In trying not to be a hypocrite, we often become a hypocrite of a different kind. How can this trap be avoided? First Peter gives us the answer.
“Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow unto salvation” (1 Peter 2:1-2).
Hypocrisy is hard to detect. Like greed, in comes in more than one form, though in essence it is always the same—a incongruity between what is external and what is internal. Most of us are familiar with garden-variety hypocrisy. A person pretends to be good, but inside he is harboring bad motives. Shysters, charlatans, and cheats fall under this kind of hypocrisy. But what about the person who sincerely desires to be loving, to have no incongruity between intent and action? Is it possible for even such a sincere person to be a hypocrite?
Yes. Such “sincere” hypocrisy is possible, and due to its double duplicity, it is doubly dangerous.
Consider the text quoted above from the apostle Peter. Taken out of its context, it gives us a list of don’ts and do’s. On the one hand, I need to lay aside all ill-intent, all double-facedness, and all bad-mouthing; on the other hand, I need to desire the life-giving milk of the word in order to grow. Simple, it appears. Let’s get to work!
And that is when the inner hypocrisy begins. In focusing on myself, I automatically cancel out the thing I supposedly desire to have—the “sincere love of the brethren,” mentioned at the start of this paragraph (1 Peter 1:22, lit. “unhypocritical brother-love”).
Here is how it often happens in practice: Faced with a situation that requires kindness, I realize that my heart does not possess the proper motive to show kindness with integrity. If I just say, “All that matters is the action,” and then do the deed, it is a sin and I am a hypocrite. As everything should be done in faith, so also everything should be done in love (Romans 14:23; 1 Corinthians 16:14). Everything. That is a big word.
Realizing this predicament, I then delay the action and deal with my heart. “Hey you,” I say, “it is time to feel something.” Upon this resolve, a mighty campaign begins, complete with reasons and efforts to produce some sincere feeling or motive before acting. Once achieved, I do the deed and feel good about myself, thanking God that I was not a hypocrite in showing kindness.
Wrong. My focus was still on self. In action, the deed appeared kind, but in motive, it was still about me—making sure that I did the deed with proper motive. In one sense, it reminds me of an athlete who is more concerned about “doing his best” than about winning the game. Or in marriage, it resembles a man more concerned about being a good husband than about pleasing his wife. The test comes when the performance is achieved but the results fail. Is there genuine sorrow, or is there only the smug satisfaction, “Well, at least I played a good game”? How wretched are our hearts! Lacking a genuine concern for souls, for example, we may conjure up some feelings of concern before “doing evangelism,” but then later take comfort in “being faithful”! Is this sincere love? Can a sincere farmer rest without a crop, or a sincere lover, without the one beloved?
Do you see how common this inner form of hypocrisy is? It may appear as a forced tear at a graveside, or as good feelings in worship. It comes in many flavors, but its basic ingredient is the same—a preoccupation with having sincere motives. In this way, trying to rid oneself of hypocrisy becomes another form of hypocrisy.
So what is the way out?
According to the context of First Peter, this tree (“laying aside…all…hypocrisy”) only makes sense within a God-saturated forest. The body of the letter begins with three paragraphs on faith, hope, and love. Only then does the letter enter into specific duties about submission and suffering. Therefore, we see that external duties are meaningless without internal virtues. This prevents garden-variety hypocrisy. But even the initial triad of virtues sits within a God-context that prevents them from becoming inner hypocrisy. As my friend Tom Pryde likes to say, it all starts with God and ends with God:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope…” (1:3).
“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light…” (2:9).
Everything starts with God. He caused us to be born again by His incorruptible seed (perhaps a reference to the Holy Spirit) through the living and abiding word (1:3, 23). This is revelation. His word reveals the glory of God, by which we are called (see 2 Peter 1:3).
Everything ends with God. According to the final sidebar on worship (2:4-10), we are a spiritual priesthood in order “to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). God has transformed us by the marvelous light of His glory so that we would reflect this glory in our lives (2:9). Just as the apostles Paul and John express elsewhere, we are transformed into glory as we see His glory (2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 John 3:2).
Based on these facts—that everything begins with God through His word and ends with God in worship—Peter emphasizes two points about our personal experience.
First, we are born again. Peter inserts this thought into every section (1:3, “begotten us again”; 1:14, “as obedient children”; 1:23, “having been born again”; 2:2, “as newborn babes”; 2:5, “as living stones”). Laying aside hypocrisy is impossible without genuine rebirth. Hence, if we repeatedly find hypocrisy in our lives, of whatever kind, we may need to ask ourselves, “Am I truly born again?”
Second, our hope is glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. That moment will be our true “salvation.” (Note: Peter uses the word “salvation” differently here than we typically do. He acknowledges that we have already been born again. Salvation means obtaining glory after suffering, as the sidebar in 1:10-12 makes clear.) Again, Peter inserts this thought repeatedly, telling us of “an inheritance…reserved in heaven for you” (1:4), of a “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5), of “glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:7), and of “receiving…the salvation of [our] souls” (1:9). We are expressly told to “hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13). Therefore, all forms of perfectionism must go. Until the day of Christ Jesus, we will always live with some level of sinfulness; but we can grow, and it is that thought which brings us back to the text quoted above: “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow unto salvation” (2:2).
There are no throw-away phrases in the Scriptures. To view this verse as some general command to grow would miss the forest from the tree. The command is not to grow, but to “desire the pure milk of the word.” If we are genuinely born again, we will grow, and we will want to grow, but we will do so not so much by concentrating on growth (that breeds hypocrisy!), but by concentrating on the same source that gave us life initially—the word that reveals the glory of God in Christ! Long for that external word, and quit focusing on internal feelings and motives.
Granted, growth is in view, but it is growth “unto salvation.” In other words, my preoccupation is not with the present here-and-now, typically seen as being a good person in whatever sense of the word. My hope is to be fully on the grace and glory to come (1:13). As the rest of the book makes clear, this life is more about what is done to me (suffering), than about what I do or achieve. As in Romans chapter eight, to be conformed to the image of Christ is not so much about achieving Christ-like activity, even with proper motives, but rather about suffering a Christ-like cross in order to attain a Christ-like glory someday (see Romans 8:29 in context). Capturing this difference is the death of inner hypocrisy. It is as Paul stated in Galatians, in the face of the hypocrisy in Antioch, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20). No longer I.
In essence, inner hypocrisy sets up a counterfeit to the divine process of growth. On the front end, when faced with the possibility of an empty deed, the mind grabs reasons and presses the will into change. As a result, the focus in on becoming a better me (a phrase borrowed from an early book by John Piper). Any such focus on becoming a better me is idolatry, even if supposedly done to the glory of God. (Never forget how the Pharisee in Luke 18 thanked God that he was not like other men.)
Instead of this self-improvement project, let us long for the pure milk of the word. Something, somewhere in the word will reveal the glory of God afresh to us, and set our souls free once again, to glorify Him. That is exciting! Freed from our failure, freed from our emptiness, freed from ourselves, it will be a blessed taste of heaven and of the glory to come. May the Lord fill our lives with such “fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11)! Amen.