By Selwyn Duke
Christians are hypocrites . . . this is a charge that is often leveled by those who have an ax to grind with Christendom, and Christianity’s critics are always quick to buttress this claim with stories about the latest cleric or high profile Christian who has fallen from grace. Of course, though, tales about the transgressions of the sometimes poor and infamous aren’t considered necessary for the validation of this claim. No, Christians who sin rather anonymously provide these detractors with more than enough a grist for the mill.
But, this all begs a question: why is this criticism directed at Christians to such a disproportionate degree? After all, no ideal is conformed to perfectly by everyone who espouses it; human frailty precludes this. Yet, you hardly every hear the label “hypocrite” attached to Buddhists, Hindus, feminists, environmentalists or any other religion, philosophy or ideology whose ideals one can fail to measure up to. So, what gives?
There are many factors, such as that when you hold up a high standard for everyone else, you had better bet your bottom dollar that you will be held to it. It’s also true that when that standard condemns practices that people have a great affinity for and are loathe to dispense with, they will feel attacked and seek a way to justify themselves. And of course, in an effort to validate themselves they will seek to discredit the standard and its adherents. Or, I could mention the fact that hypocrisy is often misunderstood, for it’s not when one says one thing but does another – it’s when one says one thing while fully intending to do another.
However, I have no intention of expanding upon these matters. Not for want of material, though, because I could get writer’s cramp doing these issues justice. No, the reason I won’t address them is that I’ll cede the point: Christians may not live up to their ideals as much as others do.
The main problem that arises from this is not that Christians may be unfairly impugned – the problem is that Christianity usually is. You see, there is such thing as guilt by association, and this is a fact of which these critics are well aware. Their implication usually is that Christianity cannot be valid because otherwise its adherents wouldn’t be so lacking in virtue. Their logic seems to be that the quality of a religion or philosophy is directly proportional to the degree to which those who talk its talk walk its walk. It’s as if they’re saying that Christianity is a show that doesn’t live up to its billing, or a supposed cure that isn’t really one because it doesn’t mitigate the disease.
Now, I could mention the fact that no patient gets better if he doesn’t take all his medicine, and very few Christians do take it all because they find it to be a tough pill to swallow. And Christianity is like gasoline: it doesn’t work when watered down. But I won’t delve into this further either, because the analogy of a cure and an illness doesn’t completely elucidate the issue. No, to understand it more fully, you have to realize that Christianity is also like a game that’s difficult to play.
Many of us know that golf is a notoriously difficult game and that most who attempt it become well acquainted with water and wood, as they try in vain to achieve mastery in what Mark Twain called “a good walk spoiled.” In contrast, the toddlers’ game that involves putting different shaped blocks in their respective holes is quite easy for even the worst of golfers to master. Yet, we don’t for even a second assume that the latter is a superior game because conforming to what constitutes proficiency in it is easier than in golf. On the contrary, we assume the opposite, which is that the more difficult the game the more developed it is and, therefore, the higher in quality it is. Moreover, we know that the failure of golfers to play their sport well shouldn’t reflect negatively upon them, because their ineptitude is only a reflection of the fact that the standard they have to live up to is a higher one than most other games impose on their participants.
So it is with Christianity. Christianity is indeed a difficult game to play because to meet its standard entails cultivating saintly virtue in oneself. It’s a religion that gives you definite parameters within which your behavior must remain, and it never says “if it feels good do it.” So, of course its adherents will pale in comparison to its standard – they’re only human. And in just the same way that you wouldn’t say a child putting blocks in holes to perfection was “better” than those miserable golfers, it is also not reasonable to think that those who conform well to lesser standards are better than Christians who conform badly to their more stringent one.
When considering the last point, it is very important to have a full understanding of why many people live up to their adopted standards so well. Yes, it’s because their standards don’t demand as much, but it also has to do with the usual reason why these standards are adopted in the first place. It is because these standards allow them to do that which they like and condemn that which they despise. In other words, these standards are often embraced out of convenience.
