to God, ask for God’s help, and continue doing our best to walk in the right direction, we are merely Christians on a sometimes difficult spiritual journey. God knows this. That’s why there’s provision for our forgiveness even after we’ve come to believe in Christ (John 1:9).
So yes, hypocrisy does exist. But sometimes the person we condemn for being a counterfeit is a person in the middle of a struggle to align his behavior with his beliefs. Only God knows the true difference, since only God sees the full truth about other people’s hearts. Instead of dismissing other people as hypocrites, or dismissing all churches and Christians because of the sinful and hurtful actions of some people, let’s let God handle the labeling. We can focus on our own behavior and character, and we can start by giving other people room to recover from stumbles. Integrity is undoubtedly a good thing, and as Christians, we should want to walk Jesus’ talk and live out what we claim to believe. We should strive to be good people inside and out. However, we have to acknowledge that there are times when we mess up. On those occasions, God’s grace and forgiveness are available. And just as we need to accept that grace and forgiveness for ourselves, we need to extend it to one another. In fact, as John 13:35 reminds us, it is in showing grace and forgiveness to others that we show our own Christianity to be the real deal.