The Great Pretender! (The Anatomy of Hypocrisy)


Next to the problem of evil, the problem of hypocrisy is the most common reason for unbelievers to reject the Christian faith. Where do we begin to under­stand the anatomy of this sin? Sin involves a unique structure of evil that perme­ates our homes, communities and institutions both sacred and secular. Sad to say, but, as long as there is sin, there will be hypocrisy of one sort or another. However, we need to sharpen our thinking on this important subject if we are going to successfully battle against this all too common manifestation of human sinfulness.

Let’s take a journey into the wilderness on the darker side of human motiva­tion. Some people can smile so sweetly and look so righteous but inside they are full of dead men’s bones. This charge is usually leveled most frequently against religious people, especially Christians, who fail to practice what they preach.

Questions Concerning Hypocrisy

In this article we will consider the following questions:

  1. What is one of the most common complaints against Christians by skeptics?
  2. What was one of Jesus’ biggest criticisms about “religious people”? (Matt. 23:13a)
  3. Why is it that so little is said or written about the sin of hypocrisy?
  4. What precisely is the anatomy of this sin?
  5. What are its causes, consequences and cures?
  6. What is its relationship to self-deception and the weakness of the human will?
  7. What is your earliest and most vivid memory of hypocrisy?
  8. What are some biblical examples of this sin?
  9. Since we all know more than we do, does that mean that we are all hypo­crites?
  10. Doesn’t “knowing Christ” involve changing morally for the better?
  11. Do hypocritical Christians render the Gospel of Christ null and void?
  12. Is there anything that we, as Christians, can do about it?
  13. How can we best answer this frequent complaint from the secular cynic?

What are some biblical examples of this sin?

  1. King Saul stands out. On one hand, he banned spiritualists from the land. On the other hand, he disguised himself and by night sought the counsel of a spiritualist (1 Sam. 28:5-10).
  2. What about King David, who after seducing Bathsheba, plotted the death of her husband, Uriah the Hittite? And who could forget Nathan’s pronouncement to David in 2 Samuel 12:1-7 when he said to David, “You are the man!” David fits the classic profile of a hypocrite.
  3. Judas Iscariot is perhaps your classic example. Pretending to be one of Jesus’ disciples, he was taking money from the twelve and ended up betraying Jesus with a kiss (Luke 22:1-6, 47-48).
  4. Ananias and Sapphira made a promise to the Church that they didn’t com­pletely keep. Perhaps they thought no one would find out the truth. Peter said that they did not lie to men but to God. As a result they paid the ultimate price (Acts 5:1-10).

The Nature of Hypocrisy

What is the nature of hypocrisy? Shakespeare had a wonderful way with words as well as penetrating insight into human nature. He said, “O, what may man within him hide, though angel on the outward side.” The word “hypocrisy” is derived from the Greek word “hypokrisia” which means “to play a part on stage.” The concept is more complex than the common definition of “failing to practice what one preaches”. It is an internal lie told by external deeds. While hypocrisy involves inconsistency, not all inconsistency is hypocrisy. In addition to the incon­sistency between character and conduct or between belief and behavior, there must be self-deception and the intent to deceive others in order to make us appear to be something we are not and to make us look better than we are.

Hypocrisy isn’t to be confused with moral weakness (spiritual immaturity) or poor moral insight (lack of moral discernment). It involves not only weakness but the intent to deceive and/or mislead in order to make us look good. Aquinas says, hypocrisy involves unholiness combined with the simulation of holiness. The hypocrite tricks observers into thinking that he is better than he really is. In addition to deceiving others, a hypocrite is self-deceived. One might say, there is both an external (deceiving others) hypocrisy and an internal (deceiving oneself) hypocrisy.

What are some of the causes of hypocrisy?

Consider the following factors:

  1. An Adamic nature referred to as “original sin” by Augustine.
  2. Moral weakness in the form of a lack of self-control.
  3. Foolish pride expressed as a self-righteous attitude.
  4. Insecurity in God’s love expressed as a lack of transparency or vulnerability.
  5. A desire or motivation to seek human rather than divine approval.
  6. A focus on external superficial actions rather than internal heart attitudes.
  7. Dishonesty in the form of deception
  8. Denial in the form of self-deception.
  9. No fear of God
  10. No hatred of sin.

