Once upon a time, I was at the grocery store. No really I was. I got here quite often. I’m a Baptist. We like to eat.  On this particular occasion, it was years ago when my oldest daughter was still in diapers. There I was, standing in line, with what seemed like a very nice pair of ladies in Christian T-shirts from a local church which I happen to know is pretty conservative (that will make sense in a minute). They were friendly and flirted with my 6 month old little girl, and everything was great. As the line moved forward, their conversation turned to the same-sex marriage issue (which at the time was all anyone seemed to be talking about).

OK, I admit it. I was eavesdropping. However, their conversation gave me something to reflect on. Here is what one lady was saying, and the other was whole-heartedly agreeing.

Her brother had made comments in support of natural marriage, stating that homosexuality was a sin and that marriage was between a man and a woman. The point she was making to her friend was that her brother was being a hypocrite and should not be judging other people’s relationships when he is in the middle of divorce #2 and already shacking up with the woman who she believes will likely be divorce #3 in the future.

OK, now that I’ve probably gotten your blood pressure up expecting an article on sexual morality and marriage, can we completely disregard the homosexuality and same-sex marriage issues? I know that’s hard since it is such a contentious and divisive issue, but please just set that aside for now.

There are 2 VERY important points I want to make, because I encounter these errors A LOT, especially working with teens. Sadly, despite being just flat wrong, they are also emotionally and rhetorically powerful. This leads many people to find them convincing.

(1) A hypocrite is a very specific thing, and we throw that word around way too much, and (2) just because a person who says, “X is wrong” is also personally engaged in other wrong behavior, that has absolutely zero effect on whether or not X really is wrong.

Now, according to Miriam-Webster, a hypocrite is “a person who claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right but who behaves in a way that disagrees with those beliefs.” Saying one thing but doing another. Granted, I have no idea what this brother believes about marriage and divorce. I do know one thing he believes: marriage is between a man and a woman. And as best I can tell, he’s not breaking that rule. He’s not saying “marriage is between a man and a woman,” and then running off to marry another guy. He is making a statement about one type of misbehavior while engaging in another completely different type of misbehavior. Maybe he believes that divorce is perfectly legit for the reasons he is doing it. I honestly don’t know. However, far too often we drop the word “hypocrite” when in reality, the person is not being hypocritical at all.

Even if this brother in this example IS being hypocritical, that is no basis for saying he has no place to state something is wrong. He could be right!

If an alcoholic tells you that drinking too much can ruin your life, is he wrong? If I am living paycheck to paycheck, in debt up to my eyeballs and one lay-off away from my kids not being able to eat, and I say to you, “Everyone should do a budget and manage their finances,” I may be a hypocrite, but am I wrong?

Sometimes it is the person in the midst of the misbehavior who may have a profound statement to say that should ring all the more true to us exactly because they are in the middle of it.. And sometimes, if even by sheer dumb luck, even fools can stumbles upon a true claim … well, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.

The point is that each claim should be judged based on it’s own merits, and even someone in the midst of misbehavior can make a true claim about another type of misbehavior. In fact, if we had to be perfect in order to make any claims about the morality of an issue, none of us could ever have any grounds for ever making a moral claim, but we know that’s not true.

“How dare you judge that murderer, you hypocrite! You gossip and call in sick when you’re not really sick.” No. That would be ridiculous to say. The gossip and deception doesn’t take away the ability to point at murder and say, “That’s not right.” Logically, however, that’s the exact same thing we do when we accuse others of being hypocritical or judgmental for making a moral statement when they themselves have moral misbehavior in their own life.

Somewhere, somehow, we let way too much emotion slip into our conversation on far too many issues. I think it would do us all well to learn the art of taking a step back and thinking about the situation before we render judgment.

(which by the way, did you notice that making a reasoned judgment is not automatically the same thing “being judgmental?” But that’s a topic for a different blog.)