Beware the Hypocrisy of the “Spiritual but Not Religious”

We live in the age of the designer God, when many claim the right to imagine and craft their own version of god. Some of them refer to it as “the god within.” Others call it “the god of my understanding.” Still others speak of “the Jesus I know.” A consistent feature of these manufactured gods is that they just so happen to agree with the “believer” on almost everything. Another common characteristic is that they differ in significant ways from what the true God has given to us through biblical revelation. We used to call inventing and worshiping your own god “idolatry.” Today, the euphemism for this is being “spiritual but not religious.” In labeling themselves this way, people claim the virtue of faith; they speak of themselves in pious terms and even applaud themselves for being tolerant and open-minded, even while being dismissive (i.e., intolerant) of organized religion and the Scriptures.

Jesus spoke rather plainly of those who claim to be religious but are inwardly deceiving themselves and engaging in a game of “Let’s Pretend”:

Jesus began to speak, first to his disciples,
“Beware of the leaven—that is, the hypocrisy—of the Pharisees.
There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops.
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. I shall show you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one”
(Luke 12:1-5).

The Greek word that is translated as “hypocrisy” is ὑπόκρισις (hypocrisis). Its nominative form is ὑποκριτής (hypocrites), which most literally means “actor.”

Obviously, an actor is someone who plays a role. An actor who portrays Julius Caesar is not in fact Julius Caesar. In a certain sense, he is “pretending” to be Julius Caesar.

It is certainly fine for an actor to pretend for a time, to be someone he is not, but in the spiritual sense, it is not good to act or pretend. When Jesus warns of hypocrisy, He is warning against pretending to be someone that we are not; or pretending to live in a world, in a time, or under a set of circumstances that is not in fact real.

When the Lord warns us not to engage in hypocrisy, He is cautioning us against pretending, engaging in fantasy, or living in a make-believe world. This serves as the opening framework of all that is to follow.

And what does follow? Fundamentally, the Lord says that the pretend world denies the reality of judgment. He goes on to warn that there is nothing that is concealed that will not one day be revealed, that there is nothing that is secret that will not be made known, that what we have said in the darkness will be heard in the light.

He then further cautions us not to be afraid of those who only have the ability to kill the body, but rather of the one who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna.

Most people today live in a fantasy world in that they deny or discount the reality that there will be a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. They simply gloss over the notion that they will have to render an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36), that they will have to stand before Him who judges the intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12), and that nothing will lay hidden from Him (Heb 4:13). In effect, they pretend. Pretending is acting; it is a form of hypocrisy.

Creating a designer god, a spiritual but not religious god is likewise a form of hypocrisy. A pretend god cannot save us; a designer god is of no use when going to meet the real God. If one has not allowed the true God to purify and ready him, he will be incapable of enduring the bright light of His glory and the searing insight of His truth. In fact, such a person will likely reject Him as hateful and harsh. To those who hate the truth, the truth seems hateful; to those who prefer the darkness, the light seems obnoxious.

This is why only the true God can ready us for beholding Him. Only He can accustom us to the brightness of His truth and the heat of His glory and love.

A second quality of the “spiritual but not religious,” those who claim the right to design their own god, is a subtle self-righteousness. They feel they are somehow above all this “organized religion stuff.” They don’t need doctrines or Bibles or Churches to tell them what to do; they have a direct connection of their own to the god of their (superior?) understanding. It is a kind of rehashing of tired old Gnosticism.

When Jesus warned of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He was referring to their sense of self-righteousness. They thought that they had nothing to worry about because they were “good people”—unlike others around them. They said their prayers, fasted on Wednesdays, and paid their tithes. On the Day of Judgment, they figured that they would just walk right on into Heaven.

Too many people today have this attitude of self-righteousness. They may invoke God’s grace and mercy, but they are not really willing to consider the fact that they may, by their own sinfulness, disqualify themselves. Emphasizing certain aspects of God while discounting others, they rework Him into their own god. This is acting; it is hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Too many people brush aside the idea that they will one day have to render an account to the true Lord. “Oh yeah, I know there’s a day of judgment, but God is love so everything will be just fine. The god I know would never permit anyone to go to Hell.” Never mind that this is in direct contradiction to the whole of Scripture! Most today live in outright heresy on this topic. (Sadly, there are those who hold the opposite, extreme attitude: one of despair.)

