Sincerity—also known as authenticity—is the fifth mark of the church (Rev. 3:1–6).
Its opposite is hypocrisy, which derives from a Greek word for actor. Just as an actor dons a costume and assumes a character for the stage, so a hypocrite dons a public persona that is at variance with his private self. The church in Sardis was a hypocritical church: “I know your works,” Jesus says. “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
Several years ago, I read an article praising hypocrisy in The New Republic. The author did not voice a full-throated praise of that vice—he was not a fool!—but he gave it two cheers. Why? For the simple and common sensical reason that hypocrisy is socially useful. It is better to live next to a hypocritical saint than a sincere sinner, after all. However vicious he may be in private, the former does nothing in public to shock the neighbors or frighten the horses. In an age such as ours that equates authenticity with being rude, crude, and lewd, a little hypocrisy could go a long way.
Nevertheless, despite its social utility, hypocrisy is spiritually deadening. God created our inner and outer selves to match. So, who we are and who others perceive us to be should be the same. But it takes much energy—spiritual, moral, and psychological—to maintain integrity from the inside out. Hypocrisy allows us to spend less energy on the inner self while spending the same amount of energy on the outer self. We keep up appearances, but inside, we are weakening from a lack of resources.
Interestingly, the larger the gap between our inner and outer selves becomes, the greater our commitment to legalism grows. Legalism is a merely external morality, an ethic only of rules. It is well suited for hypocrites, who are concerned with appearances but do not have the interior strength to obey God’s commandments from the heart. So, in Matthew 23, we find Jesus deriding the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and their legalism. The two fit hand in glove. Jesus advises us to follow the Pharisees’ rules, which, as external norms of behavior, are well and good, but not the Pharisees’ example, which is rotten to the core. They “clean the outside of the cup and the plate,” Jesus says, “but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (verse 25).
The remedy for hypocrisy is repentance. “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die,” Jesus counsels the Sardinian Christians, “for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then,” he goes on to say, “what you received and heard. Keep it and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
We need not choose between hypocritical sainthood and sincere sinfulness. A third option is available: sincere sainthood. But we must choose it today.