Hypocrisy is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament, and can also be found in the Old, once we recognise the Hebrew idioms that convey this concept. The term is Greek in origin, and comes from the theatre. It comes from a verb that means to reply, and referred originally to actors replying to each other in character: dramatic dialogue. By transference it came to mean “pretence”, because actors put on a mask and pretend to be characters in a story. Euthydemus on stage with a Heracles mask on isn’t actually Heracles, he’s pretending to be Heracles.

Pretence in a religious context has a variety of applications. Usually we use it in a moral context, when we mean that there is a contradiction between a person’s moral pronouncements  and the morality of his actions. We tighten it further by focussing it on certain “obvious” sins: sexual misconduct; stealing; unkindness; etc. But really, there are all sorts of opportunities for mismatch and disorder in our lives, and we are all “a work in progress”.

This is the reason why worship in church can be such a difficult thing for people who are sensitive to their conscience and how they appear. One worries about “going through the motions” when actually he may not feel able to worship God for a number of reasons:  for example, he wonders where God is in the midst of his suffering.

Another example of this is what is known as “conformity”: when we seek to conform to what we perceive/believe to be the expectations of others, in order to get along. When this is taken to an extreme, it can lead to the suppression/destruction of a person’s true self. Sometimes we conceal our true thoughts/feelings from other people because we are afraid of being castigated or ostracised by the community. But suppose Athanasius had done this? Who would champion the cause of the Trinitarians? Sometimes it is necessary to face the risk of being cast adrift by our peers, and this is the testimony of the prophets – Jeremiah springs to mind.

This brings me to the term “persona”, which has quite specific definitions in psychology. Persona in Latin means a face or a mask, as in the mask that an actor wore on stage in the Greco-Roman theatre (it probably came from the Greek word for face, prosopon, via Etruscan). Now, dear reader, you can see the link between the title, and the opening paragraph: persona and hypocrisy, terms from the theatre. A persona is a mask we adopt in order to carry out social functions. An example of this would be working in a customer service role. Mr Polite-and-Helpful never tells the customer that he is close to losing his rag because of their rudeness. No, he suppresses all that emotion and keeps on lying, because that is what is required in the situation. But Mr Polite-and-Helpful is not identical with John Smith – it is a mask he wears when he is doing his job. Down the pub, if you upset John Smith, you will know about it.

Now the conscience may be at in conflict with the persona, or it may support it. Sometimes our conscience urges us to “play by the rules”, because this is how to conduct oneself with honour in the world and preserve the good name of Christ before the unbelievers. But other times, our conscience tells us to make a stand against the way the company, society, or even the Church, does things. It should be said, however, that human conscience is not inviolable – it is possible to damage, suppress, or corrupt it. Consider these words from the Apostle Paul:

  • “Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.” 1 Cor. 8:7
  • “…speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron” 1 Tim. 4:2
  • “To the pure all things are pure: but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.” Tit. 1:15

Amidst all the confusion of the many faces we can wear, God knows the real us. He knows how He made us and who He made us to be. He knows what we have done and what we will do. He knows the reasons for our actions.

“The spirit of a man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the inner depths of his heart.” (Prov. 20:27, NKJV)