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Every culture and subculture has its own taboos. Not all of them are the same, however. Given that we are all human, how can we explain the divergence of cultural standards? Why is it that one culture will find adultery to be a mere peccadillo, while another will consider it the unforgivable sin? Why was it that in polite society in Victorian England one did not call the leg of a table the leg of the table, for fear of offending delicate sensibilities, while on the other hand, there were more brothels in London than there were churches? The answer may get at the grave sins of our own broader culture.

Certainly a culture committed to ethical relativism, the notion that there is no objective right and wrong, will hang its moral hat on its stunted view of the command of Jesus that we judge not, lest we be judged. (Cheerily skipping over the too embarrassing reality that they are judging the judgers, and thus judging themselves.) Accusing someone of wrongdoing is just about as bad as it can get in the world — not to mention the evangelical world. Not far behind that grand taboo, however, stands this one. We can commit this sin or that. We can manifest this grave character flaw or that. But to really earn your way into the rogue’s gallery, you must commit this heinous sin — hypocrisy.

Jesus, of course, had some harsh words for hypocrites, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25). Hypocrisy is a real sin, something to be ashamed of, something to repent for. It’s shameful to its core. But there is something to be said for it. In fact, Francois de La Rouchefoucauld said this about it, “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” The hypocrite, while caught up in whatever sin he is caught up in, plus being caught up in hypocrisy, has this going for him: he is able to recognize virtue and desires to be perceived as virtuous, even while lacking virtue. We hypocrites cover our sins because, while we certainly commit them, we recognize them as sins. While it is far better to be good than to look good, in either case we confess, however feebly, the reality of the good.

This, I believe, is the driving force behind this cultural taboo. We postmoderns hate hypocrisy not because we have such an abiding commitment to honesty, but for the same reason we judge so harshly those who judge, because we are dishonest enough to pretend there is no such thing as virtue. Those who hide their vice by masquerading it as virtue commit the one cardinal sin — affirming the reality of sin. They break the social contract by confessing a higher standard. 

Hypocrisy, then, to the broader culture isn’t just the one deadly sin, but avoiding hypocrisy is also the means of atonement for sin. This is why we hear people argue, “Well, I may be selfish and egotistical, but at least I’m honest about it.” Or, stranger still, we have philanderers who suggest, “Well, I may not have kept my marriage vows, but at least I’m honest about it.” This proud confession of sin is a diabolical perversion of true repentance. We “acknowledge” our sin in that we admit to doing what we did. But we dismiss the sin because in admitting it we make it no longer a sin. Imagine if the serpent were to confess, “Well, sure I rebelled against the maker of heaven and earth, and sought to topple Him from His throne. But hey, at least I’m honest about it.”

If we were honest about our sins, we would not only admit to committing them, but we would recognize them for what they are, each and every one of them rebellion against the maker of heaven and earth, each and every one of them an attempt to topple Him from His throne. If we were honest about our sins, we would not cover them up, but cover our eyes, because to look at them is simply too painful. If we were honest about our sins, we would admit that what we are usually doing when “admitting” our sins is copping a plea. Maybe, we rationalize in the quiet of our hearts, if I admit to this, they won’t see these other sins. If we were honest about our sins, we would admit that all our games fail us, that all our sins follow us.

To understand the broader culture we have to grasp this reality. The world is not happily pursuing their vices without a care in the world. They are instead pursuing their vices under the cloud of an ever present knowledge of who they are. The defining quality of every culture not built around the Gospel is the haunting of sin. Which is why the solution for every culture, just as it is for every member of that culture, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He did not “honest” away our sins. He did not relativize our sins. Instead, He paid for them. He bore the wrath and fury of His Father that was due for our sins. He knows them more intimately than we ever will. And yet, glory be to the Father, they have been washed away in His blood.

Pride & Humility

Disciples from John

Keep Reading The Seven Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues

From the May 2008 Issue
May 2008 Issue