The Hypocrite and the Sinner: Not Twins


The Struggle Is Real

William Gurnall once stated, “While the Christian commits a sin he hates it; whereas the hypocrite loves it while he forbears it.” We have all felt the frustration of falling into sin the same day as attending Mass or praying.  The truth is that we all play many positive and not so positive roles in our daily spiritual lives. If you are anything like I am, you unwittingly focus more on the negative roles than the positive ones. You may tend to beat yourself up more for the slips than celebrating the wins.

That is not what Christ is all about. Surely, he wants us to see our faults. However, Jesus also wants us to be uplifted by our accomplishments as well. In fact, one of those accomplishments can often be gaining clarity amidst our stumbles. Such was the case when I called myself a hypocrite during confession. The priest gently corrected me, pointing out that hypocrites pretend to something they are not while sinners merely fall. Hypocrites are liars and sinners, whereas sinners are usually not liars and hypocrites. Sinners fall a lot in a feeble effort to pursue his example of love and service.

Falling Is Not Hypocrisy

Do not consider yourself a hypocrite because you are a sinner. Rather, consider yourself the beneficiary of such a loving God that your sins can be washed away by your sincere desire to improve out of love. Do not scrupulously obsess over your falls. Rather, embrace the gift of hope and immerse yourself in the sea of love and mercy which Christ offers to all of us who fall on a daily basis.  The devil wants you to wallow in shame, frustration, doubt, despair, and hopelessness.

Shed yourself of these negative and self-destructive lies. Christ chose you to glorify God despite your imperfection because he knew that there was greatness beneath your falls.  Remember that Saul lost an S and gained a P in his name precisely through his greatest fall and proceeded to change the world. Remember that Paul fell because God loved him and wanted his greatness to emerge from that fall. We all have greatness just waiting to be discovered through our falls.

Hypocrisy Is Conscious Pretense

The person who pretends to be impartial while secretly favoring one side over another is a hypocrite. Individuals who pretend to love animals while secretly abusing them are hypocrites. People who pretend to follow Christ while promoting everything he spoke against act hypocritically. However, a common misconception in our society, especially among those who bash Catholics and Christians in general, is to call anyone who preaches following in the example of Christ while falling far from that example a hypocrite. It is not hypocrisy to promote and aspire to a standard and conduct one fails to obtain for oneself.

One’s imperfection ( which we all possess) does not, therefore, tarnish, diminish, or destroy the virtue and value of one’s message of virtue. It is hypocrisy, however, to consistently promote a message which one consciously and purposefully rejects or ignores. The sin is not in failing to live up to one’s own message or supposed standards but, rather, in consciously rejecting that message and standard for oneself while applying it to others.

Many today turn this issue into a political one, conveniently bashing opponents and defending their own side regarding hypocrisy claims. Some of these even argue that this is all about a failure to self-reflect. I suggest that we begin by separating the validity and virtue of the message from its imperfect messengers. I also suggest that we distinguish between consciously pretending to that which one is not versus merely promoting a message one often fails to uphold through one’s own imperfection.

Scriptural Perspective

Many cite the Bible which speaks on the evil of judging others and pointing imperfect fingers ( Mt 7:1-5) and of seeing oneself as better than another ( Lk 18:11-12). Another point is judging over small matters while ignoring much more important issues (Mt 23:23).  Ultimately, hypocrisy is found where one holds different standards for oneself than others (Rm 2:21-22),  boasts outwardly or does things merely for show ( Mt 6:2), holds others’ imperfections as proof of their supposed inferiority, or says one thing for outward appearance while internally believing something else (Ps 12:2).  Hypocrisy exists where one has no sincere intention to change and even a desire to define one’s own standards apart from God’s ( Rm 10:3).

A common thread in the Bible’s views on hypocrisy is that it is insincere and self-righteous.  The sinner who sincerely aspires to and promotes that which he falls short of but never stops struggling to reach is not a hypocrite. The key issues are sincere intent and attempt as well as humble reflection and admission of imperfection. Hypocrites possess outward superficiality with no intent or attempt to change.

In the course of my teaching, I am often called upon to teach students the principles of logic and reasoning. One of the most common errors in this area is thinking that a good message is faulty or useless simply because the messenger is imperfect or even contradicts the very message he or she is conveying. Smoking causes cancer whether or not the one telling us so actually smokes.  If imperfection disqualified us from bringing Christ to others, all of us including all saints would have to find another purpose in life. Our Lord knew all too well that he was gathering from imperfect ranks.

The Best Teachers Are Those Who Have Fallen

One of my many hats is tutoring people on how to pass the Bar Exam. Most students are shocked when I inform them that I failed the Bar Exam three times before finally passing it! After all, they reason, why would anyone admit to failing that which they now propose to help another pass? I proceed to inform them that my stumbles are the logs from which I burn the fuel of experience. By failing, I learned what not to do as much as what is simply a waste of time.

By failing, I learned how our own warped sense of perfection actually distorts our perception of humanity, practicality, compassion, mercy, and hope. Ultimately, those who have fallen are the best teachers on how to avoid some falls. More importantly, they teach us how to fall gracefully and rise masterfully. God knows that our falls can shape our greatness if we allow them to do so.

Falling is an Opportunity, Not a Failure

It is with all of the above experiences and revelations honed through setbacks and stumbles that I slowly realized that the ultimate sin is not in falling or often failing to practice what one preaches.  Rather, the worst sin of all is failing to rise after one’s falls out of a combination of despair, lack of faith, pride, shame, or simply not loving enough. Yes, you must love to get up from your falls.  You must love yourself enough to believe that you can rise and aspire. You must love others enough to realize that your rises can inspire them.  Above all, you must love God enough to throw all pride and shame aside.

The hypocrite and the sinner are not always one and the same.  Hypocrites lie while sinners simply fall. Our world obsesses over results. Our Lord, however, favors sincere effort to overcome falls. When the world sees a fall, God sees a potential for greatness. What becomes of our falls is up to each of us. Your sin is not hypocrisy unless you stop trying to change, start judging others harshly, or start lying to yourself. The best methods to fight hypocrisy include humble acceptance of your faults and sincerity to amend your life.

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