One of our stock characters in literature and film, and in other parts of our imagination as well, is that of the old hypocrite. This is fueled by a number of things including, but not limited to, the actual existence of old hypocrites, the shock value of suddenly revealed old hypocrisies, and the fact that Scripture tags older establishment figures (like the Pharisees) with hypocrisy. But it is also fueled by a very convenient and flattering propaganda.
But never forget that old hypocrites frequently began their career as young hypocrites. Sometimes conscientious Christians veer off later in life, but it is far more likely that the huge oak grew up from a small acorn.
From the time of Rousseau (at least), humanistic thinking has wanted to associate youth with innocence and age with corruption. We have associated lack of stifling education with lack of hang-ups, and constricting education as the source of many of our woes. In this framework, civilization is the great culprit of corruption, and we were all doing just fine until society started messing with us.
Hypocrisy is pretending to be something that you are not. Hypocrisy — in the biblical sense — is not caused by the mere presence of sin. We all have sins to confess, and sincere Christians confess them regularly, honestly, and without guile. It is worth noting that sincere Christians have sins to confess. Hypocrisy is a settled pattern of pretending that all is well when it is nothing of the kind. Hypocrisy is a double life in the video, and not in the snapshot.
Hypocrisy cultivates the good opinion of others, and wants to do so on the cheap.
Now I want to address here some of the reasons why young people are more vulnerable to the temptations of hypocrisy than others. Note that this is addressing general patterns — it is not an “each and every” sort of thing. I am not saying that young people are necessarily hypocrites and that old people can’t be. I am pointing out what would be a good thing to watch out for.
First, young people are far more dependent on the good opinion of those in authority. What they have can be taken from them more quickly than it can be from others. Older Christians may have more to lose, but it is harder for them to lose it all at once. A young person’s life can come crashing down pretty quickly.
Second, naturally, dispositionally, young people are more eager to please those in authority. If you are in a place where giving that pleasure is a challenge (as, say, in a rigorous school), the pressures to give that pleasure “on the cheap” intensify. This impulse is a good thing in itself, but like all good things, it brings certain temptations with it.
Third, young people are more easily tricked. This may have nothing to do with native gullibility, and can be just a function of station in life. They have not seen this particular maneuver before — this is their first year in high school. Someone who has been watching life in high school for 50 years could tell you all about it — because this happens every year — but it doesn’t seem like it happens every year for those who just arrived.
Fourth, young people are more exposed to recruiters. The world, the flesh and the devil take special pleasure in defiling that which is not yet defiled. The perfection of the Garden of Eden was lacking just one thing — as far as the serpent was concerned — and that was to be ruined. The world loves fresh meat. In addition, there are few more effective ways to strike at the joy of older Christians than by striking at their children.
And fifth, young people are more vulnerable to peer police action, and are much less likely to identify it for what it is. If a group of thirty-somethings in a church were vigorous in hiding their adulteries and drug use from the elders of the church, everybody would instantly recognize this for what it was — sheer, straight-up hypocrisy. But for as long as I have been in Christian circles (my whole life), clusters of young people assume to themselves the right to hide outrageous sin from their elders. Everybody hates on a snitch, and nobody hates on a hypocrite.
C.S. Lewis once observed that courage is not so much a separate virtue as it is the testing point of all the virtues. To live straight takes courage. To live straight in a Christian school takes courage. To live straight in a good Christian school takes courage. If you are not up to it, make sure you own to yourself what the problem actually is — lack of courage — and don’t respond to it in a way that flatters yourself. Self-flattery is the machine oil that keeps the engine of hypocrisy running.
This post provides the gist of remarks made to an assembly of secondary students at Logos School on October 2, 2012.