I recently came across “character building” study material geared toward young adolescents (10-15 years of age) at a summer camp. Granted, the camp was designed to channel morals and proper Christian behavior into the lives of these early teen years, however, the bluntness of the questions, the responses and discussions that followed captured my attention because I realized that although the camp leaders were trying to inspire a Christian morality into these youths, the exercises and questions did not digress or divert from the main subject, hypocrisy, and that they were relevant to you and me as adults.
Hypocrite was explained to the children as somebody who upholds a code of behavior, doesn’t live up to it but pretends like he/she does; someone who pretends he/she is someone or something he/she is not. They were given exercises that related to life situations in a language that was appropriate to their age group. They were asked to respond knowing what was morally “right” and “wrong”. The children were quick to understand. They “got” it because when they were asked to circle the number that best fit them, with 1 being hypocritical and 10 being very non in behavior, their response more often than not was no higher than 6. Now, if that questionnaire was presented to the adults in our lives, and given our life situations, I wonder how many of us would be courageous enough to circle the real number that defines us. The truth is, hypocrisy runs rampant throughout our lives. We see it in our communities, in government and our politicians, in our churches and elders, and in ourselves. We are so obsessed with how the world sees us that we strive to appear smarter, more confident, more generous, more ambitious, more concerned , more holy…but how do we really see ourselves?
In the old days, and especially in Greek theater, certain actors played more than one role, and they indicated their role by holding a mask in front of their face. From a symbolic perspective, the masks that the actors used to dramatize certain roles freed them from conformity and hidden desires, allowing them to express their true selves without fear. Even today, theater is symbolized by the twin masks of comedy and tragedy, sadness and joy. That is probably the origin of the concept of hypocrisy. To be someone you’re not.
I asked a priest/pastor about hypocrisy and especially in relation to his “profession” and to the example or role model to which he had committed himself. He said, “No one is without sin. If I claim to be without sin and then demonstrate sin (as undoubtedly I will), then, yes, I am a hypocrite. However,” he added, “just being a sinner does not qualify me as a hypocrite.”
It made sense. I did not argue his logic. If we have to be free of sin before we can preach or teach about it we’d all be sinking to the bottom of the ocean! No one person can achieve the full measure of divine grace in this life, and that we all struggle with an ongoing code of ethics and behavior does not justly label us with the verdict of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy consists not in failing to practice what we preach, but in not believing what we preach. I have a good notion that very few people live every day of their lives with perfect alignment of their beliefs and actions. From politicians to school board officials; from TV ads to automobile salespeople; from laymen to church elders; from young ones to adults; from you and me, we all belong to the same club. Although the “sin” may take different forms, the examples are many among us. We should all plead guilty.
I asked a child of 8 what he knew about hypocrisy. “It’s very much like lying,” he said, very matter of fact. “My friend has a big bike he lets me ride. But, he doesn’t like my baby sister so I pretend I don’t like her also. But, you know, I really like her,” he was quick to add.
If a child can recognize that he uses “hypocrisy” to impress another and is honest enough to admit it, can an adult set aside his pride and admit that he is something that he knows in his heart he is not?
On a scale of 1 to 10, where are you?