Abraham Lincoln often told a story about a young man who murdered both of his parents, then entered a plea for leniency on grounds that he was an orphan. The judge was having none of that, and he used a word that was not familiar to the jury. The word “dissembler” was not the word they would have used, but it was exactly what they were thinking. A dissembler is “one who conceals under a false appearance; to conceal the truth by pretense; to act hypocritically; to be a hypocrite.” No, the young man did not get what he wanted, but he got free room and board for a long time.
Well-known author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the following about a person who was known to be a dissembler: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” In the book of Acts, chapter five, we read of a couple that was guilty of this behavior, and their deeds led to their death. They had done one thing and claimed another, which is merely one of several ways by which a man or woman can be guilty of being a dissembler, a liar. Their fate was not to be a pleasant one (Rev. 21:8).
Unless this is a very unusual group, some of us are guilty of being “dissemblers.” No, I’m not accusing, but it is never a bad idea for Christians to search our hearts for honest answers and make genuine corrections to such issues. Without “beating around the bush” on this subject, here is the clearest synonym for a dissembler: A dissembler is just a hypocrite! It may surprise you, but being a hypocrite is commonly said to be the most prevalent, the most practiced, the most transparent and most visible of sins. A hypocrite is someone who is one kind of person but who acts as if he/she is really another kind of person—much like an actor. In truth, the theater is where the word had its origin.
W. E. Vine gives a history of the Greek word hupocrites or hypocrite:
It was a custom for Greek and Roman actors to speak in large masks with mechanical devices for augmenting the force of the voice; hence the word came to be used metaphorically of a dissembler, a hypocrite. (An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words 242)
An actor on the stage or the screen, in truth being one person, is acting the part of another. The Greeks made good use of the word, and we can see the obvious application of the term.
Who, then, is a hypocrite? The word is found only in the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ life (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Therein the term is found twenty times, and the only person quoted in those passages is Jesus Himself. He uses it to define the “scribes and the Pharisees,” and it is used in a very special, forceful way on each occasion. In Mark 7:6 Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and scribes boldly and powerfully: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Those to whom Jesus spoke were thought to be the best and most righteous of men. That is how they appeared to others, but Jesus said they were truly hypocrites. That thought should be sobering to all of us. It is so easy to pretend godliness, to act as though we are genuine followers of Christ. But He knows our hearts. He knows who and what we really are.
When we sing “O How I Love Jesus,” or “Jesus Is All the World To Me,” Jesus knows if we are just mouthing the words but really thinking of other things. If He called a group of Jewish leaders “hypocrites,” do you not think He would call us “dissemblers” or hypocrites, too? In our giving, in our prayers, and in our everyday interaction with our neighbors, Jesus knows our hearts. We may fool our neighbors—even our family—but we won’t fool Jesus.
I wish I had not written this article; doing so demands that I look more carefully at my own actions and thoughts. How easy it is to think we can fool God. How easy it is for us to merely go through the motions without feeling, without genuine, heartfelt thoughts in our worship, in our daily lives. In Revelation 3:15-16, the Holy Spirit inspired John to write to the church at Laodicea: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I could wish you were cold or hot. So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:5)