This study of spiritual dangers turns from threatening things ‘out there’ to inner threats, the stuff that is in my heart. The first one on the list is lack of integrity . . . or what most people would call “hypocrisy.”
Hypocrisy can go both ways. As a Christian, whenever I act as if I am not a Christian then I’m being a hypocrite to the truth. However, this is not the common understanding. Hypocrisy is normally defined as the pretense of having a virtuous character, a moral and religious life that I do not really practice. It is putting on the appearance of goodness, but not being like that on the inside.
Jesus went after the religious leaders of His day for this lack of integrity: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25–28)
These people seemed to think they were doing the right things, so part of Jesus’ condemnation was their blindness to their own spiritual condition. They had been greedy and self-indulgent for so long that they didn’t seem to be aware of their sin or their pretense.
That is the very worst of this spiritual danger — being oblivious to my failure to ‘walk the talk’ and to live up to what I say I believe. However, hypocrisy does not always involve oblivion. Sometimes life puts me on the spot where I can tell people how good I am, or I can be honest about my struggles with sin and selfishness. The choice is letting people think I am doing fine, or letting them know the truth.
This morning I received an email from another person in the seminary class I’m taking. He said, “Your posts and replies are always thoughtful, gracious and profound.” Here is an opportunity for spiritual danger. I could believe the ‘always’ part, pat myself on the back, and assume that I never again have to pray, rely on the Holy Spirit, and even sacrifice a great deal of time and effort so that what I write is honest and from the heart. Whenever I start trying to project virtue like “thoughtful, gracious and profound” there is danger that I’ve forgotten how thoughtless and shallow I am without Christ.
For me, hypocrisy involves failing to remember and share that the Christian life is both the righteousness of Christ and the greed, uncleanness, and lawlessness of that old sin nature. While I can walk in newness of life because God is gracious, I can also walk as that ‘dead in sin’ person that now stubbornly clings to me and tries to pull me back into darkness. Pride and the sense of “I ought to” wants only the former to be seen in me — to the exclusion of humbly admitting that I am not always living under the amazing power of the Holy Spirit in obedience to Jesus. I’d like to, but to act and speak as if I am would instantly put me in the dangerous place of living a lie and being a hypocrite.