Living With Hypocrisy

I don’t know much Latin or Greek, but I do know the origins of the word “hypocrisy”: hypocrisis or hupokrisis, each meaning fakery or pretending. The concept of hypocrisy is at the heart of Christianity; Jesus condems few people more severely than the hypocrites (note to hypocrites – steer clear of Matthew and Luke. John is the gospel for you). Dante placed hypocrites in the 8th Circle of Hell, forced to wear coats that are golden and beautiful on the outside, but lined inside with heavy lead.

Hypocrisy can mean several different concepts, from the basic idea of “not practising what you preach” to “consciously or subconsciously putting forward a better image of ourselves than really exists” to “Hypocrisy is the act of pretending to have morals or virtues that one does not truly possess or practice” (wiki).

Here is the problem: most of us are hypocrites.

Perhaps we include another element to hypocrisy: that your beliefs need not be publicly stated; that is, hypocrisy can be not only “not practising what you preach,” but also not practising your own internally established code of conduct. It’s disputable whether or not this definition works, because theoretically all sin can therefore be considered a form of hypocrisy. But let me illustrate the importance of the concept by some examples.

First, let’s start with the most obvious form of hypocrite: someone who publicly preaches one thing but privately believes and practises another. Say a man publicly rails at Church against people who break the Word of Wisdom, but this man really does not believe in what he says; he leaves Church and breaks the Word of Wisdom himself on a regular basis and feels no shame. This man in a hypocrite in many senses: he does not practise what he preaches, and further, he does not even believe his own words. This man is a liar and a hypocrite. Let’s label this a true hypocrite.

Next, let’s look at a variation on that example. Say a man publicly rails at Church against people who violate the Word of Wisdom, but the man does not believe in what he is saying. However, due to various circumstances, he keeps the Word of Wisdom and adheres to his words. He practises what he preaches, even if he does not really believe in it. Is this man a hypocrite? Let’s label this an internal hypocrite.

Finally, let’s look at another variation on the example. Say again that a man publicly rails at Church against people who violate the Word of Wisdom, and the man believes in the truth of what he says. However, although he rails agains violating the Word of Wisdom, the man regularly breaks the Word of Wisdom himself, knowing that he has done wrong. He does not practise what he preaches, and knows it. Let’s label this an external hypocrite.

There is little to be said of the true hypocrite: his condemnation is clear. However, the internal and external forms of hypocrisy need a little more examination. I’m indebted to Lonnie Lee Best, whose table appears below, which I found very interesting:

Lonnie Lee Best’s Hypocrisy Matrix
  Honest Dishonest

Stated beliefs contradict actions. Stated beliefs are consistent with Internal actual beliefs.

Stated beliefs contradict actions. Stated beliefs are NOT consistent with Internal actual beliefs.


Internal actual beliefs contradict actions. Internal actual beliefs, if stated, are stated honestly.

Internal actual beliefs contradict actions. Internal actual beliefs are NOT consistent with stated beliefs.

This table is slightly different than the labels I applied above, but should still be instructive. There are two variables: whether our internal and external beliefs contradict, and whether we follow our beliefs at all. Thus the “internal hypocrite” I describe above is Mr. Best’s “internal dishonest hypocrite,” and the “external hypocrite” I describe above is Mr. Best’s “external honest hypocrite” (side note: “honest hypocrite” — best oxymoron EVER).

The “dishonest” hypocrites are people that don’t do what they believe, and further, don’t really believe what they say they believe. These are the true hypocrites, liars unable to follow their own words. Their position is dire, according to the scriptures.

The “honest” hypocrites are the commonplace sinners: all have sinned, all come short of the glory of God. We sin when we know what is right and choose otherwise, i.e., when our actions contradict our public or private beliefs we know are right. The sin can take place because of any number of reasons: falling to temptation, addiction, lack of faith, etc., but the important concept is that we are at least aware of the sin and we deal honestly with the problem. In many ways this honest hypocrite is the best off of all hypocrites.

