A Meditation for Lent
In a 1995 film Anthony Hopkins plays Richard Milhous Nixon, that great and devious man. In this role, Hopkins is very, very good. In fact, while he was making the film Hopkins walked and talked and gestured like Nixon not only on the set but also off it. At home, in restaurants, even out on the streets of Hollywood, Hopkins adopted that awkward, formal manner of one of the tragic figures in international politics.
Of course, after he made the film Hopkins reverted to his own self. Of course. Who would want to get inside Richard Nixon and stay there? Who would want to be Richard Nixon—a man in whom ambition, defiance, and shame seemed to struggle for pre-eminence? As a professional actor, Hopkins played Nixon and then put him away.
But the remarkable thing is that some actors never do get all the way back to their old selves. They absorb their roles and are never the same again.
You might almost say that in such cases an actor converts to his role. Some of our ancestors used to worry about acting for this very reason. They worried about what it does to a person’s integrity. What does it do to you to climb inside somebody else’s character? Is it safe to pass yourself off as somebody else and to do it convincingly? What if you forget who you are? What does it do to Anthony Hopkins to play a ghoulish villain like Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs? Would some of the character’s evil stick?
But then, of course, we might ask what it does to Anthony Hopkins to play C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands. Maybe getting inside somebody else’s character could do you some good. Lewis himself used to recommend that one way to become a Christian is to pretend to be a Christian, to act like a Christian, to, so to speak, dress up like Jesus Christ. We have to “put on Christ,” as Paul says (Gal. 3:27), almost as if we could pull Jesus Christ over our heads like a costume. The idea is that strange and wonderful things can happen when we absorb a role into our innards. Maybe Christ’s character will seep into ours. Maybe we will convert to our role and approach others as Jesus did, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
But here a question arises: Assuming that we go around acting like Christians, how do we know we are sincere? How do we know what our real motives are? How do we know that we aren’t just acting?
One Man’s Agony
Did you know that, in part, the Reformation grew right out of that very question? Martin Luther was a good Roman Catholic Christian who did what good Roman Catholic Christians were expected to do. When he sinned, he took his medicine. He took the cure. And what was that? The cure for sin was the sacrament of penance. In this sacrament a sinner confesses his sins out of a contrite heart, and then his priest absolves him.
The whole thing started to trouble Luther. He began to question it: “How do I know that my confession of sin is sincere? How do I know my heart is really contrite? Suppose I get on my knees before God to confess my sins—I think I am sorrowful because my sin grieves God. But what if I’m deceiving myself? What if the real reason I confess my sins is just to take out the garbage so I’ll feel better? What if I’m put off by my sinfulness not because it wounds others and grieves God but because I think sinning is a scummy lifestyle that’s beneath me?”
Luther worried about the possibility that he might be a hypocrite. And why not worry about it? Isn’t hypocrisy the one sin Jesus really goes after? Have a look at Matthew 23: “Woe to you, hypocrites. On the outside you look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Woe to you. Woe to you. Woe to you. Seven times Jesus says, “Woe to you.” Seven times Jesus pronounces reverse beatitudes on people who aren’t as good as they look. Jesus Christ lays a sevenfold judgment on those who play the role of righteous people but who are only half-converted to their role.
In Matthew 23 through 25 our Lord addresses his disciples and then some teachers of the law and then his disciples again in a pattern that tells us he is talking to the leaders of his people, no matter who they are. He addresses the theological leaders, but he also addresses his followers. In his address our Lord brings judgment and grace, and he brings them right at us.
Because we are religious people, because hypocrisy is one of our natural vulnerabilities, and because it’s time for Lenten self-examination, I think we should know what hypocrisy is and why it matters so much to our Lord.
Only Playing a Role?
Hypocrisy is a kind of “disintegrity” in which people present themselves as godly when their hearts are far from it. People do this all the time, and at Calvin Theological Seminary we worry about it because hypocrisy may be a special temptation of ministers. People expect ministers to carry on in certain caring and pious ways, and ministers want to oblige. They want very much to look and sound like a minister, adopting solicitous tones of voice and expressions of concern, praying with spontaneous fervor. Some, as Fred Craddock once put it, “boast of their weaknesses and humbly confess their strengths.” All this lays a burden on a minister’s heart, which may have to race to catch up. As you know, ministers sometimes get converted to the Christian faith while they are in ministry. Something happens—maybe a crisis, maybe some other teachable moment—and the minister turns to face God straight and square for the first time:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me (Ps. 51:10, NRSV).
