When I ask non-Christians what they think Jesus stood for, most say, "Love." And they are correct; this is one of the defining elements of Jesus’ teaching. He told His followers that God’s will for humanity could be summarized with two commands: love God and love your neighbor. He went to on to say that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. The love we are to show is not a feeling but a way of acting—a love of kindness and compassion and a desire to bless and seek good for others. Jesus told His disciples they were to love not only their neighbors and friends but their enemies as well. He told them the world would know that they are His disciples by their love. Non-Christians know that Jesus stood for love. Which is why, when those who claim to follow Jesus act in unloving ways, it feels particularly unpleasant. This disparity between the love Christians are meant to display and what people often experience is most pronounced when Christians speak with judgment or in disparaging ways toward others.
No doubt you can think of examples of Christians you have known who were judgmental, hypocritical and unloving. Some of the most insensitive, critical, judgmental and mean-spirited people I’ve known were persons who claimed to be committed Christians.
I was officiating at the graveside funeral for a young man who had taken his own life. The parents were still in shock and experiencing intense grief. In the eulogy and message I sought to help them and all who had gathered to make sense of this terrible tragedy while finding comfort and hope in God. And we remembered the unique and special qualities of their son. Following the service, a husband and wife—sister and brother-in-law of one of the boy’s parents—came to me and asked, "Why didn’t you tell them that their son is in hell today?!"
I was taken aback and asked: "How do you know the boy is in hell today? Do you know what was in the boy’s heart? Are you so certain you know the mind of God?" They looked at me and walked away. What kind of person is so certain of another’s eternal fate that they can stand before grieving parents and callously tell them their son is in hell?
Jesus and the Pharisees
Of course Jesus confronted the same kinds of things in His day. If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus never got angry with prostitutes, adulterers or ordinary "sinners." Nor did His actions turn such people away. In fact, Jesus drew "sinners" to Himself by the thousands. He made such people feel at ease. The only people Jesus had words of judgment for in the Gospels were the religious folks. What angered Him the most about these people, particularly the religious leaders, was their judgmentalism, their hypocrisy and their failure to love. They believed God was primarily interested in people following the rules. Jesus taught that God’s primary rule was love, and that God’s interest wasn’t in condemning "sinners" but in drawing them to God.
Though Jesus was opposed by various people in the Gospels, His primary opposition was from a group of religious people called Pharisees (the word likely comes from a Hebrew word that means "set apart" or "separated"). They believed holiness and a life pleasing to God came from separating yourself from sin and in obeying the commands of God. This all makes sense but, like many modern-day Christians, they had missed the point. They failed to see that God’s primary concern is not rules, but people. They should have been celebrating the fact that thousands of people who had turned away from organized religion were drawn to hear Jesus teach about the kingdom of God. Instead they were repulsed by Jesus’ willingness to associate with people "like that." In response, Jesus spoke some pretty harsh words to the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of his time. The word He used most frequently to describe them is rendered in the Gospels as the Greek word hupokrisis from which we have the word hypocrisy. The Greek word was used to refer to an actor in a play—a pretender.
The truth is, we are all in danger of being "pretenders" when it comes to our highest values and aspirations. This is particularly true for religious people, which is why Jesus often warned His disciples about hypocrisy, warnings that covered four different expressions of hypocrisy: wrong motives, judging others, "majoring in the minors" (that is, fighting over the tiniest, least consequential of things and beliefs) and being two-faced.
We are all recovering Pharisees
If Pharisees are religious people who struggle with wrong motives, with being critical and judgmental of others, with missing the point and with being two-faced, then I’ve got to confess, I am a recovering Pharisee who often falls off the wagon. Everyone I know, religious people and atheists alike, struggle with these four tendencies.
It is so easy to do the right things for all the wrong reasons. It is so easy to point out the sins of others while ignoring our own. Most of us are experts at "majoring in the minors" while failing to do the really important things God demands of us. And which of us has never put on a face and pretended to be something we’re not? It is only in recognizing our tendency to be Pharisees that we have any hope of remaining in recovery. My experience with non-religious people is that they do not expect Christians to be perfect. In fact, one young adult said: "I don’t mind that you Christians don’t live up to your ideals. I don’t live up to all of my ideals either. In the end, I guess we’re all hypocrites. It’s just that I and my friends recognize that we’re hypocrites. It seems that many Christians haven’t figured this out yet." Again, the hypocrisy of Christians is most troubling to non-Christians when we point out the sins of others.
Getting it right
Every Christian gets it wrong sometimes. But when Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive and mean-spirited, they are acting in ways that are unchristian. When the Apostle Paul described what Christians should strive for, he used these words: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Unchristian Christians stand out because even non-Christians know these people are living in a way that is inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching. Jesus commanded His followers not to judge. He warned them against hypocrisy. Again and again He called them to love all, both their neighbors and those with whom they did not see eye to eye.
For all the Christians who get it wrong, I believe there are many who get it right. They are not as vocal as their pharisaic counterparts. And they are not perfect. But there really are countless Christians who daily seek to live authentic lives of faith. They go out of their way to care for others. They are compassionate. They live and give sacrificially toward others. They volunteer their time to serve the poor, or visit the sick, or take the time to encourage the discouraged. They work for justice. They genuinely love people.
When Christians get it right, they love and give, they work for justice and demonstrate kindness. When Christians get it right, they, like Jesus, befriend those who are outside the Church rather than condemning them. And when Christians get it right, people are drawn to, rather than repelled by, their faith.
This article is adapted from the upcoming book When Christians Get It Wrong (Abingdon Press, 2010) by Adam Hamilton, who is the founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. Used by permission; all rights reserved.