I believe most of us are honest hypocrites. That is, there is very little difference for most of us between what we say we believe and what we actually believe. We aren’t lying to ourselves or others about our faith. In this way, “practising what you preach” is a poor definition of hypocrisy, because everyone fails in this respect. If practice was an absolute prerequisite to preaching, Church would not last three hours! I think in particular of the people caught in addiction, who fervently believe that their behavior is wrong and yet consistently and repeatedly sin against their professed belief; the drunk who hates his alcohol, or the porn addict who hates himself for not turning off the PC. These people are hypocrites, to be sure — but no more so than the rest of us.

The solution is simple: sin less. By trying our best to make our actions consistent with our beliefs, we are better situated to speak out against sin and to improve the lives of those around us. By the same token, the worst thing we can do is to deceive ourselves, to alter our internal beliefs to justify sin, while at the same time publicly decrying such sin. Rationalizing sin or twisting our reality to protect our selfish desires leads us even beyond hypocrisy to the land of delusion.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, or why I wrote this post, other than that I’m a hypocrite and I felt bad about it. I don’t want to downplay hypocrisy or make anyone feel better about the fakery of their lives. But I think it’s important to examine the different ways we deceive ourselves and others, in order to learn the truth and set ourselves free.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    An interesting framework for thinking about different kinds of hypocrisy.

    BTW, hupokrisis and hupokritEs derive from the Greek verb hupokrinomai, which originally had to do with playing a role on the stage (IE acting), but then came to have the connotation “to pretend, make believe, dissemble.”

    Sometimes in the KJV NT the word “hypocrites” is used not with our modern connotations of hypocrisy, but for Jews who are extraordinarily zealous of the Law.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks Kevin — and thanks for the origins. I find it interesting how Jesus associates hypocrisy with religious overzealousness in particular, but I’m not sure what to make of it.

  3. So. It appears that there is no question that we are hypocrites, but just what KIND of hypocrites.

  4. So… what kind of hypocrite am I?

    I belong to an organization–an organization that has _some_ stated beliefs that I neither believe myself nor necessarily practice. If I am LDS, attend church, and yet don’t believe everything that is stated current doctrine in our church, am I a hypocrite? If so, I don’t see this type of hypocracy defined above, maybe organizational hypocracy?

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Aspen, if you don’t believe everything that’s stated in church, you’re not a hypocrite, unless you hold yourself out to others as a full-fledged believer. Hypocrisy centers upon the individual, not on the organization to which he or she belongs.

    Now, if you are just going along with things for show, pretending to be a complete believer in the church for the benefit of others or for your own social benefit, then you’re deceiving others and yes, you’d be a hypocrite.

  6. Steve,

    I’m the former (I hope) –I’m willing to state what I personally believe even if it differs from the stated doctrine. However, I wonder if I am still hypocritical for attending a church whose docrine (parts of) I don’t believe. Hypocrisy certainly does center on the individual, but i think there is a type of hypocrisy that can be tied to one’s relationship with an organization one has membership in.

  7. The solution is simple: sin less.

    Indeed. ;)

    Simple, not easy.

  8. Steve: Here’s a problem. I think the church actually sets us up to be hypocritical — rewards hypocrasy if you will in a certain sense, and this sense is called “Be a good example.” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard from authorities, especially from the pulpit, to be a good example. Now if we are sinning, isn’t it better to be a good example in public (you never know who’s watching you and who knows you’re a member of the church right? Isn’t this what we’ve heard for ages?) and sin in private? For example, my mom has a BYU bumper sticker on her car, yet she is a notorious speeder on the freeway. She is being a public hypocrite — breaking the law and professing the membership in the church at the same time. I say, better for me to speed WITHOUT the BYU sticker and set a good example and be a private hypocrite. I think the church would prefer that as well, wouldn’t they? One more example: me at a party with another girl from church. She’s smoking pot and everyone knows she’s LDS. I’m not. Isn’t it better for me to go smoke pot in private (not that I would!) and be a private hypocrite while at the same time setting a “good example” than to be outwardly hypocritical like stoned-LDS-friend, and setting a bad example? I’m not being lucid here at all because I’m at work and trying hurry, but do you know what I mean? I think the church just wants us to be hypocrites in some sense, rather than to be outwardly bad examples and let our sins be seen. I don’t know. “Sin less” is the obvious answer, but not very realistic.

