Many Christians misunderstand the nature of hypocrisy. It’s common to think of hypocrisy as the gap between your actions and your feelings. So if I do something without having my “heart” in it then I’m a hypocrite. Evangelicals are especially sensitive to this charge because we believe (quite rightly) that Christianity is more than “just going through the motions.” We know that having a personal relationship with Christ is crucial. We believe faith must be sincere.
And yet, we can easily misappropriate our good instincts. Some Christians wonder if they should still go to church if they don’t feel like it. They wonder if it’s right to sing the praise songs if they aren’t feeling worshipful that morning. They hesitate to give generously because “God loves a cheerful giver” and, well, giving doesn’t make them very happy. They aren’t sure they should repent of their sins or work to forgive their offender unless they feel really sorry and feel like forgiving. Many Christians fear that doing the right thing without the right feelings makes them hypocrites.
But is this really hypocrisy? Another word to describe this behavior might be “maturity.” Children only do what they feel like doing. Adults learn to do things they are supposed to do though they may not always be excited about it. Of course, as Christians we want to grow so that we feel good about what is good. But the Christian life is full of instances where the doing and the feeling do not exactly match—sometimes with feelings ahead of obedience and sometimes with obedience ahead of our feelings.
Hypocrisy is not the gap between doing and feeling; it’s the gap between public persona and private character. Hypocrisy is the failure to practice what you preach (Matt. 23:3). Appearing outwardly righteous to others, while actually being full of uncleanness and self-indulgence—that’s the definition of hypocrisy (Matt. 23:25-28).
The hypocrite is not the Christian who struggles against sin, fights against temptation, and keeps doing what is right even on his worst feeling days. That’s a hero. The hypocrite is the Christian who uses the veneer of public virtue to cover the rot of private vice. He’s the man living a double life, the woman fooling her friends because she has church clothes, the student who proudly answers the questions in Sunday school and just as proudly romps through immorality the rest of the week.
The sin of hypocrisy is not that we are more messed up than we seem. That’s true for all of us. The sin is in using the appearance of goodness to cloak the deeds of evil. The sin is in thinking that who others think you are matters a great deal more than whom God knows you to be.