An Honest Hypocrite Is Still a Hypocrite

March 6, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Last January, four researchers from Yale University published a paper titled, “Why Do We Hate Hypocrites? Evidence for a Theory of False Signaling.”  In it, the researchers note that hypocrisy occupies a special spot of scorn in our society:

Consider the hypocrite – someone who condemns the moral failings of other people but behaves badly him- or herself.  Many commentators have remarked on the “peculiarly repulsive” nature of hypocrisy … What makes hypocrites especially bad is that they both commit a transgression and condemn it. But why is this combination so objectionable?

This final line is the question the researchers attempt to answer in their paper.  They theorize that hypocrites are uniquely despised because:

They dishonestly signal their moral goodness – that is, their condemnation of immoral behavior signals that they are morally upright, but they fail to act in accordance with these signals.

At issue here is what is popularly referred to as “virtue signaling.”  Though this phrase can be defined in different ways, some of which see virtue signaling as inherently and irreducibly hypocritical, the phrase, at least at its most basic level, denotes the public condemnation of a particular practice or position, which is something that most, if not all, people do – at least from time to time.  So, for instance, on this blog, I have publicly written about the dangers of racism.  People would assume, since I have written against racism, that I would expend at least some effort to root out racism in my own life.  If it turned out, however, that I harbored a disdain for a particular race, or if I wantonly turned a deaf ear or a blind eye to the plight of a particular race, people would rightly call me a hypocrite because even though I am publicly promoting one standard of behavior, I am privately living out another.

The Yale researchers continue by explaining that hypocrisy is more dangerous and misleading than what they refer to as “direct lying,” because direct liars do not engage in the moral condemnation of a practice of position.  They simply lie about what they have done, usually to avoid getting into some sort of trouble.  Hypocrites, on the other hand, go out of their way, often without prompting, to condemn the things they secretly do to make themselves look better than they really are.

The researchers found that, broadly speaking, much of our revulsion toward hypocrisy is excised when people are honestly hypocritical – that is, when they “voluntarily [disclose] their transgressions, which offsets the negative evaluation of their hypocrisy.”  Just saying you’re a hypocrite, apparently, is enough to make many people comfortable with your hypocrisy.

Certainly, hypocrisy is roundly condemned in the Scriptures generally and by Jesus specifically.  In Matthew 23, for instance, Jesus offers a series of seven woes.  To whom are His woes directed?  They are directed to hypocrites!  Christians and non-Christians alike agree that hypocrisy is bad.  What is most interesting about this study is not its assertion that hypocrisy is bad, but its revelation about how hypocrisy is addressed and rectified in our society.  Culturally, these researchers note that much of the sting of hypocrisy is salved if one is merely an honest hypocrite.  If a person simply says he doesn’t practice what he preaches, our society turns a sympathetic ear.  The difficulty with this approach, however, is that an honest hypocrite is still a hypocrite.  Hypocrisy needs more than an admission.  It needs a solution.

Christianity says that the admission of a sin like hypocrisy is only the first step in dealing with that sin.  In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains that to address sin, one must not only admit, or confess, his sins, he must receive forgiveness from them.  In other words, a hypocrite must see his hypocrisy as an actual sin that needs to be forgiven rather than as a mere embarrassment that only needs to be acknowledged.  In short, a hypocrite must see his hypocrisy as something that is actually bad.  This is why the bridge between confession and forgiveness is repentance, for repentance sees sins not just as embarrassments to be enumerated, but as spiritual dangers to be grieved.

Admitting sin does not solve sin.  Only Jesus’ forgiveness does that.  Our hypocrisy, then, needs more than a confession.  Confession only reveals who we are.  Jesus, however, changes who we are, which means that Jesus can change us hypocrites.

And really, who wants to be a hypocrite?

 

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Entry filed under: Devotional Thoughts. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Flowers, Same-Sex Marriage, and Responding with Grace Power, Knowledge, and the C.I.A.

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