Characteristic of Jesus’s teaching on spiritual disciplines is his constant calling out of a crowd he calls “the hypocrites.”
So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do … Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites … Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16)
Ironically, it’s common to hear people dismiss Christianity on the grounds that “Christians are hypocrites.”
Some are, just as some religious Jews of Jesus’s day were. (Some, not all.)
But the problem isn’t with Christianity itself. Jesus called out hypocrisy in his earliest teachings and made it clear that it had nothing to do with the way of life he taught.
The problem is with our propensity to perform.
Getting Over “PC” Religion
Graham Cooke likes to refer to much of modern-day Christianity as “PC”—not “politically correct,” but “performance Christianity.”
The word “hypocrisy” has a fascinating etymology. Again, it’s ironic that the charge of hypocrisy is so often leveled at Christians, because the word exists in the English language in the first place because of Jesus.
In the original Greek the word meant “actor”—literally someone who performed on a stage for the applause and appreciation of an audience. Greek actors often wore masks to portray different characters.
So in Greek the word didn’t have the negative connotation it has now: it has that connotation, in English, because Jesus used it the way he did—to lambaste people who were living their whole religious life as a performance.
Christianity Is a Religion (Sorry, Jefferson Bethke)
There’s a shift happening in parts of the church these days away from using the word “religion,” or toward using it in a completely negative sense. You’ll hear “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship”; and in some circles (mine) it’s really common to hear people talk about a “religious spirit,” by which we usually mean some form of legalism or yes, even hypocrisy.
This shift is mirrored in the wider culture too (and possibly that’s where it started). Generally the idea is that you can be “religious” or you can be “spiritual,” but probably not both.
Jefferson Bethke made a big stir a few years ago when he did a spoken-word piece on this that went viral. It’s a good piece that makes some great points, and it obviously tapped into something a lot of people were feeling.
But if you really listen to it, you realize the poem isn’t about religion. It’s about hypocrisy.
It’s about living out your spiritual life as a performance, bounded by the rules and the script, doing it for an audience—whether that audience is other people or even a wrong conception of God.
Performance Christianity is not about receiving grace, fellowshipping with the Lord of life, and growing in the Spirit; it’s about doing something by our own efforts which we can then present to God or to people in order to earn their approval.
In other words, this is just the old works vs faith thing again.
But by nearly every definition of the word “religion,” Christianity is one:
1b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; 2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; 4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith (Merriam-Webster, “Religion”)
The Bible itself doesn’t speak in terms of religion vs relationship but in terms of true religion vs false religion (James 1:26-27). Personally I hope we can recover that language, but I know that language shifts and evolves, and “religion” may be undergoing the same transformation “hypocrite” did back in Jesus’s day.
I bring all this up because I think it’s more important than ever that we get clear about our terms and exactly what we are talking about when we talk about religion and relationship.
Because what’s crystal clear in Jesus’s teaching is that he is calling us to a relationship, an actual, personal, one-to-one relationship with God, and that is what this “religion” is supposed to be about: ardent faith, authentic belief, real commitment, and devoted, personal, from-the-heart worship.
So when it comes to spiritual disciplines, the first thing Jesus tells us is to get off the stage. Don’t be a hypocrite. Don’t perform.
Instead, seek God in the most quiet, private, personal places. Bring God into the intimate parts of your life and do things just for him, just because you know he’s watching and present, just because you want to encounter him.
This becomes very clear when Jesus turns to the discipline of prayer. Don’t pray like the hypocrites do, on a stage for everyone to see and hear. Instead, go into the most private room in your own house, and shut the door, and pray there, where your “Father IS in secret” (Matthew 6:6).
As human beings we seem to be wired to please and impress one another, and so the performance trap is incredibly easy to fall into. As someone who grew up in a Christian family, I understand the pressure that comes on us to follow the script, put on the mask, and just “do the right things,” no matter what might be going on (or not going on) internally.
When Jesus tells us not to be like the hypocrites but to seek God out personally and privately, he’s giving us permission to ignore that pressure.
He’s letting us get off the stage. He’s telling us we don’t have to perform anymore.
Reality Sets Us Free
Jesus’s whole teaching on spiritual disciplines can be summed up like this: You can let things be real.
You can be who you are in the presence of God. You can come messy, you can come broken, you can come passionate, you can come hungry, you can come apathetic. You can just come—to GOD, not to the star machine. Not to the performance Christianity pressure cooker.
The best place to overcome hypocrisy is in our private spiritual lives, in prayer and fasting and acts of generosity. These things shape and reshape our hearts.
Are Christians hypocrites? Yes, sometimes. We all succumb to the pressure to follow a script and dance for the crowd sometimes; we all get out of touch with reality. Jesus knows how exhausting and miserable the PC life is.
So he gives us permission to leave it behind.
(This is Part 56 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)