The Truth About Hypocrisy
By John Mallon
© 2005 by John Mallon
Years ago on a Catholic university campus, some students told me they asked a priest to please preach to them about sin. They told me his reply was, “Oh, how can I preach about sin? I’m such a sinner myself!” When they told me this I imagined myself saying to the priest, “But Father, that’s your best credential!” His experience of struggling against sin would be a source of wisdom to help others.
If we had to be free of sin before we could preach or teach about it we’d all be sunk! This got me thinking about the weasel word “hypocrisy.” There’s an old saying that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. In a world where so many moral standards have broken down, still nobody wants to be a hypocrite.
Some people use this accusation against Christians to silence them when they say uncomfortable things. But we should not be intimidated because there is a huge misunderstanding about the nature of hypocrisy.
I will say this and repeat it: Hypocrisy consists not in failing to practice what we preach, but in not believing what we preach.
I might fail to live up to my beliefs all day long, but still hold on to them as I strive to live up to them. That is not hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a cynical pretense of being a “good person” while disregarding the morality we claim to follow. The difference is being sorry, repenting, and striving forward. The hypocrite doesn’t care.
The older I get the more convinced I am that Christianity is not so much about being “good” as it is being true—with the knowledge that Jesus Christ is the Truth. It is Jesus who makes us good, not our “goodness” that makes us Christians.
A reader wrote to me saying, “One area that I'd like to see covered (and maybe you have and can point me in the right direction) is how to deal with the guilt of bad things we've done in the past while trying to be Godly people now.
“Sometimes when I go to Mass or pray the rosary I feel like a hypocrite because of past sins even though I've received absolution.
“Any light you could shed on this dilemma would be appreciated!”
I can tell you without any hesitation that you are NOT a hypocrite, for the simple reason that if you were a hypocrite you wouldn't care that you were.
As one of my favorite priests, Father Tom DiLorenzo of the Archdiocese of Boston, once said, "When Jesus forgives our sins in confession, they are cast into the ocean of God's mercy and then he puts up a sign that says 'No fishing!'"
Another thing to remember about hypocrisy, is that hypocrisy does not consist in failing to practice what we preach, we all fall short. Hypocrisy consists in not believing what we preach. Even St. Paul said, "Why do I do the things I hate?"
There is healthy and unhealthy guilt. Guilt functions properly when it lets us know we have done something wrong. It alerts us that some disorder has been introduced to our souls. When we confess the matter that should be the end of it. If we feel guilty when we know we have done nothing wrong that may be a psychological issue from our background that needs some attention.
We must listen to our consciences, but we also must be careful of taking our own moral temperatures too much because that can take our eyes off Jesus and place them on ourselves. Only He can make us holy. If we worry too much about appearing to be a "Godly" person, that can trip us up if we start thinking of our own image, or how we appear to others. If we maintain our intimacy and closeness to Jesus, He will change our hearts and the rest will take care of itself.
I hope this helps,
John Mallon is Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine. If you have a question or topic you would like to see addressed in this column write to John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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John Mallon - Columnist,
Hypocrisy, guilt, sin, confession
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