Hypocrisy: A working definition

What a hypocrite is not

We use the word hypocrite a lot. But what does it mean?

John Piper (the ideas guy behind Desiring God) connects the heart in Scripture with the sentiments. When he does this, his apparent background in romantic thought and in “authenticity thinking” comes through. Another author, like Piper, essentially equates hypocrisy with doing something you don’t feel like at the moment:

What can we do when our hearts feel nothing?

What we must not do is think feelings are optional — and just go through the motions, acting as if we are feeling what we are saying and singing.

Jesus called that hypocrisy: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’” (Matthew 15:7–8) But if our hearts are feeling far from God, and were not supposed to just go through the motions, what else can we do?

But is this really a reasonable definition of hypocrisy? If the heart, in Scripture, is closer to the faculty of reasoning and choosing, then Jesus’ comments above are about the reasoning behind the Pharisee’s actions, not their feelings.

Jesus’ Definition of Pharisee

In fact, Jesus uses the word hypocrite to describe those who do pious deeds purely for the sake of praise by people instead of for God:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. (Mat 6:5)”

Hypocrisy the Bible is doing pious deeds entirely to be honored by others with no regard for God or the well-being of others.

The Distant Heart

The heart being far from God is a quote from first chapters of Isaiah. There the people follow the sacrificial practices as an excuse to ignore godly character. The solution to their worship problem is given in in Isaiah 1:17:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 1:16-20)

A Final Point

One of the prime commands in the New Testament is self-denial (Mark 8:34). Because our affections are damaged by sin, cultural influence, and neglectful habits we must do it against what we want in the moment. Not only so, but our bodies rebel against us when we want to do hard things. If we make self-denial into a form of hypocrisy then basic Christian spirituality stops making sense.

Paul even notes that the fruit of the Spirit comes to those who “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Not feeling like doing Christ-like things is not hypocrisy. Sometimes people don’t feel like paying taxes, but it’s still moral for them do to so.

If you want to stop being a hypocrite, the best strategy, according to Jesus is to do your good deeds in secret, presumably before you attempt to be the light of the world.

5 thoughts on “Hypocrisy: A working definition

  1. This has been a big struggle for me, depending on the time. I get really nervous about worshipping with believers, and I don’t like the feeling associated with the act.

    Something that’s *always* been difficult for me is connecting the act of worship to worship itself. I’m not sure why this is. However, last night, I heard a sermon on worship and how to go about it with Biblical citation. Apparently, it’s my weak faith that’s blocking me. I know that it’s weak, and there’s a possibility that it’s been that way for years.

    I think a big part of my life has been worshipping with hypocrites, and another problem that I ran into was bad theology, for at least a time. At one church that I went to, the Pastor now preaches no literal Hell and Darwinism. He had a view of Predestination, wherein God chose an Elect, and then chose only to die for the Elect. He said that God’s Elect replaced the Israelites or are the new Israelites. If I’m remembering this correctly, he said that Israel is a place and is there to fulfill the prophecies of the End Times. I know people who still attend this Church.

    It’s very confusing for me, because he’d preach things that were relevant to my week, and that would be fine, but he’d also preach other things on different weeks. I don’t know what to make of that.

    Finally, (sorry for the length of this post) I’m wondering what you mean by “Pagan wisdom”? Are you talking about Paganism, worldly beliefs, secular literature, or the way that Pagans follow their passions that Christians are warned against?

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