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Meems, I know what you mean, and can see how overemphasizing the “example” idea can lead people to be hypocrites. At the same time, though, I think you’re probably overemphasizing the “be a good example” element the Church teaches. I find that the overall message is to keep the commandments in public and in private, though I understand the dilemma of the stoned LDs friend (maybe she didn’t inhale??)

    In any case, what’s the alternative? Hide ourselves under a bushel? How do you reconcile the injunction to show your good works with the injunction not to be a hypocrite?

    And yeah, “sin less” is obvious. Realistic? I dunno. But I think it’s the right thing, and the only real solution.

  10. Maybe it’s because we’re from (slightly :-) ) different generations, but while I was growing up, I cannot overemphasize how much setting a good example was overemphasized. I mean like, every Sacrament meeting, every YWs. Maybe because I grew up in an area w/o many LDS? But still, it was really driven home.

    And she inhaled. Boy did she. But to her benefit, she was also the same girl who got up to bear her testimony one Sunday and said the words no one dared: “I don’t know if this church is true.” (Audible gasps). Maybe she wasn’t a hypocrite at all. Just me, for sneaking a Grand Marnier truffle when no one was looking (and other worse secrets never to be spoken of lest I discourage would-be investigators who thought I was a “good example” for the church)!

  11. I know some people who actually walk the walk, I respect them immensely. And I try to emulate them.

    However, I figure you’re right, most of us are hypocritical in some way or another, but I also figure God has written this into the equation and it will all turn out right.

  12. a random John says:

    Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age has a passage on hypocrisy that I enjoyed. The gist of it is that those who have very few standards use it as a tool to attack those who have high standards and then fall short. Often hypocrisy simply means you’ve fallen short of your goals, not that you’ve become evil. But because of the biblical usage of the term it has become the ultimate accusation in our society. This high sensitivity to hypocrisy ignores the idea that it is generally better to have high standards and fall a bit short than to have low standards and exceed them.

  13. Amri Brown says:

    I think y’all are crazy guilt-mongering Mormons. Stop it. It just makes you hate yourself, you make stupid self-effacing jokes, you get depressed and start taking Xanax.
    Let’s look at the plan. You know, THE PLAN. We’re fallen, we sin continually, our minds, bodies, hearts are susceptible to and guaranteed for corruption. Adam and Eve ate the fruit, we became that way. Or came into the world that way. But God says, no, I like my children I want them to come back and be with me, be like me. So he circumvents the rules of corruption belonging with cleanliness and makes a Jesus. To overcome all of our badness. If the solution is to sin less then why do we need Jesus? It sounds like we have a trajectory to follow the sin less good one or the sin more bad one. But that’s not what it is. We inevitably cannot be perfect on our own, in the end we can’t really sin less.
    Before I get attacked by those of you who think I am rationalizing, I’m not saying go and sin your life away. But we must accept that, we are, being fallen with goals of godliness, hypocrites. I am hypocritical. But the more I focus on my hypocrisy the less I do what I think makes life worthwhile. Seeking Jesus and activism to help my fellow man.
    I am always trying to have my actions match my beliefs. I will never succeed. The trying is satisfying to me and it makes me desperate for a Savior.
    And by the way, sometimes when your actions don’t match your beliefs, sometimes you should examine your beliefs, not just your actions. We have a tendency to believe corrupt things too. It’s not just our actions that go bad.

  14. It seems, Steve, that you didn’t treat extensively the case of the “internal hypocrite.” I find this to be, perhaps, the most interesting case. Is the indavidual who tests the word a la Alma 32 a hypocrite for doing something he doesn’t believe, but has a desire to believe? There is obvious condemnation in Moroni – a gift given without the intent doesn’t count…but sometimes, I do have the desire to believe and act as if I did. I don’t think that is a bad thing.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Amri, that’s a dangerous road you’re going down — rationalizing our behaviors, making the commandments easier…. I just don’t know where we get the license to do something like that, and I can see how it could blow up in our faces.

