- the problem of evil and suffering
- the problem of Christian hypocrites
Atheists (and other non-Christian religionists, but mostly atheists — at least in my part of the world) argue that these two problems are the Achilles’ heel of theism, and Christianity in particular.
People argue that:
- If Christianity is true (in terms of its claims about an omnipotent AND loving God), evil and suffering should not exist.
- And if Christianity is true (in terms of its claims that born-again believers love and live like Christ), there wouldn’t be so many people who call themselves Christians and DON’T act like Christ.
The answer to the first problem is too complicated to go into here, because even though I can answer it in words, those words don’t answer the real block, which is usually personal/emotional rather than logical/rational.
(If you’re curious, though, here is a question: If there is no God, and therefore no foundation for an objective standard with which to define good versus evil, how is it that non-theists can claim that evil even exists?)
But this article is not about the first problem. It is about the second problem: The problem of Christian hypocrisy.
There are, of course, people who flat-out lie and call them selves Christian (for political gain, usually) when they clearly are not Christians, in any way, shape, or form.
I’m not sure if you should call those people hypocrites. I just call them liars.
But there are also people who call themselves Christians, believe themselves to be Christians, and mostly try to behave like Christians (outwardly), and yet they also act so unlike the Christ they claim to trust in that its no wonder outsiders label them “hypocrites.”
Trust me, I know.
You see, I am a Christian hypocrite.
I say that I believe God is all-powerful and all-good. That the purpose of life is to “know God and make Him known.” That I ought to be humble, gentle, kind, forgiving, and loving just like Jesus.
But do I actually live all this out in my daily life?
At least, not consistently.
People who “believe God exists” aren’t (necessarily) Christians
Contrary to popular belief, Christianity does NOT mean that you believe that God exists.
Not everyone who believes in God’s existence is a Christian.
That would be like saying everyone who has access to a cell phone is an app developer. It doesn’t work that way.
Christianity is not about believing a certain list of things, following a certain set of rules, or blindly clinging to some particular beliefs in spite of lack of evidence or in spite of evidence.
Christianity isn’t truly about what you think, at all.
It’s about who you are.
Based on my understanding of the Bible, this is what Christianity is:
- Humans are sinners (aka they have done evil and continue to do it), so God sent Jesus to atone for our sins (via crucifixion and resurrection)
- Therefore, in order to become a Christian (ie, reconciled to God), one must not only believe God exists, but acknowledge His sacrifice, allow Jesus to live in us, accept His rule in our personal lives, and choose to live our lives in a way that pleases Him.
- However, this ability to live “God’s way,” does not come from sheer willpower.
- Because humans are incapable of being truly “good” on their own.
Here’s an example: God’s definition of “good” is “perfect” (“be ye perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”), which means NO SIN. And “sin” includes even thinking bad thoughts. Yet no one can be so perfect that they never think bad thoughts (hatred, lust, anger, anyone?)
- So God himself gives us the strength and ability to live His way (often against prevailing cultural norms) if we ask Him (that’s what “allowing Jesus to live in us” means).
Sounds simple, right?
But it’s not easy.
Why I am a hypocritical Christian
Being a true Christian, in the fullest sense of the word is incredibly, incredibly hard.
I’m not talking about trying to “follow the rules,” here. All Christians (Protestants at least) are familiar with the concept of “we are saved by grace, not works.”
I’m talking about the whole “die to self,” “take up your cross and follow [Jesus]” thing.
Do you know how hard it is to die to yourself?
To forsake those cherished habits (addictions, grudges, etc) that you deep inside know are no good for you, and yet you can’t quite release?
To stop comparing yourself to people like Adolf Hitler, Bernie Madoff, and your annoying next-door neighbor in order to maintain the illusion that you’re basically a “good person,” or at least, a “not-that-bad person”?
Do you know how hard it is to stop making you the center of your own world?
If you don’t, give it a shot. It’s hard, I tell you. Actually, “hard” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Even if part of you wants to do it — to be a TRULY humble, giving, loving person — there’s another part that absolutely refuses to let go.
It’s the old monkey trap:
Hunters learned that if they put nuts or fruit inside a slim-necked jar, they could trap monkeys.
The monkeys would easily slip their arm into the jar and grab the treats. But when they tried to withdraw their hand, their stuffed fists no longer fit through the neck of the jar.
Instead of letting go of the nuts, taking their hand out of the jar, and scampering off to freedom, the monkeys would stay there clutching the food with one hand stuck in the jar, until the hunters came and killed them.
That’s the way I am when it comes to Christianity. I know that I am trying to hold on to things that are slowly killing me — that real freedom is found with Christ — that God is worth it if I would just let go.
