Beneath the vaulted ceilings of the famous Oude Kerk (“Old Church”) in Amsterdam, my family and I walked around to see the contemporary art exhibit that filled its massive sanctuary. One artwork in particular attracted our attention: a large sculpture of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Approaching it from behind, we were impressed by the statement of faith it seemed to make about Jesus’ sacrifice to forgive people’s sins. But when we reached the front, we were dismayed to see different images of various visitors’ faces flashing across the blank space where Jesus’ own face had been left uncarved in the stone. A sign nearby explained that this project was called “I am Christ” and invited people to submit photos of their faces through social media so they, too, could be portrayed in the church as Jesus himself.
My teenaged daughter Honor and elementary-aged son Justin looked at me with confused expressions flashing across their faces. “Wait – how can people actually be Jesus?” Justin finally asked.
“Um,” I stammered, “well, uh, people can’t ever be Jesus, but Jesus can live inside of us, so I guess this may be showing that somehow.”
“No, that’s not what it says,” Justin replied, pointing to the sign. Then a smiling woman, who told us she was a church member and had overheard our conversation, came up to us and explained that the artwork depicts human potential. “You see, we can all be divine,” she declared. “Once we realize that we’re capable of anything, we can grow to have the same power as God. I affirm that to myself every day.” After she walked away, I discreetly explained to our kids that her theology was misguided and blasphemous.
Visiting the church was far from the inspirational experience we’d hoped it would be.
I let the stress get the best of me and fell into sin that made me seem like quite the hypocritical Christian. Russ and I disagreed about which tram to take back to where we were staying. When he walked off in a direction I didn’t think was right, I refused to follow, and instead yelled for him to come back and start walking my way. Honor and Justin stood between us, listening to us argue loudly. After I heard myself shout profanity, I cringed in embarrassment and followed Russ to the tram he thought we should take.
We boarded the crowded tram, and I realized that our kids’ tickets had expired. But before I could buy new tickets, the driver started moving the tram, and our family got pushed along with the crowd toward the back. Rather than trying to reach the front again, I took a seat and rationalized dishonesty, telling myself that it wouldn’t hurt for the kids to ride without valid tickets just this once. Then Honor spoke up. “Mom, you didn’t give us tickets this time and the driver gave us a funny look. Where are our tickets?”
Busted! Me – the Christian mother who had carefully tried to protect my kids from the dangers of hypocrisy – was caught sinning in a messy variety of ways that made me look like a hypocrite myself.
True hypocrisy is a deliberate and consistent pattern of behavior that contradicts the beliefs someone proclaims. Hypocrites declare faith in Jesus, yet consistently pursue sin, showing that their faith isn’t really genuine. So I wasn’t being a real hypocrite in front of my kids, but through my struggle with sin that stressful afternoon, I certainly wasn’t helping them process the hypocrisy they encountered at the church.
All of us parents sometimes fail to model faith in action well to our kids, despite our best intentions. Only Jesus is perfect; we humans – even the most faithful of us – still struggle with sin in this fallen world and make mistakes as a result. But when children and teens experience Christians saying or doing something that doesn’t line up with what they profess to believe, that can confuse and anger them. Over time, encountering sin and hypocrisy in the church can damage young people’s faith so much that it leads them to leave church as a result.
A majority – 59 percent – of people aged 30 and younger who grew up in church no longer attend church, according to a 2014 research study from the Barna Group. One of the reasons these young former church members cited for leaving the church was hypocrisy. A full 35 percent reported that hypocrisy in their churches bothered them so much that it contributed to their decision to leave.
People outside the church often accuse Christians of being hypocrites, and a 2013 Barna Group study revealed why: one out of every two Christians displays self-righteous attitudes and actions, while only one out of seven Christians consistently display Christ-like attitudes and actions.
The good news is that there’s a lot we can do as parents to teach our kids to deal with hypocrisy in healthy ways that will protect their faith from being damaged by it. Here are some ways that you can help your kids deal with hypocrisy in the church:
Acknowledge the hypocrisy your kids encounter, and talk honestly with them about it. Rather than ignoring the hypocritical behavior that your kids see in your church and fellow believers’ lives, openly acknowledge the reality of it – especially when your kids bring the topic up with you. Let your kids know that they can bring their difficult questions about hypocrisy to you without fear of you getting upset with them. Engage in honest discussions about hypocrisy with your children and teens, listening carefully to their concerns.
Encourage your kids to consider what Jesus may think about the hypocritical behavior they’ve experienced. This will help them separate the attitudes and actions of Jesus himself from that of people who claim to represent Jesus yet fail to behave in Christ-like ways. It will also strengthen their critical thinking skills, which are a crucial for them to use well in the process of developing authentic faith.
Ask God to help you and your kids see hypocritical people from the right perspective. Keep in mind that every hypocrite is also a person whom God loves completely and unconditionally. So while you hate the sin, love the sinner – just as God does. Refuse to gossip about hypocritical people. Instead, commit yourself to speaking respectfully about them to your kids, and require your kids to also be respectful of other people’s dignity.
Pray with your kids about hypocrisy. Pray that hypocrites you know would come to realize how they need to change their lives to get into right relationships with God. Ask God to bring healing to situations you’ve seen where hypocrisy has damaged people’s relationships with God and each other.
Fight hypocrisy in your own life. Spend time praying every day, listening to God at least as much as you talk to him. Ask God to show you patterns of sinful behavior in your life that you should notice and work to change. Confess and repent of any sin that’s revealed to you. Check your motives before deciding what to say and do in challenging situations. In humility, make the choice to rely on God’s grace and strength (rather than just your own efforts) to overcome sin when you encounter temptations throughout each day. This will help nurture a strong daily connection to God, which will help you resist falling into hypocrisy.
Apologize to your kids for anything you’ve said or done that seems hypocritical to them. If your kids see you take responsibility for your mistakes, it shows that you really do care about your relationships with them and with God – which is crucial for them to understand to develop respect for you as someone who can genuinely teach them how to grow closer to God in this sinful world.
While hypocrisy is a serious problem in the church, you can always count on God to help you fight its effect on your family. As James 4:8 promises: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, is author of the Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Follow her on Twitter @WhitneyHopler.
Publication date: August 15, 2014