According to Jesus and the sermon on the mount it could be this – hypocrisy. Jesus says in Matthew 6v1, Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Hypocrisy is doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons and that is what makes it both deceitful and deadly. Hypocrisy is doing acts that God requires (giving money, prayer, fasting) but doing them before men (rather than God) to be seen by them.
Who doesn’t want to be noticed?
The word here for seen means to be taken notice of and I guess it is in our acts of worship that it is easiest to develop a false spirituality. It’s in your church-going and your giving that you can gain a reputation for goodness and godliness that mask a heart far from God.
As Christians we’re very aware of the dangers of worldliness. It doesn’t take long to begin to see a drift into obvious worldliness in a fellow church member who stops coming to church or starts to date an unbeliever or openly questions what the Bible teaches.
But hypocrisy is like carbon monoxide. It kills you slowly and silently. The danger of religious hypocrisy is that you can carry on doing all the same things you did when you really loved God even as your heart begins to turn far from him to be replaced with vanity and pride and self-righteousness. Outward appearances may look (albeit superficially) the same whilst inner realities are fast changing.
And even our church culture can be an incubator of hypocrisy if in the church we seek only to make ourselves big, by applauding those who do and say the right things. Our churches should be those that make much of Christ and our worship of him as we remember his goodness and beauty. Our churches should be places in which we remember our spiritual poverty but the great hope that comes from a gracious saviour but when they become mutual appreciation societies it might just be that we could slip from true worship into hypocrisy even as we get a big round of applause from all at church.
And what is worse is that hypocrisy is not so much deception as disasterous self-deception
The problem is that all of this religious behaviour is motivated by a need to please men and earn an earthly reward rather than please God and receive a heavenly reward.
In Matthew 15:8-9 Jesus takes Isaiah’s words and applies them to the religious leaders of his day.
These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain.
What then is the cure for hypocrisy?
The answer you won’t be surprised to hear is the gospel. All of our behaviours are finally rooted in our beliefs.
So what are we believing when it matters more to us what others think of us than what God thinks of us? What do I really believe when I never read the bible or pray at home but love the buzz of being in the music group up front? What has happened to my heart when I can come to church and teach the children to love Jesus and all the while surf porn at home? What am I in ministry for when the biggest disappointment of the day is that not one person thanked me for my sermon?
What my behaviour is doing is demonstrating my belief.
Why we must look for praise
Jesus says we face a choice. We can seek praise of man or the praise of God. We can look for a worldly affirmation or a heavenly one.
What I suggest is vital to remember if we are to resist hypocrisy is that not only is it not wrong to seek a reward but that it is positively necessary to desire a reward from someone or somewhere.
As creatures, we human beings cannot derive our identity and our worth from ourselves. We seek and need the praise of another. Whether it’s a pat on the back from a boss, a whisper of ‘I love you’ from a spouse, a hug when we get home from work from a child we seek affirmation that we matter and that we are valued.
Jesus says that it is the praise of his father in heaven that drives his ministry and he says it should be so for us. ‘Then your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’
For those who refuse to look to their heavenly father for affirmation there is only one place to look and that is for praise of men. The peverse hypocrisy that Jesus exposes in religion is that on the face of it we are seeking the praise of God whilst in practice we are obsessed with gaining the praise of men.
We must choose
In the sermon on the mount Jesus shows that living for the praise of man and the praise of God are incompatible, irreconcilable and mutually exclusive. I must make my choice to live for the praise of men or my father in heaven.
How can I keep my heart from hypocrisy?
1) Look at my behaviour as a test of my heart.
Where is there evidence of a spirit of hypocrisy?
When my ministry, if it goes unrecognised by men, ceases to have value or meaning to me.
When I don’t seek God’s blessing on ministry in ‘the secret place’. A prayerless ministry is a sign of a man-centred ministry.
When I seek out opportunities that lead to greater praise. Maybe it matters to me how many people will be there or whether a church-leader will spot me.
When I look to be involved in ministry that gets me noticed. Getting up-front at church or positions of leadership.
When my business on a Sunday at church is to talk about myself and my work.
Each of these are situations that warn me that my focus is on the praise of men rather than the praise of God.
2) Address my heart to change my behaviour
Tim Keller has said ‘the human heart is always trying to get out from under the gospel’. And if we relate that to Jesus words then we need to recognise that left unchecked and unchallenged my heart will begin to seek out praise from men.
Martin Luther knew this reality of needing to teach ourselves the gospel every day if we are to resisit the temptation to look to men. He said ‘Most necessary is [the gospel] that we know it well, teach it to others, & beat it into their heads continually’.
So we need to discipline our hearts and minds to remember the gospel of grace that has come to us in Jesus that through the forgiveness of sins we have a heavenly hope. We await a great reward from God on the day of judgement.
And we need in our churches to ensure that our meetings and our church culture more generally do not incline our hearts towards people-pleasing and applause seeking but God-honouring and God-centred Christian lives that look away from ourselves and this world to a glorious and great heavenly reward.
What is at stake?
For Jesus hypocrisy is a genuine danger he warns his people ‘be careful’ (the present tense of the verb calls for a constant vigil). For there is a mutual incompatibility in having as a fundamental orientation of life the praise of men or the praise of God and therefore as a result of that incompatibility there are two mutually exclusive rewards. Those who seek the applause of men now receive in that praise their reward in full (!) for the hypocrite, finally, does not serve God and does not worship him. For the hypocrite their heart is far from God and as revealed in their desperate desire to at all costs gain the praise of men and will not enter Christ’s Kingdom.
Only those who seek God in the secret place and have their hearts set on pleasing him await a reward from heaven.
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