If God Doesn't Love Hypocrites,
Who's Left to Love?
Hypocrisy seems to be an inescapable part of being human. Henry David Thoreau is famous for his romantic philosophy of isolationism, self-sufficiency, and a respect for nature; but this environmentalist also accidently burned down a large portion of the woods near Concord, Massachusetts when his campfire got out of control. And, although he was a proponent of self-sufficiency, while living on Walden Pond he took his laundry home for his mother to do. 18th century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau is well known for a book called Emile, or On Education which contains, among other topics, parenting advice; he and his longtime partner Thérèse had five children and handed them all over to orphanages. Of course, there are the scandals that seem to surround many contemporary religious figures unable to live up to the very lifestyles they outwardly embrace—with marital infidelity, addiction to pornography, and monetary improprieties usually ending in a fall from favor. This isn’t a new problem in the religious life; after all, sixteen hundred years ago Augustine prayed, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” And then there are the religious progressives who preach the importance of embracing diversity, and yet shun the people they deem “intolerant.” Hypocrisy seems to be ubiquitous; shine a strong enough light on any of us, and we, too, will wear the label “hypocrite.” We are all walking masses of contradiction.
This is what struck me as I read today’s passage from 1 Kings. The temple in Jerusalem has just been built, and the ark of the covenant is brought up from the tent that had been its dwelling place until now. A cloud fills the temple with the Lord’s presence, and then Solomon steps up in front of the altar to say a prayer of dedication. Solomon—who is full of contradictions, shortcomings, and hypocrisy. Solomon is known for his wisdom, and yet he unwisely laid on the people a heavy burden in the form of taxes and forced labor so that the temple could be built. It was a move that ultimately caused the northern tribes of Israel to break away from the southern tribes. Initially Solomon seemed merciful to his brother Adonijah who was almost made king in his place; later he had Adonijah killed, along with a whole slew of men who threatened his reign. In the prayer from today’s reading, Solomon reminds God of the covenant between God and the lineage of David, but later it will be Solomon who breaks the covenant by marrying foreign wives and worshiping their gods. This is the Solomon who prays on behalf of all of Israel.
We have a condensed version of Solomon’s prayer in our lectionary, with eleven verses cut out of the middle of the prayer. The entire prayer is actually much longer; it is full of pleas that God hear, forgive, and answer the people of Israel when they pray in the temple or in its direction. The fact that it is Solomon who boldly offers this prayer actually gives me great hope, because I, too, am full of contradictions when I pray. Let’s face it, we all are.
We are all complex creatures—part of us is fearful and part excited, part anxious and part calm, part sad and part joyful, part vengeful and part merciful. We have parts that are angry, compassionate, envious, or loving. And we bring all these parts of ourselves to our prayers. We may vocalize a prayer from one part of ourselves, but God hears the prayers that arise from every part of us. As it’s been said: “God hears all the voices that speak out of us—our vocal prayer, the prayer said in our minds, the unvoiced longing rising out of our hearts, the many voices of which we are not even conscious but which cry out eloquently.” (1) God accepts all the prayers that rise out of us, even the ones we don’t know we are praying. And this is a good thing.
Because if we waited until we were pure in our motives or singular in our intentions or knew for certain what to ask for, then we would never pray. I remind myself constantly of something Richard Foster wrote in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home:
The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives—altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter…. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it. (2)
We don’t have to wait until we are devoid of hypocrisy, contradiction, or our “tangled mass of motives” to pray, because we come to prayer trusting in the goodness of God to meet us each and every time.
See, we may be complex creatures, made up of many parts and many motives, but God is simple. Not “simple” meaning that we can understand or wrap our minds around who God is; we can never do that because God is infinite. What I mean when I say God is “simple” is that God is not made up of contradictory personalities; God is the same through and through. God is constant in love, constant in mercy, constant in truth. When we approach our teenage son or daughter, we may not know in that moment if we will encounter the child who needs our help or the adult who wants to do things on their own. But when we approach God, we expect God to be the same today as yesterday, and the same tomorrow as today.
We come to prayer expecting the God we meet to be the same God who made this world and pronounced it good, the same God who created a people to bring love and light to the world, the same God who loved these people even when their motives became mixed and they lost their way, the same God who could take the painful experiences of slavery in Egypt and exile in Babylon and even death on a cross and weave them all into a larger, beautiful story of redemption and grace where everything belonged. It is to a God such as this that we offer all the contradictions, hypocrisy, and complexities of our own lives. Who else could we trust? Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus and the one on whom the Church is built, knew first-hand the contradictions within himself. He puts it plainly: “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In other words, only you can make us whole.
That’s why along with Peter, Solomon, and all the beloved hypocrites of God since the creation of the world, we, too, take our place before the altar of God and present our messy, contradiction-filled selves—all the many prayers that arise from us, all of our mixed motives, even the places in us of which we are completely unaware. And we trust God to weave the disparate parts into a single narrative, beautiful in its own way—into a story of life and love. We trust in the faithful simplicity of God to heal our contradictions. To whom else can we go?
1. Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1982)
2. Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York: HarperCollins, 1982).