For a variety of reasons, the subject of hypocrisy in its various guises is one I return to over and over again. To be sure, even when I am not consciously thinking about it, it is something that I am reminded of over and over again because frequently my reading of historical figures and controversies leads me to read outraged works that inveigh against the hypocrisy shown by others, with perhaps less insight into the hypocrisy that we ourselves have. It is easy to see that other people are hypocrites. Regardless of one’s own moral or political worldview, there are a great many easy targets for the label of hypocrite. The Beastie Boys lampooned the father who sought to forbid his rebellious son from smoking despite being a hypocrite who smoked two packs a day in perhaps their most popular hit. Recently we have seen the phenomenon of a #MeToo activist who sought to condemn other sexual predators despite herself having preyed upon an underage person herself while seeking to escape the repercussions of the act in the fact of outrage that she had herself helped to inflame. And the phenomenon of Christian ministers who preach obedience to God’s moral standards while themselves being flagrant adulterers and corrupt charlatans is too common of a phenomenon to need to be supplied with for instances and examples over the past 150 years, at least.
Instead of condemning some small subjection of hypocrites among us, of which there are many, I would like to examine what sorts of blindness lead us to become hypocrites. We should note, going into any discussion about hypocrisy, that while it is easy, even a trivial task, to identify others as hypocrites, it is vastly more important to fight against those tendencies that would make us hypocrites. We will suffer no judgment at the hands of God if we have failed to point out and expose some of the large suite of hypocrites that is always around us. We will, however, suffer judgment for being hypocrites ourselves. It is a vastly harder task to avoid being a hypocrite or overcoming it than it is to expose hypocrisy, and if we are aware of the importance of doing that which is both rare and difficult and of vital importance as opposed to doing that which is easy and trivial and meaningless, then we will at least agree on the desirability and importance of fighting against hypocrisy in ourselves. Since for most of us, the nearest hypocrite we can see is our own reflection in the mirror, it is worthwhile to examine why this is the case, not least so that we can be merciful to others in hope that we will obtain mercy for ourselves.
A great deal of the blindness that leads to our hypocrisy is the asymmetry that exists in the state of our knowledge and awareness and in our judgment. For example, we have a high degree of confidence in our ability to judge the past while having no insight at all as to the state of future standards of judgment that will be used to judge us. This asymmetry leads us to condemn the hypocrites of the past, especially if that means that we do not have to accept their unfashionable views and judgments on our own social sins, and allows us to feel as if we have progressed from at least some of the problems that humanity has struggled with over time. Yet while we anachronistically and snobbishly judge the past by the standards and fashions of the present, we live in practical ignorance of the ways in which we ourselves will be judged by the standards of the future (which we cannot even imagine, much less know) as hypocrites in the same fashion that we judge others today. It is easy to mock Abraham Lincoln’s need to pander to the racist white vote in Peoria, Illinois in the mid to late 1850’s, or Thomas Jefferson’s preaching the equality of man while keeping a slave mistress who was a mere teenager the age of his elder daughter when beginning their relationship. It will be harder to defend ourselves after we are dead from our own hypocrisies and our own moral blindness even as it is rather difficult, not to say impossible, for Messrs. Lincoln and Jefferson and many others to defend themselves against our moral outrage.
Nor is this the only asymmetry that encourages hypocrisy within us. A classic source of hypocrisy is the gap that exists between our awareness of our own interior life and our lack of awareness of what is going on inside of others. We judge ourselves by our intentions–at least the good parts of our intentions and not less noble ones–and we judge others by the results of their actions, seeing as we lack knowledge of what is going on inside other people. We justify our own failures because our knowledge of what we are struggling with and against, but we have no such mercy on those we judge, even if the failings are the same. How do we know that someone trapped in some kind of addictive and sinful and self-destructive lifestyle lacks a bitter awareness of that state? We do not. How can we excuse ourselves because we know how much we struggle against a particular congenital bad tendency within us while refusing to give the benefit of the doubt to someone else who may struggle just as hard (or harder) with the same lack of success? We cannot. How will we escape judgement for this hypocrisy and double standard when we stand before our Lord and God to account for that which we have said and done? We will not.
Nor do these sources of the blindness that leads to our hypocrisy exhaust the various means by which we may be made hypocrites. Another source of hypocrisy is the gap that exists between our knowledge and our obedience. We may know, intellectually, the proper way to behave, but be unable to act on that knowledge for a variety of reasons. All too often we can easily acquire knowledge about how we should behave and about what is and what is not right to do, and not act on that knowledge. Speaking for myself, the gap between awareness of what should be done and a practical action on what I know is a very large gap. I suspect it is a large gap for many other people as well. After all, there is a certain amount of pride and self-worth one feels with the acquisition of knowledge, to know what sort of foods one should eat in what quantities, or how one should obey the Sabbath, or how one should respect others and allow them to maintain their dignity even in the most trying of circumstances. But how much harder is it to restrain our appetites when they are raging, or to restrain our anger at other people for having caused us offense or inconvenience, or to do all that needs to be done when we are tired and busy and stressed out and simply want to relax and not have to worry about something for a change? And if we know that it is hard for us not to lash out against others when we are hangry and tired and overwhelmed, how can we lack compassion on others who may find it just as hard to restrain themselves as we do?
Indeed, that lack of compassion tends to be a common thread in many of the sources of hypocrisy that we struggle with. We have compassion on ourselves, but we do not always realize that we need to have compassion on others as well, even if their interior lives are hidden to us, even if their wrongs cry out because we fancy ourselves to be far more advanced along the path to virtue in that area while we are blind to areas where our own virtue is distinctly lacking or imperiled. We have intellectual knowledge of the need to respect others and give them the benefit of the doubt, but when push comes to shove we have not acquired the discipline of actually respecting others and giving them the benefit of the doubt and withholding judgment and censure for them for things that we excuse ourselves for. If we were more restrained and more reflective we would have cause to see our own vulnerability to being labeled as a hypocrite, and we would be less inclined to join pitchfork-wielding outrage mobs against some of the many hypocrites around us, and more inclined to act with compassion in the face of a broken world that cannot know justice because it is filled with injustice at nearly every level and in nearly every aspect. It is a great deal easier to show mercy to others when we become aware of our own need for that mercy, even as we strive to live godly lives and treat others with justice and equity. Being imperfect, we will fall short, but to the extent that we are honest with ourselves, we may at least hope to avoid many of the pitfalls that lead so many to be such flagrant hypocrites in this and every age.