And, of course, ministers aren’t alone when it comes to the temptation to make a false presentation of piety or concern. Anybody can do that. Sometimes the presentation is deliberately false. A man may flatter a woman, and she may even enjoy it. But sooner or later she figures out that the praise is too high or too contrived and that the flatterer is out to finesse her. He wants something from her, and he’s manipulating her to get it. That’s deliberate hypocrisy, and the hypocrite knows it. But I think it’s crucial to see that at some point the hypocrite becomes blind to his falseness. He becomes that most impenetrable of creatures, the sincere hypocrite.
The Sincere Hypocrite
Jonathan Edwards wrote about this odd creature. A person may be a hypocrite, but she can’t see it. That’s the nature of corruption, you know, that sooner or later it gets to our brain. And then we can’t see straight or think straight. We don’t know who we are anymore. We can’t tell when we’re acting and when we’re not. Our corruption is too advanced. We deceive ourselves about our sin, we will our own ignorance, we play a role that we think is in character but isn’t, and we blind ourselves to the whole sorry mess.
I think that’s why Jesus (in Matt. 23, for example) speaks against hypocrisy with such a lash in his voice. He’s trying to cut through the layers of self-deception. His grace comes in the form of rebuke. The problem with the hypocrites among the religious teachers is that they are blind. They are blind guides, blind Pharisees—vainly trying to finger a speck out of somebody’s eye but making a bad job of it because of the logjam in their own. The hypocrites Jesus confronts are so blind, so foolish, and so frighteningly sincere.
“Woe to you, hypocrites; you look beautiful on the outside . . . but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27-28).
The terrible truth here is that without a change of heart the hypocrite is doomed. He’s one of the surprised reprobates of Matthew 7 or Matthew 25. He’s been honoring God with his lips all his life, but his heart is far from God. He once knew that, and even regretted it, but that was a long time ago, and the memory has been buried under layers of self-deception.
An actor pretends, but a hypocrite deceives, and eventually one of the persons a hypocrite deceives is himself. He cannot tell that he is only a half-converted actor. He cannot tell that he is a Christian only in his head but not in his heart. He cannot tell that he is wondrous only in the eyes of people who are just as divided as he is. Above all, a hypocrite cannot tell that he needs Jesus Christ, our Savior.
The Cradle of Grace
And so the Heidelberg Catechism is right (and ironic): the first thing we need to know in order to live and die happily is how great our sins and miseries are. The catechism is straight as a post on this topic: How can we praise our Savior when we don’t grieve over our sins? How can we embrace true religion while not looking for signs that we are false people? How can we get into real union with Jesus Christ when half the time we’re just playing a role, or might be?
Here’s our Lenten problem: We’re like Martin Luther. We don’t know how straight our confession is or how contrite our hearts or how real our enthusiasm for the faith. We don’t really know because our capacity for self-deception is, frankly, fathomless.
And so we need what Luther taught the whole church: If we need to trust our own sincerity in order to get saved, if the cost of salvation is the offering of a pure and contrite heart, then we are priced right out of the market. All of us are still divided creatures. As Geoffrey Bromiley once pointed out, we may despair of ourselves and of all our efforts. In good, old-fashioned Reformed style we may despair of ourselves but also be fiercely aware of this despair and keenly interested in its merit. We may humble ourselves before God in repentance and be quite proud of our humility. We may get up a head of steam in our prayers and hope that heaven is as impressed with them as we are. Everybody knows, as Helmut Thielecke once said, that while we are at worship the wolves may be howling in our souls.
Thus our need for the grace of God. There are lots of reasons why we need the grace of God. One of them is that we don’t even know how sincere we are. We don’t know how divided or deceived we are. We don’t know each other’s hearts, and we don’t even know the maze in our own hearts. Lent is as good a time as Reformation Day to say with our lips and believe in our hearts that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Nothing shows us the need of our Savior more than this simple fact: we may be hypocrites and not even know it.
“Woe to you, hypocrites.” It’s a terrible word, and we need to hear it. But it’s not the last word. Sin is never the last word. The wonderful truth is that our confession of sin and of folly, and of the folly that is sin and the sin that is folly, and all else that is so messed up we don’t know what to call it—all this is confessed inside the cradle of grace, underneath the wings of God.
What makes God’s grace so amazing is that it comes not just for the proud and the envious and the angry, but also for us hypocrites. And when it comes, a miracle happens. After all our years of playing a role, we convert to it. We finally become the person we have been practicing for all these years. At last we are in character as sons and daughters of God, just the way we were redeemed to be.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps. 139:23-24, NRSV).
About the Author
Cornelius (Neal) Plantinga was formerly President of Calvin Theological Seminary. He is now Senior Research Fellow in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.