Last night in our partnership group we had some great discussion about hypocrisy, self-righteousness and the human tendency to point out someone else's flaws while ignoring our own. Before we dive in, let me give you a little bit of context.
We've been working through a video curriculum based on Tim Keller's excellent book, The Reason for God. Each group meeting we've been watching a video of Tim Keller with six other people who don't identify themselves as Christians as they discuss various objections to Christianity.
This week's objection dealt with the question of hypocrisy among Christians and asked why the church has been responsible for so much injustice throughout the years. On the surface I thought this was probably the easiest objection to deal with simply because there is an element of hypocrisy and injustice inside every single human being regardless of whether they're a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or even an atheist. We are all good fault-finders when it comes to the shortcomings of our neighbors, and we're less adept at finding our own faults even when given overwhelming evidence that they exist!
As we discussed this, the word that kept coming to my mind was: "tension".
When we identify ourselves as a follower of Jesus, we have suddenly identified ourselves with a certain body of teaching, which is then meant to carry over into a certain kind of behavior consistent with that teaching. We would say that we've accepted the forgiveness that Jesus offers for our sins – past, present, and future – but we would also say that it is important for us to be making different choices as we move forward in our lives with him. The standard that we have publicly embraced as a follower of Jesus is an impossible one. Jesus himself said it this way in Matthew 5:48 – "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
That means, by necessity, there is a gap between our current conduct and the standard which we believe should guide our lives. I don't know anyone who has arrived at the "be perfect" standard yet. In that sense there is always a measure of hypocrisy in us because we claim to be following Jesus who calls us to perfection and yet we fall short of that standard on a daily basis. There's an awful lot of tension in that gap between our actions and God's standard.
That is where two other key words step in. The first is grace. God's grace extended to us in Jesus is the means that bridges the gap between us and God. Our conduct is imperfect, and yet we are forgiven for those sins by Jesus' sacrifice for us. But grace is not the under-rug-sweeper that we sometimes make it out to be. Grace actually calls us to account for our actions and seeks our transformation. In other words, grace is not tolerance. Tolerance is passive – do whatever you want to do and I won't bother about it. Grace is active – what you've done is wrong, I love you and want to see you change going forward.
Sometimes in church world we think that if someone calls us on an area of our lives that is out of step with God's character that they're being judgmental or hypocritical. But in the context of true Christian community, where there is genuine love for each other and grace being extended, the best thing we can do is to call each other on our sins. Paul actually says that we should forget about judging people outside the church, but inside the church we should judge each other so that we can, by God's grace, bring our community more into line with Jesus' intention (1 Corinthians 5:12).
The second key word to address the tension is humility. This is where we often go wrong with our judgment towards each other. For whatever reason we forget that there are still gaps in our lives between where we are and where God wants us to be. It may be in a different area than the one we're addressing with our fellow believer, but the gaps are very real. So when we're talking to each other about areas of our lives that are out of step with God's character we should be careful to do so in an attitude of humility.
Paul writes to the Galatians that when they restore a brother who has been found to be sinning they should do so gently while also keeping watch over themselves so as not to be tempted into sin themselves. A little humility with each other would go a long way towards seeing true grace do its transforming work in our lives.
Let's be honest, the tension is always going to be there. But in a church community we can go a long way towards closing those gaps if we're willing to offer true grace in a spirit of humility.