And yet, I hold on.
An agonizing decision
Several years ago, an incident occurred which illustrates this concept in my life.
I had an opportunity to win a significant several-thousand-dollar scholarship which required an interview. The interview, however, was scheduled on a day that conflicted with another prior commitment that I felt God wanted me to keep.
At first, I tried to brush it off, thinking surely God would want me to try to win this scholarship and help relieve my parents’ financial burden rather than keep the other appointment I had promised to keep.
If I tried to reschedule the interview, there was no guarantee there would be another slot. In fact, I knew there were no alternate time slots — I was up against many, many highly qualified candidates.
On the other hand, I had promised…
A few days before the interview, I woke up in a cold sweat. I could not stop thinking about my promise versus this interview. I could not shake the feeling of wrongness, no matter how I tried to rationalize it away.
It was hurting me, physically. I cried. I actually felt sick.
After many hours of this, I gave in and called the scholarship committee, steeling myself to give up the opportunity, and the scholarship.
To my immense surprise and relief, the person on the other end said, “Oh, we’ve actually had another cancellation, can you take this other time slot instead?”
Thankfully, it was a time that did not conflict with my prior commitment. I said yes.
And ended up winning that scholarship.
Did this incident teach me that if I just follow what God wants in my life, everything will turn out okay?
I wish I could say yes.
But human nature is perverted (or at least, I am).
This incident taught me that there is a powerful side of me that does NOT like to do what God wants (or at the very least, what I think God wants), and when I have strong convictions about doing the right things, which opposes this contrary side of me, I hurt. A lot.
So better to create a little more distance between God and me so that I don’t hear Him next time He wants me to do something.
It wasn’t just this scholarship incident, really, there were at least a couple more situations that reinforced this idea which I know in my head is ridiculous, but can’t quite convince my heart.
Obviously, my stubborness is killing me.
And that is why I am such a hypocrite.
We all deceive ourselves
According to I Told Me So: The Role of Self-Deception in Christian Living by Gregg Ten Elshof, everyone deceives themselves.
It’s not always a bad thing, actually. Sometimes self-deception is necessary.
(If you’re dying of cancer, it’s often better to believe you will get better, rather than sink into hopeless depression. Just because your body is failing, doesn’t mean you should make it worse by letting your sense of hope fail too)
Sometimes it takes some people a while to accept hard things, like death. So a little self-deception can help soften the blow.
In other words, self-deception is a method of self-preservation.
But a lot of times, we use it to preserve the wrong self.
We use self-deception to protect things we know we should give up, but don’t want to — alcoholism, pornography, a quick temper, and worse.
Is it any wonder that so many people who claim the Christian name do the same?
They cannot deny that there is a God, that everything He says is true, that Jesus came to free people from their sins if they would just accept Him…
…and yet they cannot bring themselves to fully accept Him, and let Him change them into better, less hypocritical, more genuine versions of themselves.
It’s the classic case of being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
At least I’m willing to admit it?
Does it make things better, when you are willing to admit that you are a hypocrite and you know it?
Sometimes, I think, people (including me) try to write semi-self-bashing memoirs, perhaps with a semi-hidden motive of showing people how authentic we are being, or how, by admitting to some fault, that fault is really not that serious, after all.
After all, if you’re willing to admit you’re a hypocrite, you can’t be SUCH a hypocrite, right? At least not as bad as those UNWILLING to admit it?
It’s a kind of absolution via self-critical writing.
(Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother may be a good relatively-recent example of this. When Chua got a lot of flak for her controversial parenting strategies, she replied that the book was her way of examining and airing her faults as a parent, not advocating for her old methods of parenting)
Sigh. I have to be careful with that.
To be honest, I don’t always know what’s going on in my own heart. Jeremiah tells us, after all, that “the heart is deceptive and desperately wicked,” after all. I can’t pretend to fully understand my own, and I don’t want to.
If you are a Christian who feels the same way…
You’re not alone.
When you feel inadequate, when you don’t understand why in the world you act the way you do, when you wonder why there are so many hypocrites in the world — yourself and others — you are not alone.
I don’t have all the answers, but hopefully we can encourage each other not to give up, to remind each other why it IS, in the end, worthwhile to keep fighting to trust God day by day.
If you are a non-Christian…
I hope this article shows you why challenge number 2 of the 2 Main Challenges Against Christianity doesn’t really work:
- There are liars who are NOT Christians, even if they say they are. They don’t even bother to do shallow outward “Christian” acts like attend church. These people are not hypocrites, they are non-Christians.
