Hypocrisy is one of those words that’s bandied about with all too little thought as to what the word actually means. It’s an extreme term that’s over-employed because people want to shock or throw a verbal hand grenade as opposed to being accurate and truthful in their speech.
The word comes to us from the Greek (hypokrinesthai) which means to “play a part, pretend” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Greek actors (hupokrites) wore masks to depict their characters. Thus, there was the real person behind the mask and there was the character they were pretending to be. The word soon became a derisive term referring to someone, like the actor, who was pretending to be something they were not.
Weakness is not the same thing as hypocrisy. Peter loudly proclaims to anyone who will listen that He will not betray Jesus. He has no problem envisioning the other disciples doing so, but not him. We know how that worked out. Was Peter a hypocrite because he said one thing and did something else (our common definition of hypocrisy)? I don’t think so. He was weak, but he wasn’t a hypocrite because he fully intended to do what he said—he simply overestimated his ability. We’ve all written verbal checks our behavior couldn’t cash. That, in and of itself, doesn’t make us hypocrites.
Inconsistency is not the same thing as hypocrisy. Abraham was a person of great faith. God called him to leave his home in Haran and he left—not knowing where he was going, simply trusting Yahweh (Genesis 12). A few years later he comes out of his tent on a starry night and believes that, even though he and Sarah are old and childless, God will give him descendants as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15). Yet this man who displayed such confidence in God, not once, but twice, lies about his wife being his “sister” out of fear for his life (Genesis 12, 20). It’s not that he didn’t believe, he was just inconsistent in applying it to these situations—but he wasn’t a hypocrite.
These are important distinctions to make because all of us are weak and inconsistent at times as well. That doesn’t make us hypocrites. What makes a hypocrite has to do with intent (i.e., lack of sincerity). Both Peter and Abraham were not pretending to be something they weren’t, they were just real people caught up in weakness and inconsistency.
The hypocrite is insincere; they pose as something they have no intention of being. The hypocrite pretends to be on the side of what is good, right, and true, when in reality they are on the side of what is bad, wrong, and false. It is the worst kind of lie and causes great destruction to good-hearted people who accept the appearance (i.e., mask the hypocrite is wearing), and put their trust in them—only to be inevitably and cruelly crushed by their duplicity. This is why the harshest words of Jesus were reserved for hypocrites rather than people caught up in other kinds of sin (Matthew 23).
All of this should serve as a warning to us. Hypocrisy doesn’t happen overnight. It occurs incrementally. We would do well to follow the counsel of Proverbs 4:23 (NASB):
Watch over your heart will all diligence,
For from it flow the springs of life.
Hypocrisy cannot take root in a heart that stays sensitive to God and His word!