“All Christians are hypocrites.” At least that is what I was told over an iced coffee during my sophomore year at college. But perhaps my friend was not unique in his thinking; maybe you have also heard that same assertion in one form or another. And for those of you who have not heard such declarations and won’t buy into such sweeping claims, you would be in agreement with a recent Barna poll, which shows that the church’s PR crisis is really not that bad: only 85% of non-Christians believe the Christians they know are hypocritical.1 And the other 15%, you say? I suspect they were just being polite.
Now, though such claims and findings are not entirely unexpected, they still put a church-goer like me on the defensive. Having been raised in the church, I can attest that beyond a handful of curmudgeons, most sanctuaries are filled with good, kind, and well-intentioned folk that, for the most part, are trying to practice what they preach (until someone sits in their pew seat). But here’s the thing: surely some form of hypocrisy is to be expected, right? Our ability to live up to the aspirational virtues that we claim as people of faith is impossible without spiritual empowerment. And then there’s that whole sin thing. Whether or not you believe that sin is inherent, it is certainly inevitable, and before you or I even wake up to the err of our ways, we are intricately involved in oppressive and death-dealing schemes towards ourselves and others. It is clear that when it comes to walking this journey of faith, we will trip up more often than we want or care to admit.
George Whitefield was a famed English evangelist in the 1700’s, who brought in massive crowds to hear his preaching. His ministry is celebrated as paramount in sparking a great revival in his country. Yet, Whitefield was not without his critics and he frequently receiving hate mail of one form or another. At one point, after reading a letter of personal attack chose to write this simple reply: “I thank you heartily for your letter. As for what you and my other enemies are saying against me, I know worse things about myself than you will ever say about me. With Love in Christ, George Whitefield.
We are destined to miss the mark from time to time and we know that more than anyone else. But I’m not so sure that this is only reason that we Christians get the bad rap. And I wonder whether this charge of hypocrisy also has something to do with the posture we chose to take towards other sojourners on life’s roadways. What is our stance in relationship to those outside of our ways of living and being? It is, of course, a well-documented truth that it is far easier to see the flaws in another, while turning a blind eye to our own struggles.
There was a married couple that relocated to a quiet lot in a mature neighborhood. And as they were eating their first breakfast together in their new residence, the wife glanced through the kitchen window and saw the next door neighbor hanging her wash out to dry. “Whoa, you seeing that laundry?” she asked her husband. “Sure doesn’t look clean—looks like she could use a lesson in washing. Probably needs better soap.” Her husband looked on, but remained silent.
For several weeks thereafter, every time the wife looked out the window, she repeated her observations about the neighbor’s dirty laundry…until one day, the couple sat down again to eat breakfast and the wife was surprised to see such clean and spotless laundry on the clothesline next door. “Look! I see our neighbor finally figured out how to wash her clothes correctly,” the wife said. “I wonder what she decided to do differently?” The husband sipped his coffee, then replied, “Oh, I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”
We are, of course, rarely in a position to critique our neighbor’s behavior, first and foremost, because we have not addressed the stuff in our own living. Jesus says “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Luke 6:41) “Clean your windows, people!” And while there is a time and place for healthy admonishment, unless someone has invited you to be loving accountability for them, surely a posture of judgement is a quickest way to a one-star review as a Christian (and rightfully so).
But there is yet another posture that should warrant the faithful’s attention. And we see it in today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where he expresses concern for those in his faith community who are placing themselves on a sort spiritual pedestal in relation to others. Based on what they understood to be the merit of their spiritual achievements or practices, they have chosen to take a self-righteous stance regarding their spiritual prowess.
To be honest, this #winning attitude towards faith does not sounds a whole lot different than what we see in our own culture or may have even fallen victim to, ourselves, at times. In a society such as ours that is so anxiously obsessed with achievement—both to get ahead economically and as a sadistic way of defining the worth of people—it’s no wonder that the to-do list brand of faith is so alluring, with a promise of spirituality that is easily quantitative and reproducible; another something to get right. But as trying to get it right becomes the fixation in faith, this sort of practice in correct thoughts and actions can quickly become no more than behavioral monitoring, where behavior watchdogs are quick to criticize other people for their external missteps and fear the repercussions of their own blunders. Imagine with me a moment: congregations full of people who conceal their feelings and true struggles because they fear they will be ostracized. Does that image make you wonder sometimes if the church hasn’t had a hand in developing a climate that undermines the healing work of the gospel—the kind of work that can only come with though being forthright about who we are, and trusting a community with the demons we wrestle?