    J., you’re right about the internal hypocrite. In my mind we can distinguish between someone testing the word, with a desire to learn, vs. someone who does not have such a momentum. I think for purposes of examining the issue of lying/hypocrisy we need to consider intent very closely.

  16. Amri Brown says:

    Steve, if I remember right you said that in terms of the blacks and the priesthood that people had folk beliefs and cultural biases. Why can those be rationalized? What if say you felt blacks should have the priesthood, what gives you the right to rationalize that firmly held belief? Has that blown up in our faces?
    I’m not talking sex and drugs here. But try living without guilt, you’ll be surprised how much more good you are able to do and feel.

  17. Steve Evans says:

    No!! I need my guilt!!!

  18. Amri Brown says:

    Fine, keep it. But there are addictions’ groups for those sorts of things.

  19. MikeInWeHo says:

    #13 That’s evangelical theology more than LDS theology. Seems to be a creeping trend in the Church these days, though. The evangelicals do have it much easier psychologically, imo.

  20. Hypocrisy is a complicated sin. So complicated, in fact, that it sometimes becomes a virtue, as when we compliment someone for putting their best foot forward or for doing the right thing despite having the wrong reasons.

    And honesty is a complicated virtue. In fact, we sometimes use it as a club to hurt friends or family, then justify it with an all-purpose appeal to honesty. And then there are people who positively wallow in their nauseatingly confessional honesty and expect a pat on the back for it …

    I think most of us have a gut level sense that hypocrisy is not always bad and that excessive honesty often does more harm than good. I’m no fan of situational ethics, but for complicated as opposed to simple virtues, no simple rule will cover all the scenarios.

  21. Steve Evans says:

    Right on, Dave.

  22. professor says:

    Yowsers – you guys are technical. The way I see it, Jesus had strong words for hypocrites because the ones he was talking to were very bad men. These were high leaders of the Jewish faith, taking advantage of their power to influence the masses, completely filled with pride and reveling in the concept of being the pinnacle of righteousness and who had completely strayed from their true love of and connection with God. Do any of you really consider yourself in this category?
    I agree that we should aim high and if we fall short, that’s better than if we had aimed low and met out goal. Of course we should try to be good examples, but if you fall short, repent and move on.
    Guilt is a useful thing when it brings you to true repentance, but it can become a focal point for people to define themselves by. when that happens, they find things that they can consider “wrong” just to have something to hold on to. Or because they think they can reach some idealized level of perfection. There was a time when people couldn’t take more than 10 steps on the sabbath – were they closer to God with all of their invented rules and posturing? God taught us about forgiveness – of us it is required to forgive ALL men. That includes forgiving yourself. Guilt over the past can cripple you and that’s exactly what Satan wants and exactly what God did not intend when he gave you the gift of guilt.
    Now as far as hypocricy goes, all you can really do is try to sin less. Do you really think that you have so much strength in your sinning that it’s easy for you to say no to pot at a party, but you absolutely must smoke it when you get home and are alone? You have your own weaknesses and they are usually stronger at one time or another – chances are you aren’t super strong against something in a public situation that you can’t be in private or vise versa. So I think the church is just trying to say, don’t sin anywhere at all if you can help it. The whole point of that? Sure you want to be a good example, but really, you know if your actions are keeping you away from God. Don’t do anything to keep you from feeling close to your Heavenly Father. The minute you do – repent. If someone asked me if I’d ever sinned in my life, I would be honest that I had, but I know that I have repented and that at this moment, I’m not a hypocrite. Then I’ll do something else wrong, and someone will see it, and they’ll call me a hypocrite and remember forever that I did something wrong and I’m a hypocrite. But all I can do is repent again, and know that at that moment, I’m not a hypocrite again.
    You can’t be perfect and you can’t keep others from remembering all your imperfections, but you can just keep yourself clean and close to God from moment to moment.


  1. […] I don’t know what all the ramifications of the unfaithful steward are. I don’t know that I particularly care. I do know that they are insignificant when placed in the perspective of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The atonement is available for all who turn to Jesus, even the hypocrite. […]

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