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Living a lie: a reflection on hypocrisy

Do we routinely do what is right, even when no-one is watching us? By Colin Sedgwick  


Jesus said: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known...” Luke 12:1-2

Gold ball

“The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well.”

So wrote the great comic writer P G Wodehouse.

Sorry if golf isn’t your thing (nor is it mine, in fact). But the point he is making, golf or no golf, is clear enough. An acid test of character is this: Do I routinely do what is right, even when no-one is watching me?

That man playing golf sees two things: first, his shot has landed him in trouble; second, there is no-one around to see if he gives his ball a tiny sneaky nudge so he can hit it from a better place. So what does he do? Does he strictly obey the rules of golf? Or does he give in to temptation?

Jesus’ word is a word about hypocrisy, and he is talking more about things we say rather than things we do. But the same principle applies, and we could put it like this...

There are two you’s and two me’s. There is the you who behaves honestly and properly when you know (or suspect) that someone is watching. And there is the you who behaves very differently when you think you are alone. If those two you’s are in fact in perfect alignment with one another, then you are a person of honesty and integrity. If they are not, then you are guilty of hypocrisy.

As a youngster I remember plaques that some families used to have on the wall as you entered their house: “Christ is the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.” It seemed a bit threatening, even spooky, intended to put the frighteners on you; as if Jesus was “big brother watching you”. I doubt if Jesus intended it that way - but certainly he is giving us something to think about.

A friend of mine used to be a travelling salesman, and this often involved him staying overnight in motorway hotels. He was puzzled, and troubled, by the number of pornography channels available on television in the rooms. When he queried this at reception he was told, rather apologetically, that that was the kind of material people apparently wanted to watch in the privacy of their rooms - if the hotel removed those channels their bookings simply fell away, so they had no choice (they felt) but to provide them.

Very likely the people watching those channels were outwardly respectable family men. (Were some in fact stalwart members of their local churches? The Pharisees Jesus is attacking were, remember, deeply religious people.) Before we judge them too harshly, though, let’s search our own hearts and probe the kind of people we are when no human eye is upon us. It’s not only the Pharisees who can be guilty of hypocrisy...

One writer I read on this passage, G B Caird, commented so clearly and helpfully that I don’t think I can do better than repeat his words...

“The hypocrite is one who, consciously or unconsciously, has sacrificed truth to appearance...” Yes: does how I appear to others matter to me more than the truth?

“... he is more taken up with what people think of him than with the actual state of his soul...” Yes: do I worry too much about other people’s opinion of me?

“... he is so busy living up to his reputation that he has no time to be himself...” Yes: am I, in essence, living a lie?

Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of hypocrisy, to live a false life is draining and exhausting. Ask any actor: acting is hard work!

Every now and then there are bursts of outrage at the seeming hypocrisy of politicians or religious leaders. A politician, say, has passionately advocated the virtues of state schooling - only then to send their child to a public school. A bishop preaches about the supreme value of “family life” - only then to be exposed as sexually immoral.

The outrage is justified, no doubt. But what if it applies to us too, if only people did but know?

Jesus goes on to warn us: “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

As he said elsewhere: “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”

Or, as he might have said, “If the cap fits...” well, we know what to do with it, don’t we?

Lord God, you know each of us through and through. Please help me to be strict with myself, so that the inner, secret me is no different from the outward, public me. Amen.

Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.

He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com

Image | HeungSoon | Pixabay

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Baptist Times, 09/01/2019
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