What is the difference between hypocrisy and not yet living up to an ideal?
previous next

“What is the difference between hypocrisy and not yet living up to an ideal?” Ensign, Apr. 1979, 26

I sincerely believe in many ideals that I don’t manage to live up to yet. I don’t feel like a hypocrite; yet to an observer, some of the things I do must seem very insincere. What is the difference?

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, mother of five and seminary teacher in the Portsmouth Ward, Manchester New Hampshire Stake When I first read the question, I wasn’t sure what was meant. But the more I thought about it, the more familiar the problem seemed. In trying to arrive at an answer, I found it helpful to focus on a homely, but I don’t think trivial, example from my own life.

I am a firm believer in vigorous physical exercise. Having read a number of books and articles on the subject, I know that people who bicycle, swim, or play tennis daily look and feel better than the rest of us. I am pleased that my third grader prefers walking to riding a bus. On cold winter mornings, as I huddle by the fire, I think of how much healthier he is out in the fresh air than cooped up with fifty other children. If I didn’t have such a tight schedule, I would walk to the library myself.

My older son sometimes accuses me of hypocrisy as I extol the virtues of bicycles over gasoline-guzzling, flab-promoting vehicles. But I drive from necessity, not choice. I am usually either five minutes late for an important appointment or loaded with groceries and children. When an opportunity presents itself, I exercise. I pick stairs over elevators, and at least twice every winter I ski the trail behind our house, always promising myself that next year I will get outside more often.

Still, there is a discrepancy between my professed belief and my daily activities. I realize this every time I streak down Mill Road in my silver Oldsmobile and pass Krista Curtis jogging or Maggie Bogle backpacking her groceries in the rain. These women arouse guilt feelings because they have internalized values which for me remain superficial. The apostle Paul wrote: “My members [are] warring against the law of my mind.” (Rom. 7:23.)

I am not a physician or a psychologist. But even if I were, I could not locate on a diagram of the human body that part of me Paul called “members” and that part of me he called “mind.” My brain can certainly tell my body to get moving, but only in metaphor can my feet and legs shout back, “Not today!” Yet the feeling of being divided is real.

The dictionary says hypocrisy is pretending to be what one is not or pretending to believe what one does not. In a strict sense, then, an inability to match belief with performance is not hypocrisy. But in trying to understand why it is so hard for some of us to move from mere acceptance of an ideal to wholehearted commitment to change, it helps to take the definition one step further. As a favorite teacher used to point out, hypocrisy is the opposite of integrity, which is not just honesty but unity of personality. Jesus emphasized this when he said to the Pharisees, “Every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” (Matt. 12:25.)

I am sure there is a difference between the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the kind of doubleness you and I experience, just as I am sure there is a difference between murder and losing one’s temper. But the difference is one of degree, not of kind. Thus a discrepancy between belief and behavior should be a signal for self-examination.

As I examine my exercise problem, for example, I recognize that a very real part of me does not want to swim, play tennis, or jog. When I have a few minutes of free time, I invariably choose to read. While my “mind” acknowledges the well-ordered arguments in favor of exercise, my “members” respond to a deeper voice, to commands built upon patterns long set. I have never been happy on a playing field. In the fourth grade I was always the last one chosen for the team. Even group exercise in the privacy of our living room, led by our zealous twelve-year-old soccer player, brings terrible feelings of inadequacy. My spirit is not willing; my flesh is indeed weak.

Repentance begins with recognition. Thus, the first step toward resolving any inner conflict is to admit that it is real. Facing the war within can point toward ways to end it. In my case, I must begin, step by step, to substitute new experiences of success for old memories of defeat. In this, as in so many other areas, I am grateful that our Heavenly Father has not left us to trek through this life alone.

A few weeks ago my husband managed to get me and four of our children to the top of a mountain. There was a low cloud ceiling that day, and when we reached the summit, we stood in the drizzle and imagined the view that should have been there. As we returned to the car, I began to wonder what motivated people to hike. I looked at my third grader. “Was it fun?” I asked.

“It was neat,” he said thoughtfully. “This is the first time that me and my boots and my pack have been in a cloud.”

I intend to lean on his testimony of that principle until I get one of my own.