Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Fake Piety

Fake piety is usually fairly transparent. Sadly, the fakely pious are the only ones who do not know it.

Christians sometimes caution one another to be careful what we confess, and this is not always a bad thing. A personal testimony full of interesting and semi-scandalous details can serve as a source of enticement to those who have little life experience, whose parents have sheltered them from the evils in the world.

The Other Extreme

Hey, some of those evils can be pretty appealing if you haven’t dealt firsthand with the inevitable consequences that follow them, so we need to pay attention to our audience and consider carefully how we speak about our own histories.

That said, we also need to be careful not to go to the other extreme: so minimizing our past and present struggles with temptation that we find ourselves engaged in a cover-up, subtly or not-so-subtly rewriting our own history. Deliberately presenting a false front to the world is not “avoiding evil appearances”, it is hypocrisy.

When the Lord speaks of “whitewashed tombs”, he may have a similar thought in view. The Pharisees were fakely pious. They could scruple about entering the governor’s praetorium to avoid defiling themselves so they could eat the Passover; meanwhile, they were engaged in falsely accusing and seeking to murder an innocent man. Their hearts may have been full of jealousy and murder, but appearances must be kept up!

The Relatively-Righteous Man’s Dilemma

David models the relatively-righteous man’s dilemma in Psalm 39. He is imperfect, and deeply conscious of his own failings. Yet the wicked are in his presence, so he purposes to “guard my mouth with a muzzle”. He is determined not to misspeak. No confession may fall from the lips of a conflicted, relatively-minor sinner in the presence of the evil elite. After all, his admission of a personal struggle with sin and guilt might embolden them. God forbid, in hearing of David’s infidelities, they may draw some crude moral equivalence with their own evil behavior and begin to excuse themselves for it. We cannot have that!

And yet David cannot get comfortable. His muteness and silence cause him further distress: “My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned.” Hiding his own sin will not work, and condemning others while burdened with his own guilt make for an impossible conflict. It is only in humble confession before God that he finds relief:
“Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool!”
That sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first. In publicly confessing our sins, we might wrongly think we are giving the fool fodder for his scorn. And yet judgment begins with the house of God, and it ought to begin when those who are God’s first judge themselves: “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” In being transparent before the world, we are not providing those who are engaged in truly evil behavior with some kind of moral cover for their own wickedness. The tax collector in the Lord’s parable is not critiqued for emboldening the wicked with his public confession; rather, “This man went down to his house justified.” In being open about our own struggles with sin, we are agreeing with God about what real righteousness means. We are acknowledging, as John puts it, that when we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.

Sin and Hope

It is remarkable how rarely we deceive anyone else with that line, but we can certainly salve our own tender consciences, however briefly. The fakely pious are the only ones who do not know they are fakes. Even when we don’t announce our moral failings with trumpets, the unsaved are generally savvy enough to work out what is going on with us.

So then, the real difference between the righteous and wicked is not always in what sort of sins we engage in, or even how much we engage in them. It is that the righteous can say to God, “My hope is in you.” It is not in covering my sin. It is not in excusing my sin. It is not even in performing all manner of works to do penance for my sin. It is in acknowledging my need of a Savior to redeem me from it, and to remove it from me as far as the east is from the west.

And that is something the truly wicked man can never do.

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