The Mechanics of Hypocrisy

We’ve all met the hypocrite who performs impeccably the practices of love, but (we suspect) labors under a deeper motive—self-righteousness, ambition, guilt, etc. Perhaps you are he or she. It is easy sneeringly to condemn this person as a fake, an unconscionable fraud. And yet, there is a difficulty. The hypocrite is very often performing the acts of love from an honest desire to love, even if he knows that love is not fully present. There is at times even a heart-rending consciousness of the “deeper” failure to love. How do we understand the hypocrite and how can the hypocrite (read: you and me) understand himself? This short article attempts to uncover the mechanics of hypocrisy and self-deceit.

The (Not-so Hidden) Truth Made Plain

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are!”  Jesus (the bruised reed handler)

Jesus was less than complementary to hypocrites. In fact, if average Joe or Jane knows anything about Jesus, it is that he could not abide hypocrisy. Some of his strongest language was reserved for hypocrites. The source of his ire comes from the fact that the hypocrites practice was inconsistent with their hearts. As he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Matthew 15:8) Hypocrites are warned, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

The difficulty with these passages is that no one seems ready to admit that they are a hypocrite. Or to state it as a question, is a hypocrite ever aware that he or she is a hypocrite? Certainly, if I must consciously endeavor to be a hypocrite, I am in very little danger of being one, because, I am, in fact, very much against hypocrisy (because I love Jesus). A reasonable explanation for the force of these passages is that a hypocrite may not intend or even know that he is one. Thus, Jesus is not just expressing ire, as if he needed to get this off his chest, but actually doing them a service in pointing out that they were (unbeknownst to them) hypocrites.

Conscience and Consciousness, the Maze of Intention

A source of difficulty is the ambiguity present when we use the word “intend.” An example might help. Say that I realize that as a good husband I ought to show affection for my wife by practical acts of service. But say that I also feel a bit angry at my wife for a perceived slight. I might, upon reflection, intend to bring home flowers for my wife and actually do so. But in the process I might make it very clear in tacit ways that I was unhappy. In this case, there seems to be a split intention—reflectively, I intend to show affection and intuitively, I intend to express my anger. Thus, there seems to be a distinction between reflective intention and intuitive intention. And further, these twin intentions operate at different levels of my consciousness, one the product of reflective thinking and the other the product of intuitive feeling.

Another Biblical example might illuminate the issue. Paul makes some very suggestive comments on this point in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 in his discussion about meat offered to idols. Paul acknowledges the correctness of the Corinthians assertion that “an idol is nothing.” This is not in dispute. The difficulty is that some “know” this and some do not “possess this knowledge,” hence, two groups. What is remarkable is that by Paul acknowledging “an idol is nothing” he has effectively eliminated the second group. Assuming this letter was read in public, there should now be only the one group.

But Paul is not using the word “know” in a bare intellectualist (reflective) sense. This is clear from Paul’s words in Romans 14: “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:5) And further, “whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith.” What seems to be happening here is the same sort of split intention that I noted above. A person who does not “possess this knowledge” is a person who may or may not have heard “an idol is nothing” (reflective), but absolutely does not know it intuitively. Thus, we see, intuitive intention is crucial for a biblical account of intentionality. To act against intuitive intention is to act in bad faith.

So, I suggest, to practice the acts of love without the heart of love is at some level (regardless of reflective intention) hypocritical.

The Practice of (Humble) Practice

All this may seem deeply discouraging to the man or woman of tender conscience. And he or she may be tempted to commit the opposite vice of hypocrisy which is apathy. Those who despair of true Christian virtue may decide that it is impossible altogether and we must throw ourselves at the mercy of God and make no further reflection on the subject.

This is also a mistake.  I want to suggest a brief syllabus (a reflective exercise) of practices (training the intuitive, training the heart) which by the grace of God might help to pursue genuine love.

1) We need to be ready to admit our heart failings. Too often acts of love ring hollow when the agent is doing everything possible to hide the true state of one’s heart. To return to the marriage example, the flowers can still be a meaningful expression of love and devotion even when accompanied by a more honest expression of feeling. The willingness to resolve a conflict (that may be brought about by one’s own failure to judge rightly) is an opportunity to cultivate humility and to build trusting communication.

2) We should reflect on the practices of love. We can learn where our acts of love fall short and where our acts of love do not correspond to our intuitive intention (i.e. our heart).

3) We should practice the practices of love as these have real value. Often relationships are hurt by failure to communicate love in spite of our best intuitive intention. We can learn how to do acts of love with more effectiveness. (James 1:19-27; Romans 12:3-21)

4) The practices of love are not enough to produce love. As 1 John 4:19 says, “we love because he first loved us.” The gospel must be compelling to us before genuine love is even possible.

5) We need to bear patiently with the slowness of our own change. We may wish to be what we are not right now, but it does no good to pretend were are different than we are. Change is God’s work, not ours. Hypocrites always wish they were better than they are. (cf. Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, Phil 1:3-11)

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