In the case of the church in Rome to which Paul was writing, I envision many good and well-intentioned folks within the faith community who had become obsessed with getting their faith practices right, so much so that their anxiety regarding orthodoxy and spiritual achievement had led to a “holier than thou” stance toward others who did not ascribe to their ways of living the faith.
But we read that the apostle questions the trajectory of such faith. Paul says “What’s the good in boasting? Every last one of us has tripped up in one way or another and ultimately fallen short of what God desires for us. And so where does that leave your proud, insider claims? Well, you can take them and this spiritual achievement stuff (as if you could somehow manufacture your own salvation) and you can scrap it,2 because our God is not playing that kind of game.”
It’s worth pointing out that this passage was a defining text in the protestant reformers’ understanding of what has come to be known as the doctrine of justification. We heard the word variations of the word justification used several times in the scripture reading and it’s a term that is used in the judicial realm to mean “acquitting,” or “making right.” When applied to faith, justification is referring to God’s gracious forgiveness of sins. And what Paul lays out here in this text is that it was accomplished and manifested in Jesus Christ as God’s free, unconditional, and unmerited acceptance of us in spite of our sin and alienation from God, from others, and ourselves.3 In short, in faith, there’s nothing to be achieved that can merit God’s grace; nothing any of us can do to get it right. Here, God does not respond to what we do; we simply respond to what God does. And God does grace, through the faith of Christ, as a gift freely given.”
Grace. It is as paramount to the understanding of our faith as any talk of sin and yet I’m not convinced we ever quite get our minds wrapped around it. Then again, I suppose it is not something that is to be conceptualized but experienced and demonstrated.
Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker were both powerful voices from the pulpit in London during the latter half of the 19th century. Spurgeon ran an orphanage as well, and on one occasion, Parker had commented on the poor condition of children who had been admitted to that orphanage. But what was reported to Spurgeon, was that Parker had criticized the orphanage itself. Well, Spurgeon has access to a pulpit, and he blasted Parker the following—the attack was printed in the newspapers and became the talk of the city. Naturally, people flocked to Parker’s church the next Sunday to hear what his rebuttal would be. He said the following: “I understand Dr. Spurgeon is not in his pulpit today, and this is the Sunday they use to take an offering for the orphanage. I suggest we take a love offering here instead.”
The crowd responded with enthusiasm and it is said that the ushers had to empty the collection plates three times (something for us to aspire to, right?). Later that week there was a knock at Parker’s study. It was Rev. Spurgeon, and he began right in, “You know Parker, you have practiced grace on me. You have given me not what I deserved, you have given me what I needed.”4
Wonder with me for a moment about what our relationships and interactions look like when God’s grace is at the helm. What is it look like—and feel like—when we are absorbing and practicing grace on ourselves and others? / Father Richard Rohr claims that when grace finally seeps in “our surprise and false shock at human brokenness is stolen [from us—after all, we are all destined to trip up] …and we are beyond being scandalized [but instead] are steeped into a scandalous compassion…”5
Could it be that grace would exchange our judgments and criticisms of ourselves and others for compassion? Could it be that grace would oust our boastings and egocentricities for humility? Could it be that grace would change the way we process our our own hypocrisy? And for those outside of our faith, who have felt judged or belittled by the church, is it possible that grace is what we can demonstrate?
Christianity doesn’t make us smarter, or happier, or righter, or better, than anyone else. But our faith realigns us with God and allows the Divine to do the mysterious work of untangling our twisted lives, so that we might demonstrate the power of grace. And rest assured that this world needs that grace—that you need that grace—more than ever. So here’s to a “Good Faith effort,” where God has put for the effort and we need but respond, for “We are now justified by His Grace as a gift through Jesus Christ, effective by faith.” Friends, I pray that the greater truth of God’s grace will unsettle you. I pray that grace of God would seep into each of us—that it will scandalize and shock us right out of our egocentricity and move us into compassion for ourselves and for those fellow travelers on life’s way. Because all of us are walking on this common ground: we will trip and stumble on our journey, and before that time where we can see clearly and know fully, we must walk humbly.
1 What Millennials Want When They Visit Church (https://www.barna.com/research/what-millennials-want-when-they-visit-church/)
2 Romans 3:27-30, modified from The Message, Eugene Peterson.
3 Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, p. 236.
4 With thanks to the Rev. Laurie Lewis for sharing this illustration.
5 Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation. pp. 26-27
21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.