Now, finding a designer religion like this may be easy, but it is in no way, shape or form a path toward the betterment of oneself. To find that path one must try to determine which standard is the correct one and then conform one’s lifestyle to it. Of course, this is difficult because it means letting it be your guiding light, one that will illuminate the darkness in your life thereby exposing what should be purged. It means governing your desires with this yardstick and this means suppressing those that violate its precepts. In plain English, this means giving up some things you like and doing other things you don’t.
Alas, this is hard, though, and most don’t want to sacrifice, so their modus operandi is exactly the opposite: they decide that they want to live a certain lifestyle and then find a “belief system” that will accommodate it. For example, let’s say that I have some unusual sexual proclivities that I want to indulge above all else. If I simply find a religion that has little or nothing to say about them, then I won’t have to be too afraid of falling far short of its mark. But this is tantamount to my devising my own game, one that only requires me to do what comes naturally to me, because I don’t want to look bad on the golf course. I could then brag about my unfailing skill, but it would mean nothing.
When I do this in the moral realm I am also simply doing what suits me, and what virtue is there in that? But people do this all the time, and when they do their standards are nothing more than reflections of their preferences and dislikes; a reflection of their will, not a higher one. This is why they sometimes conform to them so beautifully: the standards are quite simply them and, of course, how could they not be in conformity with themselves?
Now, I have said in essence, that Christians’ failure to practice the virtues prescribed by Christianity is not due to the latter being unfit to lead man, but rather, is due to man being unfit to follow. I have said that Christian dictates are difficult to follow because Christianity is a tough game to play, and this is something that I think most would agree with whether they agree with the game’s rules or not. However, I would go even further: I would not say that Christianity may be difficult to conform to, I will say it is impossible to do so. I say this because I believe Christianity is the Truth.
Now, I’m well aware of the fact that many don’t subscribe to this idea, so I would ask the doubting Thomases to please favor me by indulging a hypothetical that will illustrate my point. Let’s say that there was a standard of morality that was the Truth, and by this I mean the very embodiment of perfection. How then could mere human beings, imperfect as they are, ever hope to live in accordance with it? They couldn’t, of course.
This tells us something very important: while the failure to live up to a standard isn’t in and of itself proof of it being the Truth, the ability to do so is most certainly proof that it cannot be. So, Christians’ failure to conform to their faith is not an indictment of it; what would be is if they could live up to it because that would invalidate any claim that it is the embodiment of that perfect, divine Truth. It’s ironic, but anyone who can truly practice what he preaches isn’t practicing anything worth preaching.
So, are Christians hypocrites? Or, to be more precise, are Christians inordinately hypocritical? Well, if you confuse hypocrisy with weakness, you might say yes. If you subscribe to the idea that you shouldn’t preach anything you can’t practice or haven’t always practiced, then you also might say yes. But, of course, if those were our criteria then we wouldn’t be able to uphold even most of the values upon which the vast majority agrees.
For instance, most would teach their children not to lie, yet, it’s safe to say that all who offer such counsel have themselves lied in their lives. Should we refuse to set the bar high for our children and cease to try to cultivate virtue in them because we ourselves have been found wanting at certain times? Of course not – that would be an abdication of our responsibility to lead properly. It would make no more sense than refusing to teach someone the proper technique in golf simply because you yourself never had the discipline to master it. That would not be love, but rather the very antithesis of it. For, true love means having a sincere desire for others to not make the same mistakes you did; the desire for them to be better than you are.
And, this is precisely why true Christians raise up for their fellow man high standards to which they themselves have trouble adhering. A true Christian says to himself, “Even if I have to go to Hell, I don’t want to take you with me; I want you to be better than I am.” And, it’s important to know something else about a true Christian: he knows that it’s not about him. He doesn’t say, “Do this because I do it, and I am such a paragon of virtue that I am worth emulating.” No, he makes no bones about the fact that he’s a sinner. What he does say is, “Do this because Christ would have you do it, and He is perfect.”