One of the hardest parts of what Steven Curtis Chapman called “living [the Christian] life out loud” is striving for perfection while accepting that few ever reach that goal this side of Heaven. Living the Gospel is hard, without grace it’s harder.
In our post-modern, almost post-Christian age, Christians are confronted often with the charge that we’re hypocrites when we can’t live up to our own standards. This past week some have attacked Sarah Palin for her daughter’s pregnancy as “proof” that Christians live a “do as I say, not as I do” life.
Without diving down a partisan rabbit hole — I’m not here to be an apologist for Governor Palin — I’d like to talk about what hypocrisy is and what it is not. Dictionary.com defines it as: “a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess.” Does this definition apply to someone who professes a belief in chastity and then gets pregnant out of wedlock? The answer is, of course, “it depends”…it depends wholly on the heart of the person in question.
Here’s the key: a Christian should recognize his own dependence upon Christ for the grace to overcome our fallen nature in order to follow Him. As Catholics we know from Scripture that “baptism now saves you,” (1 Pt 3:21), but our free will means that we remain wounded by Original Sin in a condition called concupiscence. That’s a fancy theological term that describes the human inclination toward sin, even in the presence of grace. In short, the Father wants us to love Him as our free choice, but that freedom also means we can choose to disobey.
The Catechism speaks of this condition in paragraph 408: The consequences of original sin and of all men’s personal sins put the world as a whole in the sinful condition aptly described in St. John’s expression, “the sin of the world”. This expression can also refer to the negative influence exerted on people by communal situations and social structures that are the fruit of men’s sins.
You don’t have to look very far to see that this condition is true…sin abounds. It’s the reason Our Lord gave us the Sacrament of Confession (Jn 20:23, Mt 16:19); He knows that humans have these tendencies to do things we shouldn’t, and He ensured the Church has a way for us to seek and receive post-baptismal forgiveness.
So do the “hypocrisy” charges some level at Christians have any basis? I suppose, if people hold themselves up as models of Christian virtue while they live a hidden life of sin and debauchery, then deny their sin while calling out others for the same thing — then the charge of “hypocrite” might stick. We all have probably seen someone who failed to live up to the demands of the Gospel all the while criticizing others for their sin.
However… if a person is trying to live the Christian life and falls short of the mark, even by a lot, then repents of the sin and takes responsibility for his own actions, who are we to judge? Is it really hypocrisy to love a young girl and her baby if she gets pregnant out of wedlock, then decides to marry her boyfriend and give the baby a family? That teen girl is recognizing her actions have consequences and is striving to make things right by not compounding the sin against chastity with the sin of abortion.
To the astonishment of some people, Christians have not come out of the woodwork to condemn the Palins for their daughter’s pregnancy. Reading through some of the blogs and comments on news stories it’s clear to me that they don’t understand how we can proclaim the ideal of the Gospel and then fail to live up to our own standards. “Hypocrites!” they cry. But what our friends in the non-Christian world don’t get is the difference between affirming someone’s sin, and affirming someone’s human dignity.
The reason we don’t condemn the pregnant teen is because it’s God’s prerogative to judge her, not ours. It’s our job to extend a helping hand in love. Not disowning a person because of his sin isn’t hypocrisy, it’s love. This is Christ’s command to us.
This doesn’t mean that we think pre-marital sex is a good idea, or that because we have a hard time living up to our ideal we should throw out the idea altogether. We have a duty to warn people when they are about to harm themselves or others with sin. God’s laws aren’t there to make us the “no fun crew”, our Heavenly Father gave us the Law to free us from the tyranny of sin. Living in conformity with Christ is liberating, and we long to share that love with others. We also want to protect our families from the pain and suffering that comes as a consequence of sin. If you saw someone walking blithely toward a pit, wouldn’t you try to warn them?
What our non-Christian critics don’t seem to get is that when we tell them that pre-marital sex, abortion, contraception, or homosexual behavior is wrong, we’re not judging them personally…we’re trying to offer them a hand out of the pit the world has shoved them into. We’re trying to love them, and it is decidedly not love to allow someone to injure themselves and others through sin.
The joy in our hearts moves us and Our Lord commands us to share His love with everyone. It’s not hypocrisy to fall… it’s only hypocrisy if, after we fall, we pretend we haven’t gotten hurt.