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James A. Mann: By some degree, we all make the hypocrite list

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James A. Mann, Commentary

I don't have the authority, but if I did, I would brand 2017 as "The Year of the Hypocrite." 

Scratch below the surface on our Facebook pages and you'll quickly discover we are all, at some level, inauthentic and fake. We call it hypocrisy. In fact, the Greek word hypokrites means stage actor; pretender; one who wears a mask.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Jim Mann</span></p>Courtesy photo

Jim Mann

Courtesy photo

The year 2017 saw the public and embarrassing removal of some masks. Some highlights from the year: "Nobody has more respect for women than I do." — President Donald Trump, who has said that several times as both president and candidate for president.

"I have long been and continue to be a fierce advocate for equality in the workplace ... ." — U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan

 "And you have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child ... ." — Facebook post written to U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania

There's the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies funded to the tune of $100,000 by one Harvey Weinstein.  And my favorite, a commentary by CNN's Brian Lowry (pre-#metoo days) calling the late Hugh Hefner "a cultural icon who helped change the world" by promoting free speech, civil rights, sexual freedom and progressive politics.

I'm not pointing fingers (which would put me on the big-hypocrite list myself), I'm saying that by degrees we all make the list. It started long ago.

After Adam's failure in the Garden of Eden, God came looking for him. It was time for their evening stroll together. He called for Adam. All was quiet. Finally, Adam responded:  I heard you ... I was afraid ... so I hid. Then Adam tried to hide again. This time he tried to hide behind others: It was the woman ... the woman you gave me.

Hiding is a normal human response to guilt and shame. We hide to make ourselves look better, to feel better about ourselves. And we all do it. We all wear masks.

I read a story once of man who was out of work. Finding nothing, he responded to a help-wanted sign at the zoo. It was a strange job — a gorilla had died and he was asked to dress in a gorilla costume from 9 to 5 in a cage.  It seemed a bit "fake" to him, but he needed the work.

After a while, he began to warm to his new occupation. He became a crowd favorite, eating bananas and making monkey noises. One day he went too far on the rope swing and fell into the lion cage next door. He felt the lion's hot breath on his neck. He knew he was a goner. He began to scream. Then suddenly, the lion whispered to him, "Shut up you idiot, or we'll both be out of a job!"

Once you put a mask on, it's hard to get off. G.K. Chesterton said,  "The divine punishment of hypocrisy is fatigue. Those, in Shakespeare's fine simile, whose hearts are all as false as stairs of sand, must really have much of that exhausted sensation that comes of walking through sand when it is loose and deep. The hypocrite is that unluckiest of actors who is never out of a job."

Hypocrites are mentioned 18 times in the New Testament — all but one are references by Jesus to the Pharisees. He excoriated them, not for their high ideals or morals, but for the fact that they demanded standards from others which they refused to keep for themselves.

And that's the key — that's what ticks us off the most — when someone moralizes and lectures but doesn't abide by his own standards.

At this point you are shouting at the newspaper or computer screen: "Physician heal thyself!" I understand. Churches are known to be full of hypocrites, and pastors are some of the worst actors. If I had a quarter for every time someone told me they avoid church because of all the hypocrites ... .

And if that's your thinking, I have a few responses.  First, I would suggest that you might be working off of old data. The church has changed over the years. Obviously there are exceptions, but many churches have dialed down the rigid legalism of past generations and are much more user friendly. A lot of water has gone under the bridge. Give church a shot in 2018 and give us another chance and see if we've changed.

Secondly, the thing about the Pharisees of Jesus' day and our 2017 hypocrisy award winners is that they don't care to keep the standards they preach. For the most part, that's not true in the church. Those of us who use the Scriptures as a moral compass care very much that we keep these high ideals. We try to meet these high standards. We don't always succeed. But an honest, heartfelt attempt and failure does not make one a hypocrite. It makes one human.

The idea of the church is that we humans grow together and help each other in the process ("Therefore encourage one another and build each other up" or "spur one another on to good works" or "bear one another's burdens," etc.).

Jesus may have been less than compassionate with hypocrites, but he loves humans, especially those striving to move forward with God. We still have our share of hypocrites, but many of us are determined to avoid hypocrisy. In churches across Denton County, we've filled our hypocrite quota and aren't looking for more, but we've got plenty of room for humans like you.

JAMES A. MANN, Ph.D., is a Denton native and the lead pastor of New Life Church of Denton. He is an assistant professor of New Testament at Liberty University School of Divinity located in Lynchburg, Virginia.