The dangers of self-deception:

We have all heard the cliché that “perception determines reality” yet Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” The writer of Proverbs expressed it this way, “You can always prove you are right, but is the Lord convinced?” We must not underestimate our ability to deceive ourselves about our shortcomings or the shortcomings of others. We have already discov­ered that one of the key ingredients of hypocrisy is self-deception. People who are self-deceived seem to deny or disbelieve what they know to be true. For example, a mother says that her son, who is a career criminal, is a “good boy.” Sometimes we can act against our better judgment due to the influence of cer­tain non-cognitive forces of the mind (cf., Rom. 7:18-24).

According to the following Scriptures, what are we deceived about?

  1. James 1:22—“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive your­selves. Do what it says.”
  2. 1 John 1:8—“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
  3. Galatians 6:7-8—“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”

Self-deception involves both how we think, feel and behave. It involves cogni­tion, affect, volition and behavior. Jeremiah 17:9a says, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” We must never underestimate the corruption of the human heart. We can develop certain biases that predispose us to want to believe certain things, even if they are not true. Sometimes our actions are based on these false biases or beliefs. If we lie enough to others and/or to ourselves, we can begin to believe our own lies. This self-deception causes us to lose touch with reality. God is the supreme realist; we are realistic insofar as we see things from His point of view. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”

Because of our tendency to deceive ourselves, we need to read and heed the exhortation found in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” It takes humility to acknowledge our shortcomings and the limitations of our finite ability to think and reason.

What are some of the negative consequences of the sin of hypocrisy?

  1. A poor self-concept and self-esteem due to a lack of self-respect.
  2. Stunted personal spiritual development due to grieving or lying to the Holy Spirit.
  3. A lack of humility resulting in a failure to experience God’s grace (Jas. 4:6).
  4. The desire for human approval turns into disapproval and disrespect by oth­ers.
  5. This sin causes serious disruption in our fellowship with God.
  6. This sin undermines people’s trust and results in a lack of credibility.
  7. A poor role model may discourage especially new, weak and immature Chris­tians.
  8. Serious damage to the church of Christ (i.e. Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart).
  9. Serious damage to the name of Christ whose reputation is at stake in our lives.
  10. Serious damage to the cause of Christ (a lack of persuasiveness in evange­lism).

Oscar Wilde once said, “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” Seneca said, “Part of the cure is to want to be cured.” In considering a cure for hypocrisy we want to examine sin and self-control in relation to sanctification. An essential tenet of biblical Christianity is that all human beings are fundamentally morally flawed. Two key verses that speak to this issue are:

  1. Isaiah 53:6—“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
  2. Romans 3:23—“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The reason we fail to live up to our moral standards, let alone God’s, in due to our sin nature. Augustine refers to this problem as “original sin” which springs from our Adamic nature. The Reformers were especially emphatic about the power of the sinful impulses of the human heart.

While all human beings have a sinful nature, we are all morally responsible and therefore ultimately accountable to God for all our thoughts, words, attitudes and actions. Paul expressed it this way in Romans 14:12, “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” As if our sinful nature were not enough of an obstacle for fallen human beings to contend with, we also have in addition the world and the devil with which to contend.

Discovering a cure for hypocrisy

How does one know if something is a cure for anything? If the cures for hy­pocrisy are effective they will 1) address and deal with the causes as well as 2) remove the negative consequences.

  1. Receive a new nature through regeneration by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 5:17).
  2. Regular repentance is essential in order to think clearly about God and sin (Lk. 15:17).
  3. Trusting in God with all our heart so we don’t rely on our own insight (Prov. 3:5- 6).
  4. Submitting to the control of the Spirit in order to develop more self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
  5. Humbling ourselves before God resulting in honesty with God, ourselves and others (Jas. 4:6).
  6. Developing a godly sincerity in order to be vulnerable and transparent before others.
  7. Developing a graced-based rather than a works-based self-concept (Rom. 12:3).
  8. Learning the fear of God, seeing things from His point of view, developing a hatred of sin.
  9. Concentrating on the internal attitudes rather than the external actions (Phil. 2:5).
  10. Being accountable—confessing sins to one another and praying for one another (Jas. 5:16).

One of the important lessons that we need to learn is the one that David learned after his sin with Bathsheba when he said in Psalm 51:6a that God desired truth in the inward parts. We can avoid the sin of hypocrisy as long as we are honest with God, ourselves and others concerning our shortcomings. David went on in Psalm 51:6b to ask God for wisdom in the innermost place.

Unless or until we overcome our moral weaknesses, we at least need to be honest about them:

1 John 1:8-10—“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”

One thing for sure, we can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes. We are not a hypocrite because we are morally weak, but only if we are deceptive about our moral weaknesses.

One provision that God has given us to bring out the best in others is an accountability partner. James 5:16 says that we are to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed.

