In an episode of the Irish sitcom Father Ted, the priest of the title – a paragon of bad judgment – makes the decision to entertain one of the fellow priests in his parish with a terrible, racist impression of a Chinese person. As he continues in his mockery, complete with slanted eyes and a lampshade on his head for a hat, he looks out the window – and, to his great shock, sees a handful of the island’s Chinese inhabitants gawking at him in horror.
The rest of the episode quickly turns into a farce as the priest desperately tries to prove to the islanders that he is totally not racist, while his continuing blunders assert that he is indeed terribly, terribly racist. And the sly running joke throughout is this: the priest isn’t so much worried that he actually might be racist, but that other people might think that he is. Other people’s perception of him matters to him more than whatever the actual condition of his soul might be.
I suspect that attitude is, in one form or another, probably familiar to modern believers.
We’re all sinners saved by grace, naturally. But we don’t want other people to see any evidence of that. I mean, sure, most of us like to talk about the fact that we struggle with sin, that we live in sin, that we are sinful creatures with sinful appetites – and yet our conversations always have a nostalgic sort of tint to them, as though the biggest part of our unrighteousness exists in the past tense.
What I see with most Christians, and I include myself in this category, is that we’re very good at keeping our metaphorical windows clean. We are very good at appearing to others to be righteous, or at least to be pursuing righteousness. We do not murder. We don’t steal. We try to restrain our tongues (in public at least, definitely).
When we falter in any of those regards, the Christian community is there to help us forward immediately. A friend of mine who struggled with pornography in college was met by his campus Christian group with a slew of accountability partners, sin-avoidance techniques, weekly counseling, and the encouragement to throw his computer away. Couples who struggle with sexual temptations are encouraged to date only in groups, to limit their time together, and even in some extreme cases to be accompanied by same-age “chaperones.”
In all of these cases, the imperative is that we must – like Father Ted attempting to atone for his racism – appear to be doing the right things, whatever our spiritual condition may be under the surface. And as long as it seems on the surface that we are – as long as most of us aren’t engaging in some egregious visible sin that brings our righteousness into question – everything else is met with a virtual shrug.
Try confessing to pride in a Bible study. Or arrogance. Or selfishness. Or malice. People will listen, and people might even pray for you if you ask for it, but no one worries. No one sends in a flood of accountability partners. There’s no sense of urgency, no we have to fix this right now, no real fear that any of these things are something that could do spiritual damage to us. And yet, in Proverbs 6:-16-19:
There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
17 haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19 a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
As I grow, I become more and more conscious that the “invisible” sins – things like pride and malice, the criticisms and selfishness that begins in the thought life – are the ones that I struggle with most. I don’t think I am alone. Those sins are no different than the more visible ones that we throw accountability partners and prayer and alarm at, and yet we treat them differently, I suspect because sometimes the desire to appear righteous is greater than our desire to actually be righteous.
At the end of the Father Ted episode, the repentant father manages to make things right with the Chinese inhabitants of the island after a hasty “cultural celebration” event, itself a study in racism, that he throws together at the last minute. Self-satisfied and relieved that he is no longer labeled a racist, he invites the whole group over to the parish to celebrate – only to find, to his horror, that a series of unrelated and accidental events have resulted in the entire parish being decorated in a Nazi theme. As his guests turn to him in disgust, the camera focuses on his face: bewildered, defensive, resigned. His efforts to convince people that he isn’t a racist, it seems, have been in vain.
For believers, an external pursuit of righteousness isn’t just something that we should do so that people “know” we’re Christians – if we do, we’re destined to fail and to be revealed for what we really are. It isn’t a window-washing exercise for the soul, nor something that we do to prove that we belong, that we’re good, or that we’re better than anyone else. External righteousness comes not from our desire to shape people’s perceptions of us as believers, but from our love for God – and it starts with the inside, the sins we can hide, the sins that other people can’t see.
Turning inward and examining ourselves is the mandate of every believer. And until our attitude about “invisible” sins like pride and malice and arrogance match our attitude about the sins that other people can see, we’re at risk of engaging in some dangerous hypocrisy.