Am I a Hypocrite and Do Not Even Know It?
No one likes to think they are a hypocrite. That’s why we imagine the worst displays of hypocrisy and then declare ourselves innocent. We think of the hypocritical person as a self-righteous oaf, pounding the table to get across God’s condemnation of sin, oblivious to the stench of sin and selfishness in his own life. We picture the hypocrite with arms crossed toward other people and a nose slanted upwards. Then, we shake our heads at these hypocrites who think they’re sinless, and we feel safely distant. Well, at least, I’m not like that! But what if this picture is all wrong? What if the true image of hypocrisy is blurry? How might sin and rebellion sneak into our lives unaware?
In his classic work on repentance, Thomas Watson takes time to distinguish between the grace-filled Christian and the hypocrite, “A gracious soul labours to make the worst of his sins, but hypocrites make the best of them. They do not deny they are sinners, but they do what they can to lessen their sins…” We like to imagine the hypocrite as self-righteous snobs who deny their sinfulness and boast in their perceived perfection. But Watson paints a picture that hits closer to home. Hypocrites don’t claim to be perfect; they just think their sins aren’t that bad. Hypocrites don’t deny their sin; they just minimize it. The proper response to sin, of course, is to confess it to God and to mourn over how it grieves God’s heart. Or, in Watson’s words, to “make the worst of one’s sins.” That is, to see our sin in the worst possible light we can imagine, knowing that even then, we don’t see just how egregious it is before a holy God. The hypocrite does the opposite. Their response to sin is to lessen it — to minimize the significance of wrongdoing.
How do you know if you’re minimizing your sin? By the way you make excuses. Watson writes, “Instead of having tears to lament it, they use arguments to defend it.” The warning sign of hypocrisy is when your heart leaps to excuse your sin, rather than confess it. When your energy goes into excusing or defending your actions (even if you recognize those actions to be sinful!), you are doubling down on your sin rather than bowing down in repentance. The proud heart seeks to justify itself. The repentant heart renounces self-justification as futile.
Watson uses the example of King Saul, who failed to fully carry out the Lord’s command in battle and then offered excuses to the prophet Samuel for why he had not fully obeyed (1 Samuel 15). Saul’s reasoning seemed good on the surface. He wanted to devote the spoils of war to the Lord, right? He defended his compromise by appealing to good motives. Saul made the best of his sins. How did Samuel, the prophet, respond? He tried to wake Saul up by showing him just how severe his disobedience was. To drive the point home, Samuel compared Saul’s disobedience to the sin of witchcraft. At first glance, this criticism seems over the top. Saul was not yet a terrible king. He had not done anything as dastardly as dabbling in the occult! Samuel’s words linking Saul’s rebellion to witchcraft intend to startle us. Years later, of course, shortly before his death, a frazzled King Saul visits the witch of Endor in order to make contact with the dead. As crazy as it seemed at the beginning of Saul’s reign, Samuel’s rebuke was vindicated by Saul’s actions later in life. Saul was well on the road of rebellion that led to a witch’s den.
It’s convenient to create a caricature of a hypocrite and then distance oneself from that portrait. But this tendency is, in itself, a sign of hypocrisy. We’re much better off when we put our sins in the worst possible light – noting just how much they affect the heart of God and the people around us. Seeing the true state of our sin elicits humility and confession. Minimizing our sin elicits excuses and self-justification, speeding up our descent down the road of rebellion.
Credit: Trevin Wax for The Gospel Coalition 31 August 2016