In a book on World War I that we have, there is a haunting picture that you can see above. The photo shows a line of a few American soldiers in France coming out of their foxholes in an attempt to advance toward enemy lines. Though the picture only represents a second in time on a great battlefield, the black and white of the picture highlights the story of its grim reality. Behind the men you can see that the battlefield is smoky, as artillery shells have hit and exploded behind them. Most of the handful of men in the picture are crouched down and running ahead, gun in hand. But it is the lead soldier in the picture that grabs your attention.
His helmet is off and his head thrust back. His right arm is up and his left hand is clutching his throat. You can tell he is about to go down. As the historian explains the picture, you realize it is not a bullet that got him. Notice all the other men around him are wearing gas masks. Yet his did not work, and the poisonous gas of the enemy is having its effect as he gasps for life, his mask hanging uselessly from his neck. If it had been a video that kept rolling rather than a picture, you would see the other soldiers charging on while this man lay on the field thrashing as the gas ate away at his nervous system.
That is a truth that God’s Word teaches. Your mask will not work. In James 3:17, a verse our congregation is memorizing, it tells us that the wisdom that come from above is “sincere.” The literal meaning of the word is “without hypocrisy.” If you could see it in the original language, it would be one word that looks negated, like “unhypocritical” (though that is not a word in English).
This word meant something culturally in the day of the Bible. In the years before the New Testament was written, the Greek culture at its height used the word hypocrite in a special way. In the verb form it meant “to pretend” and in noun form it described a “play-actor.” Those who performed in Greek tragedies and plays would wear masks representing their characters. The actors were deemed hypocrites because they were pretending to be someone they were not.
The Bible uses this word to speak of people who pretend to be something spiritually that they are not. Jesus used it often to describe the Pharisees. For they concealed, hid, and shadowed the reality of their lives by masking over their sin. When we do likewise, we need to remember the lesson of that picture above. Your mask of self-righteousness will not work. My mask of hypocrisy is futile. Sin is so poisonous and deadly only Christ can shield us from it.
This requires honesty on our part. Starting a day confessing honestly our sins to him, and receiving his blood-bought forgiveness, is our best defense. For if we humble ourselves before the Lord of hosts each day, then we will be far less likely to don a defective mask in the battle during the rest of the day.