Over time we can cultivate certain moral virtues by developing Christ-like character through the process of sanctification and through the cultivation of the classic spiritual disciplines. For example, prayer is critical in cultivating self-control. It taps us into the power of God, provides the proper moral and spiritual focus and reminds us of the need to deny ourselves. Talking with God in prayer helps us to be honest concerning our sin. We need to pray with the Psalmist,

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psa. 139:23-24).

If we are going to overcome our moral weakness we will have to develop more self-control. In order to develop greater self-control, we will have to learn to submit to the Holy Spirit.

  1. Galatians 5:22-23—“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
  2. 2 Timothy 1:7—“For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”

The development of self-control also requires mental discipline:

  1. Romans 12:2—“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
  2. 2 Corinthians 10:5—“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
  3. Philippians 4:8—“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Behavioral disciplines, developing godly habits are also important in develop­ing self-control. Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:7b-8, “train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Discipline involves struc­tured training in right living. This is something that all of us need.

The development of the virtue or the spiritual fruit of self-control is essential in the process of sanctification. As we have seen, there are a number of strategies that can be employed in developing self-control. We learn to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. As we grow in our self-control, we increase in our ability to follow God’s moral standards. While we are not sinless, over time we can learn to sin less, with God’s enablement, through His Word and Spirit.

Analyzing hypocrisy

It has been said that hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core. While Jesus makes it perfectly clear that hypocrisy is morally wrong, why is it? Why are hypocrites especially despised by others? Sometimes we hear people say, “I may have this shortcoming or that, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.” As we have seen, hypocrisy involves: dishonesty, deception, and self-deception. It is insincere and disrespectful of others. It is unjust because a hypocrite attempts to receive good by doing bad. It kills the moral spirit by undermining the incentive to live morally. It flouts God’s standards.

We could say that hypocrisy is hydra-headed; it is many sins in one. No wonder it justifies the extreme repugnance that it provokes or the strong resistance we have in being accused of hypocrisy.

Apologizing for hypocrisy: How can Christians answer the criticisms of the critics?

Christian apologists have not done well in addressing this fundamental criti­cism lodged by skeptics against the validity of Christianity. How can Christian truth be taken seriously when there are glaring inconsistencies in the lives of those who profess to be believers? Of what value is the Christian faith if Chris­tians are no better than non-Christians? Some one once suggested that one response to the objection that “the Church is full of hypocrites” is to respond, “There is always room for one more.” This response assumes that the criticism is valid. Another response that has been suggested is to say that “whoever you allow to come between you and God is closer to God than you are.” This may seem like a cute reply, but is there a better response?

Consider the following variables in responding to the criticism of hypocrisy!

  1. Skeptics will invariably be critical, if not of hypocrites, then something else.
  2. As long as there are sinners, there will be hypocrites.
  3. We all know more than we do, none of us live up to our own moral standards.
  4. Christians don’t claim to be perfect (unrealistic expectation), only forgiven.
  5. The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.
  6. The standard for Christianity is Christ, not individual Christians.
  7. We should never compare ourselves to others but to Christ himself.
  8. Is it Christian or misinformed Christians that are really to blame?
  9. Not everyone who professes to be a Christian has a regenerate nature.
  10. The skeptical objection doesn’t undermine the truth or validity of God’s Word.

If the skeptical objection of hypocrisy by Christians fails to undermine the Christian faith, why is it so popular? The first observation we need to make is the fact that it is difficult to live the Christian life. The moral ideal of Christianity is sinless perfection—Christ Himself. Yet, no human being is perfect. Falling short of our ideal does not mean that we should relinquish our ideal. Christians are sinners too. Becoming a Christian does not eradicate our sin nature. New Chris­tians are like spiritual babes—spiritually immature and quite possible morally weak. Moral weakness is not the same as the sin of hypocrisy.

Christianity’s doctrine of salvation is based on God’s grace, not human merit. It’s relatively easy for people to masquerade as a Christian. In some cases, hypocrisy may be an illusion created by non-Christians. Since no one has a heart x-ray machine, no one knows whether the “hypocrite” is a true Christian or not.

The problem may very likely be non-Christians masquerading as Christians rather than Christians acting like pagans. If this is the case, who is the hypocrite? When true Christians sin grievously, the term of hypocrisy may not apply. It may just be a matter of moral weakness or immaturity. It can be helpful to remind skeptics that they already share something in common with Jesus: the hatred of hypocrisy (Matt.23:13ff). Jesus says to one and He says to all in Luke 6: 46, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?

Leave a Comment