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What Sins Do You Call Excusable? Part I

While waiting in the airport for a storm-delayed flight, I picked up Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: Lost Souls.  It was a good read of a pulp fiction novel that is a mixture of horror and science fiction with some humor and critique of ideology thrown in.  What really caught my eye, however, was that it is introduced by a quotation from G. K. Chesterton, the subject of my dissertation.  

“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”

We all have the tendency to excuse sins to which we are more susceptible.  “Sure it’s wrong to get drunk, but a guy’s got a have fun sometimes and, if no one gets hurt, there’s not much harm, but that pornography is just evil.”  “Yes, I do talk about my co-workers behind their backs, but at least I don’t use foul language or tell dirty jokes like they do.”     

Jesus condemned our self-justifying double standards.  “Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, but you do not notice the beam of wood in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of you eye,’ and there is a beam of wood right in your own eye?  Hypocrite!  First, take out the beam from your own eye and then you will be able to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

We should not underestimate the seriousness of excusing our sins while condemning the sins of others.  Jesus calls it hypocrisy, and it could be argued that hypocrisy is one of the gravest sins according to our Lord.  All 17 times the word “hypocrite” is used in the New Testament are quotations from Jesus, 13 of them in the Gospel of Matthew alone.  Jesus levels the charge of religious hypocrisy 4 times in the Sermon on the Mount.  In 6 of the 7 woes of Matthew 23 that Jesus pronounces against the scribes and Pharisees he calls them hypocrites.  In Jesus’ parable of the two servants, he says that the master of the wicked servant “will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51).

Hypocrisy is certainly a sin that religious people are prone to.  We would be wise to follow Paul’s advice.  “If anyone thinks that he is standing, he better watch out or he might fall” (I Corinthians 10:12).  Allow God to search our hearts for the sin of hypocrisy and enable us to stop excusing evils.

As serious as this personal hypocrisy is, Chesterton probably was pointing to a broader culture excusing of evils.  Part II will look at the issue of institutional hypocrisy or the way in which theological and political “liberals” and “conservatives” often agree on evils but find different ones excusable.

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