The Lord says that we should beware of hypocrisy, careful that we’re not living in a pretend world. None but the pure in heart can walk into Heaven. We should not be so quick to presume that we have the necessary purity of heart. The real and true God is all holy, and Heaven is a place of the souls of just men made perfect (Heb 12:23). Jesus says, you must be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). This is reality, but hypocrites like to pretend, to play act.

A contrived “god-within” of your “own understanding” cannot save you. Stop pretending; stop reciting lines like some actor (hypocrite). Get off the stage and down on your knees; call on the true God and savior, Jesus, the One described in Scripture, not the “Jesus” of your preferences. Yes, call on the true Lord, God, and Savior, who alone can save you.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Beware the Hypocrisy of the “Spiritual but Not Religious”

7 Replies to “Beware the Hypocrisy of the “Spiritual but Not Religious””

  1. In the bible, a metaphor for a hypocrite is a ‘white-washed wall’. What is wrong with painting a wall white to make it prettier? Well, in biblical times walls were often infected with leprosy. There are precise instructions in the Old Testament on how to identify a wall infected with leprosy and what to do in that situation. A wall infected with leprosy can cause a person to become infected with leprosy. My understanding of the biblical term ‘white-washed wall’ is that the image is of a wall infected with leprosy that has been white-washed to hide the leprosy. Accepting this image, a hypocrite, ‘a white-washed wall’, is someone who is a hidden danger to other people.

    If memory serves, in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer gives the image of the man who ‘smiles and smiles with a knife hidden behind his back’, or words to that effect. This image of Chaucer’s corresponds well to the biblical image of ‘a white-washed wall,’ in my opinion.

    Concerning spiritual but religious, is that like mathematical but no numbers? Spiritual but not religious is like religious but no God, and, without God, religious isn’t worth the trouble.

    Seems like there are a lot of father’s daughter’s in the world, and even some mother’s sons, who say, “Mama-Papa figure, don’t preach!” and then endlessly hang-up ‘Be Kind’ signs, which is a form of preaching.

  2. Thanks for posting my comment. Having made the comment, I suddenly realized that I have no idea if the Jews of the bible even had or used paint. So, perhaps, I read too much into the term ‘white-washed wall’. Oops. Hiding the leprosy of a wall infected with leprosy is a powerful image/metaphor for a corrupt person.

    1. A priest on a radio show had a response for you: “You worship a God in your way and I’ll worship him in HIS way.”

  3. Hi,

    I am spiritual but not religious.

    I love hearing that I am a terrible hypocrite, an actor. Like I am in Act III of Hamlet or something.

  4. People who have been degraded, humiliated and frightened by incompetent proclaimers of God’s Word, after reading this essay, will probably get even more rigid in their rejection of religion and embrace of what they call spirituality. Just think of all the religiously observant evildoers. We’re going to have to come up with a more creative and inviting way to reach out to those who have no religious beliefs. Thinking one can threaten with damnation and that’ll result in faith is fallacious.

  5. It’s my understanding that leprosy is white anyway so one wouldn’t have to wash it to begin with.
    Your articles are so mentally challenging and I look forward to reading your articles.
    I’ll have to do my own research a little further to understand more about the white washed walls but thanks for the challenge

  6. I’m not sure “hypocrite” is the correct word for most of the people who state that they are “spiritual but not religious,” and it certainly isn’t the word Jesus would have used for them. After all, the only two groups of people Jesus called “hypocrites” where religious leaders (primarily) and his own disciples (on occasion). Jesus often went after the religious leaders because everyone in His society looked up to them since they thought the religious leaders were good, righteous, and knew how God wanted people to live. Jesus called these leaders “hypocrites” because they didn’t practice what they preached and made shows of holiness for public acclaim (Matthew 23:1-7). In Matthew 23:13-26, Jesus lists a series of their other crimes: from teaching false truths to paying taxes but neglecting good works to practicing ritual cleanliness but not cleanliness of the soul (Matthew 23:13-36). He never would have called anyone who was not considered a member-in-good-standing of his faith a hypocrite. Instead, he used compassion and good works to lead people – Samaritans (John 4:4-26), Gentiles (Mark 5:1-20 for example), sinners (Luke 19:1-10 for example) – back to God. Anyone today who has found organized religion so distasteful as to refuse to follow any one of them, surely isn’t going to go crawling back on their hands and knees now because they’ve been called a hypocrite and are afraid of judgement. This article smacks to me of someone who keeps looking for a splinter with a plank in their eye (Matthew 7:5).

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