Practicing What I Believe
Earlier this year, I began a series of posts on practicing what I believe to encourage you and myself to start acting on our beliefs. What I’ve learned from writing these is not what I anticipated.
For one thing, I have failed miserably at obtaining my goals.
I don’t always eat ethically sourced food.
I often use wasteful products.
I don’t pray every morning.
I even wrote about the importance of gardening, but I have been a terrible gardener this year.
In other words, I am a hypocrite.
The definition of hypocrisy is “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not : behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel” (Merriam-Webster).
I have repeatedly shared advice and philosophies that I have not practiced. I have pretended to be better than I am. Even more, I have failed at meeting my own standards or living out what I believe.
I wouldn’t say I am a hypocrite in the sense that I pretend to believe something I don’t. I do believe in the importance of praying every morning; I just need to work on building that habit. And I have high standards when it comes to meat and waste; but I don’t always follow through with those standards.
The question in my mind lately has been whether or not that’s a problem.
It is certainly a problem when we don’t follow our own ideals, but does that make it wrong to have an ideal in the first place? Does it mean I only have two options–to follow the ideal perfectly or to not follow it at all?
Jesus, of course, accused the hypocrites of his time, and their kind of hypocrisy was intentional and dangerous. But I think this has given us the idea that we can either be hypocritical Christians–Christians who act perfect but are sour inside–or honest Christians–Christians who lay all their flaws out in public in the name of transparency but who perhaps are unwilling to change.
While I can’t advocate for the kind of hypocrisy that hides behind lies to manipulate, or that never confesses to sin, I do wonder if there is a kind of hypocrisy that is not only acceptable but necessary.
I will never be a perfect gardener, a perfect writer, or a perfect Christian. But I can have an ideal and strive to reach that ideal even as I stumble. If I waited until I was perfect, I would never gain the practice I need to grow. I would never change. So, for now, maybe it’s okay to pretend–to practice–so that one day I will be better.
If I am to practice what I believe, I’m going to have to get better at embracing this hypocrisy.
Because this is practice, and while practice may make perfect, it can take awhile to get there.
Being a Genuine Hypocrite
In Heretics, G. K. Chesterton argues that few people in history are actually pure hypocrites. Rather, they are more often “so ingenuous that they seemed absurd, [or] so absurd that they seemed disingenuous.” We tend to call someone a hypocrite because they are actually being transparent (about their flaws, maybe), or because they are so transparent that they seem to be lying. But this is not hypocrisy. You can’t be a hypocrite without ideals, just as you can’t be a hypocrite while being honest about your flaws.
If you watch some of the sitcoms on TV, you’ll see Christian characters who are known for pretending to be better than everyone else without ever acknowledging their own flaws. This is true hypocrisy. It makes us cringe, hoping we never come across that way.
But the opposite of this pretense is to never act like you are better–which, in many ways, is to never practice being better. In other words, we are so genuine in our flaws that we never grasp for growth.
It’s one thing to confess that I’m not a good gardener, and another thing to embrace that imperfection and never pretend to be a good one.
When I say “pretend,” I mean to take action as if I was a good gardener–to stop making excuses about not having a green thumb and actually try. I may be called a hypocrite for saying I’m a gardener and then failing at it, but I also don’t want to give up trying. I don’t have to lie about being a bad gardener, but I can pretend to be a good gardener while my hands are in the soil. I can practice being a good gardener until I become one.
I am a Christian, not because I am a perfect Christian, but because I believe and want to believe (help my unbelief), and because I am in an ever-growing relationship with Jesus. I believe that being a genuine hypocrite means being honest about our flaws while also being honest about our ideals.
Sometimes I have to practice becoming a good Christian by pretending to be a good Christian. That may sound hypocritical, but I think it’s the very thing that helps us grow. I’m not acting like I’m better than everyone else. I’m acting like I’m better than I am so that, by God’s grace, I am transformed.
Pretending as Practice
C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that it was impossible to muster up love for God. Instead, he says, you have to act like you love God, and then you will feel it. In the same way, he wrote: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.”
Some people might think this is hypocritical or disingenuous, but I think that it is the only way to truly get anything done. We are given many gifts from the Spirit, yes, but nobody is perfected in a day. We have to try even when we don’t feel like it.
In an article called “How to Love When You Don’t Feel it,” Desiring God writer Greg Morse wrote: “As Christians, we play pretend in our loving not to escape reality, but to live more fully within it.”
God doesn’t ask us to feel love for our neighbor. He asks us to love our neighbor–to act in love. He doesn’t ask us to be perfect in a day. He asks us to follow Him in trust, and He will make us perfect.
We are all loved and accepted by God through grace alone, and one day we will be perfected in heaven. But in the meantime we try to follow God’s law of love while continually stumbling. Outsiders look in at our sad attempts at perfection and shake their heads. So we either strive harder to hide our mistakes, or we give up altogether, embracing our faults with pride. “This is just how I am,” we say, or, “I’m just being honest.”
Instead, maybe we can both confess our faults and try again. Maybe we can accept that some of this is going to take some play-acting. Sometimes we’ll have to pretend that we’re patient and kind and merciful even when we don’t feel like it. We don’t have to pretend we’re perfect or holier-than-thou, but we may have to stretch ourselves beyond our natural abilities and dispositions.
One day we’ll be able to perform perfectly, but for now we’re still in rehearsal. The good news is that God still watches with joy like a father watches his daughter stumble in the middle of a dance that is too hard for her right now. We get back up, knowing that God has not turned his head in shame, and we try to find the rhythm again.
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