Practice What You Preach: St. Paul on Justification, Part 5—by Cameron Daly

As I’ve shown over the past four posts in this series, true Christianity clearly professes good works to be necessary for salvation. The next step for the Christians, then, is to live out that profession.

As St. Paul put it (metaphorically), “I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27, NABRE). He made a good point. Preaching goodness doesn’t do the “preacher,” so to speak, much good if he refuses to practice it himself. Of course, one might argue that it does him good in that he’s helping others to do good; but such an argument would neglect that one of the best ways to teach the Commandments is to lead by example—to practice them oneself. As St. Paul put it, he desired that “those who have believed in God be careful to devote themselves to good works; these are excellent and beneficial to others” (Ti 3:8). Hypocrisy on the part of the preacher, therefore, could actually end up hurting others more than helping them.

What better way is there to bear witness to the truth of a belief than to live it out? For instance, if I were to tell someone they needed a helmet to keep them safe when riding a bike, but I didn’t wear one myself, I could easily give the impression that a helmet is indeed not necessary. This could potentially make me out to be nothing more than a hypocritical busybody by insisting someone else wear one. I would make both myself and my policy of wearing a helmet seem much more credible if I actually took the time to wear one myself.

A perfect example of this principle is martyrdom, which—as the Catechism puts it—“is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith” (CCC, #2473). What could better show forth belief in eternal life after death than a willingness to suffer death to attain it? Likewise, what could better show forth a lack of belief in it than an unwillingness to die for it?

The same concept shown by these examples goes for Christian morality: a person can preach the Commandments and profess various virtues all they want, but there’s no more convincing argument to live them out than actually living them out. Not living them out can have a very different effect, making a mere mediocrity out of both the practices and the person who preaches but won’t practice them.
For instance, what will the rude or uncaring or disrespectful person, who preaches being polite or loving or respectful, come across as short of an obnoxious or annoying hypocrite? How is that going to inspire anyone?

How will the person who promotes humility come across when they’re too arrogant to realize they can literally learn from anyone else (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2038), thinking what others have to offer is beneath them? How will they appear when they’re so prideful they can never bring themselves to admit to having done something wrong?

Does not the person who likes and shares every Facebook post they can find about God only show how they don’t take it God seriously, when they follow these posts up with every immodestly inappropriate piece of crap that happens to give them their jollies? Does not the person who shows up to an event with the crucifix around their neck only show how little the reality of the Crucifixion means to them, when they come to the event to cheat?

Surely, there are countless instances and levels of Christian hypocrisy, but all of it demonstrates one thing: how little the hypocrite’s Christian faith really matters to them. And this is a key point: because if Christianity doesn’t matter to the person preaching it, then why should it matter to the people they’re preaching it to? If it isn’t important enough for the preacher to live by, then why should those hearing about it put it into practice?

What should be gotten out of this is the potential damage we can do to others, by professing Christian faith but refusing to live it out. Therefore, we should not only practice what we preach for our own sakes, but also for the sakes of others, who could be scandalized by observing our lukewarmness concerning the faith. This basically should provide further motivation for us to do what we should be doing anyway—the fact that good works not only further us on our own paths to eternal life, but they can also help to further others. Perhaps it could be thought of as the “double-consequence” of good works (cf. CCC, 1472, in which the “double consequence” of sin is discussed).

Now, I’ve said a lot about how hypocrites can basically ridicule the good things they teach others by not living them out themselves; therefore, I just want to take a moment to stress the importance of avoiding the “tu quoque” (“you do it, too”) fallacy when dealing with a hypocrite who has something useful to say. My point is to follow Jesus’ advice (by which He was referring to the Pharisees and the scribes, but it can apply to any hypocrite): “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Mt 23:3).

When we preach Christianity, we’re preaching a tough way of living to live up to; but the fact that we fail at it does not mean we shouldn’t preach it. Instead, it means that we should strive all the harder to live up to it, for the sake of giving a good example and positive inspiration. We don’t want to be the people who can talk the talk but are paralyzed when it comes to the walk; rather, we want to walk well enough to allow people to listen to us while following in our footsteps.

And what’s one key aspect of the Christian message? That people are fallible, and that people fail. Which is probably a very good opportunity to offer my sincere apologies to all those who—in one way or another—have seen a bad example in me on account of my sins, or have observed my being a hypocrite. Please forgive me and pray for me.

For my next and final post in this series, we will be going over just what—as I put it—“what we should be doing anyway” is, incorporating into it some of St. Paul’s own teachings on morality. Thank you to those who have followed this series thus far!

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