- There are actors who appear to be Christians because they say the right stuff and go to church a lot, but when it really matters, don’t count on them to act Christ-like. In the most meaningful sense of the word, they aren’t really Christians.
- There are double-minded folks who genuinely believe in God and even want to be like Christ, but have trouble getting over themselves and actually trusting God enough to let Him guide their lives. They keep running away, and making mistakes, and, well, acting like hypocrites.
- Finally, there are people with integrity who not only genuinely believe in and want to be like Jesus, they actually do it, consistently, and in spite of great pressure not to. (Corrie Ten Boom, for instance)
I tend to spend the most time in camps 2 and 3. Especially 3.
A lot of people spend time in camp 3, actually. Even those who don’t call themselves Christian pitch their tents there.
We all have a set of morals and values that we do not adhere to 100% of the time, and some of us have trouble sticking to it even for a significant portion of the time.
It doesn’t matter whether you call yourself a Christian, Atheist, Jainist, or a member of the Church of Euthanasia, you will have moments of hypocrisy in your life.
So don’t be surprised when you see it in yourself…or in others.
We are humans, after all.
This article is not a defense of hypocrisy
Jesus was hardest on hypocrites, when he was physically living on this earth (just look at how he dealt with the Pharisees/religious elites).
So far be it from me to say that hypocrisy is fine, or even good.
Rather, this whole article on hypocrisy is just a reminder:
When you are evaluating worldviews — your own and others — remember that hypocrisy is NOT a good excuse to dismiss or accept ideas.
Don’t tell yourself: “people who believe this are hypocrites, therefore this must be false” or the opposite: “people who believe this are so nice, therefore this must be true.”
It doesn’t matter what people do, or rather, it does, but don’t put the cart before the horse:
Whether you are or are considering Christianity, atheism, Buddhism, Islam, or the Church of Euthanasia:
- Evaluate the worldview based on what it SAYS
(What have its greatest leaders written and said? For Christianity, you can look at the Bible. For Islam, check out the Quran and hadiths. With atheism…you have quite a few choices — Dawkins, Nietzsche, etc)
- Make sure you really grasp the big themes and basic concepts of the worldviews, and don’t get sidetracked by irrelevant details or deceptive emotions/emotional appeals.
You can consult leaders and teachers, but always take what they say and do with a grain of salt and check it against the written word.
- And then and only then do you look at people and see if they are living from the perspective of that worldview.
Practice discerning between liars, actors, hypocrites, and the genuine article.
Because just like there are people who do bad things in spite of claiming to believe good ideas, there are also people who do good things in spite of believing bad ideas.
Hypocrisy is only one of many conditions that makes things fuzzy.
What you believe matters (The Stories of Schindler & Sugihara)
Recently, I’ve been fascinated by Holocaust history. Especially by non-Jewish saviors of the Jews, like Corrie Ten Boom, Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara, and more.
The last two are of particular interest to me:
Schindler was a member of the Nazi party. He was a womanizer who loved to party. Not exactly a self-sacrifical role model.
Yet when the Nazis started murdering Jews, Schindler had the courage and decency to save over a thousand people from certain death.
He was not fooled by the Nazi’s massive anti-semitic propaganda campaign which managed to convince millions of Germans that Jews were subhuman animals.
Rather, Schindler believed that Jews were full humans and that human life was valuable. And because of those beliefs, he chose to protect them, no matter what.
Likewise, Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who issued visas to Jews who needed them to escape the Nazis.
He did this despite the fact that the Japanese were supposed to be allies to the Nazis, despite being told by his government not to help, and despite the fact that many of his countrymen were off in China treating people the way Nazis were treating Jews.
Sugihara, like Schindler, believed that Jews were human beings, and human beings deserved to live.
So up to the point when he was finally forced to leave Lithuania, Sugihara continued issuing visas to the last minute, even throwing signed papers out the window of his train as it pulled out, so that the remaining Jews could at least forge their own visas.
It was desperate, hard work. But he did it. Because, after all, it was what he believed.
You see, beliefs drive behavior, and behavior is life.
So what you believe matters. A lot.
Don’t let other people, other hypocrites, drive you away from the truth.
Examine worldviews for yourself.
Be honest with yourself.
Notice when you are deceiving yourself, and ask: Why am I doing this?
Don’t focus so much on hypocrisy, in yourself or in others. Just stay humble and keep searching, studying, and let what you learn lead you in life.
Remember, in the end, you are responsible for living just one life: Yours.
So don’t look at others, don’t care whether they are hypocrites or not. It has nothing to do with you.
Keep your eyes on truth, and life.