Facing up to Hypocrisy

Some thoughts on hypocrisy in response to an email question I received this week…

Hi Pete… I’m interested in your thoughts on question 6 [in this week’s study] – “how can we discover our own hypocrisy?”

Hi David,

I think that there are different forms of hypocrisy.

One common form is where we hold others to a standard that we don’t meet ourselves. A good way to uncover this kind of hypocrisy in our own lives is to notice when we’re being critical of others and then turn that criticism back on ourselves and ask “do I ever do/say that?”. But sometimes we just can’t see it so it can also be good to ask somebody who knows you well (someone you know will be honest with you, not just “nice”) whether they’ve ever noticed you doing/saying that sort of thing and to keep you accountable in the future. We should also pray and ask God to increase our self-awareness so that we become more attuned to our own hypocrisy and therefore more able to repent of it.

But another kind of hypocrisy is the kind addressed in the passage (Matthew 6:1-18) – where we do good works for the wrong reasons, for the praise of men in particular. I think that this is the most common form of hypocrisy among Christians. We claim “Jesus is Lord” but behave as if everyone but Jesus is Lord by aiming to please them by our good works. In fact, even as I write this email, I’m conscious (probably because of the subject matter!) that I’m keen for you to think that I’ve answered well and therefore that I’m a wise and godly leader. In other words I’m trying to impress you – crazy huh!?

Now of course I have other motives, I do genuinely want to serve you by helping you think biblically about hypocrisy and helping you help others to do the same. But my motives are mixed and so there’s at least a touch of hypocrisy there that I need to repent of.

I think the best way to uncover this kind of hypocrisy is firstly to be aware of how prevalent it is. There are probably very few things that we do for someone else or in the presence of others that are not somehow influenced by a desire to receive their praise (or at least to avoid their ridicule!). Chapter 6 verse 1 starts with the words, “be careful…”, in other words, “be alert, be on the lookout”. The more reflective we are, the more we pose “the ‘why?’ question” to ourselves, the more we’ll become aware of our tendency towards hypocrisy and be able to do something about it.

As for what it might look like to address our own hypocrisy, I think that the passage has some excellent help. Firstly, wherever possible we should avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Secondly, we should be clear about the difference between what pleases men and what pleases God. Verses 5-13 of Matthew 6 are particularly helpful in this regard as they address this issue on the topic of prayer. And finally, I think we need to work hard at desiring the praise of our heavenly Father. If we love God more, we will desire his praise more and this will lead to a natural decline in our craving for the praise or men.

In our DNA group this week this led to a discussion about the very normal practice of thanking and praising (we might normally call this “encouraging”) people. I think we concluded that while this might be “normal” it’s (in many cases at least) probably not very Christian. The Christian way (as typified by the apostle Paul in all his letters) is to praise and thank GOD for the good work he is doing in and through the lives of believers, rather than thanking and praising the believers themselves. Think of the way that he often begins his letters with something like “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world” (Rom 1:8) or “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:4). Pauls’ goal is always that God gets the glory and that’s how it should be. Maybe we should think about our own speech and how well if reflects this biblical perspective so that we get better at encouraging one another to desire God’s pleasure and praise rather than the pleasure and praise of man.

I hope that’s helpful, and Praise God if it is :-)!

In Christ


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