Almost 30 years ago I had the honor and privilege of hearing Dr. Bill and Annabelle Gilliam for a weekend conference at First Baptist Atlanta. They were gifted speakers. As an auditory learner, I’m used to hearing and absorbing information by simply listening closely. Sometimes a boring speaker can have the most fascinating information. Lots of medical speakers fall into this category. Sometimes gifted speakers can expound upon utter nonsense. Lots of preachers, unfortunately, fall into this category. The Gilliams were in the third category—gifted speakers with something important to say. One of the most memorable things they said that weekend was “The world’s definition of a hypocrite is someone who acts other than the way they feel; God’s definition of a hypocrite is someone who acts other than who they are.”
As a “good Christian” I applied this newfound truth to my life with all the gusto of an overzealous enforcement officer. We all filter new truths through the lens of our own belief system; but, unfortunately, sometimes those “old truths” that comprise our belief system aren’t true at all. As if I wasn’t already out of touch with my heart and emotions, I became convinced that my emotions didn’t matter. Emotions were “superfluous add-ons” that were given to us for the positive aspects of life only. So-called negative emotions weren’t “Christian”.
I dearly loved my grandmother. She was one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. She loved all of us grandchildren intensely and she had a terrific sense of humor; but I think she unconsciously held this same belief—that good Christians don’t have negative emotions—and passed it on to me if not the rest of the family.
By the time I went away to college, I was “the happiest”, always full of good cheer. Don’t get me wrong, a person can ignore negative emotions to the point that they don’t truly feel them anymore or at least stop recognizing them for what they are. That’s not to say the emotions aren’t there lurking beneath the surface. You can be highly functional and successful always pretending to be happy.
Many professions are logic driven and there’s little place for emotions. I think this is particularly true of physicians. You can’t be a blubbering puddle of tears during an emergency resuscitation. You can cry with a grieving relative but it’s “frowned upon” by the profession and it would not be appropriate to be wailing more than the family. Your job is to comfort not be comforted. Specialists who are frequently faced with end of life scenarios can become so numb to pain and suffering that they don’t seem human. Being separated from your heart in this way can be an advantage in rare instances and even then it’s only temporary. The pediatric ER physician must eventually deal with the unexpected death of a child. An oncologist must process having to tell a patient they have three months to live. The emotions are there and eventually will take their toll if not acknowledged and processed. But is this separation of head and heart real? No. It’s just pretend. It’s pretend life.
Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) What does that mean? Well, part of that truth is that we can live the life God intended, full of joy and sadness, contentment and desire, peace and anger. Over the years I’ve come to understand more and more that part of being alive is to feel sorrow, longing, anger, grief, despair, etc. to live without feeling these emotions is to not be fully alive.
So back to the Gilliam quote, “The world’s definition of a hypocrite is someone who acts other than the way they feel; God’s definition of a hypocrite is someone who acts other than who they are.” What do you do with emotions when they aren’t “appropriate”? What about the minister who had a fight with his wife on the way to church? What about the soloist who is feeling sad but has to sing a “happy song” at the podium? What about the physician who is really angry (I mean REALLY angry!) at a betrayal yet must go see the family waiting in room three and smile while he asks, “Why are you here today?”
I’ve come to the conclusion that my emotions are real and legitimate. “Appropriate” isn’t a word that should be applied to emotions. Behaviors are “appropriate” or “inappropriate”. Emotions just—are. You can feel an emotion privately and consciously acknowledge it and yet sharing that emotion is a behavior. There are intimate situations where I should be genuine and honest about my feelings and there are situations where to be genuine and honest about my feelings might be inappropriate.
Take the church worker for example. A soloist or minister who is having a bad day shouldn’t let his emotions interfere with ministering to the congregation. I recognize that there are times that emotion can be so overwhelming as to render us incapable of ministering to others whether on a platform or not; but there are times when life sucks and you gotta do what you gotta do. Is that less genuine? Less honest? No. It’s just life.
The clearest example I know comes from my music training. When I was in college I sang with a traveling ensemble. The minister who led the group taught us that when someone else was singing a solo, that you should look at that person. If a member of the congregation sees you looking at the soloist, then their attention will be drawn back to the soloist and the message. If that same member of the congregation sees you looking around the room, then they will follow your gaze to see what’s so interesting and thus they are drawn away from the message.
I think this is a much better and clearer way of looking at our transparency with others. If I feel bad and I’m singing a victorious song about what Christ has done for me, then I should sing it with an attitude of strength, victory, and over-comeness in spite of what I’m feeling inside at that moment. If it’s a sad song then I should express that emotion. Is it acting? Or ministering? Is the “performance” distracting from the message or is it drawing people to Jesus?
My initial interpretation of the Gilliam quote was wrong, plain and simple. I see now the word “act” in their quote. They didn’t say that feelings weren’t legitimate. It’s all about behaviors. Maybe a better translation of their quote, if you will, would be, “The world’s definition of a hypocrite is one who behaves differently than they feel; God’s definition of a hypocrite is one who behaves differently than who they are.” I think that’s a much better definition of a hypocrite.
Of course, I have to process this definition through my own preconceived “truth”.