“Authentic” has become one of the new buzzwords of the twenty-first century; it would seem that everyone, everywhere is on a quest to manifest greater authenticity. People yearn to find their true, authentic selves, they search for authentic experiences, and they want to exist in spaces which value authenticity. Authenticity in relationships is highly valued.
This desire for authenticity represents an awareness of how much of life seems fake, contrived, or forced. People easily feel controlled or manipulated in various ways; they seem to become what they would rather avoid. They will believe or do all sorts of things in order to be loved, accepted, or welcomed into a group. Meanwhile, people put on pretense and pretend to be things they are not; such acting is exhausting. All of this reveals a deep, profound anxiety: people fear rejection of their true selves and so put on the pretense of being someone else or go along with the expectations of others. People would like to be accepted while remaining authentic to themselves; in practice they value the former over the latter. Thus people die inside, overwhelmed by hurt, insecurity, alienation, anxieties, and fear, pretending to have everything together, and convinced everyone else has everything together, thus reinforcing feelings of inadequacy. In a world that looks more like “reality” television every day and of “fake news,” people yearn for what is real and to be real about life.
To this end, a desire for authenticity is not unwarranted. Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, for they put on the pretense of being one way, but acted in quite another (Matthew 23:1-35). The Greek word for “hypocrite” originally referred to an actor, and many indeed go through life putting on an elaborate act, pretending to be something other than they truly are. Such acting and hypocrisy are not unique to the world; Christians often succumb to the pressure of putting on a righteous appearance so as to measure up to the rest in their “holy huddles,” never willing to expose any possible deficiency lest their sanctity and standing before God would be up for questioning. Masquerades such as these are effective tools of the Evil One, keeping many in bondage to pretense, often blind to reality, self-deceived (cf. 2 Timothy 2:26-3:9, Hebrews 3:12). God desires to heal people from their pain, distress, anxiety, fear, inadequacy, shame, and such like (1 Peter 2:24, 5:16-17). Christians are called upon to confess their sins to one another, not to pretend they are without sin (James 5:16).
Authenticity, therefore, maintains value. God would have His people manifest authenticity and sincerity, to love without hypocrisy, and speak and live truthfully (Romans 12:9, Ephesians 4:29). Christians cultivate trust among one another and with people in the world through their faithfulness, generating trust on account of honesty and life without pretense. God has loved and accepted us despite our performance and has given of His Son for our redemption (Romans 5:6-11); Christians who trust in God’s love and acceptance find in Him the strength to love and accept others despite their performance. In a sin-sick world people yearn for honest conversation, acceptance without pretense, and an acknowledgement of the difficulties and complexities of life; people can find satisfaction for such desires in Jesus and ought to see it manifest in His people.
And yet, for too many, the goal of authenticity goes well beyond, believing that in finding the “true self” one will be able to locate true satisfaction. Authenticity is thus considered the end, and not a means to an end: if I can find my true self, so the thinking goes, I will come to a place of confidence and rest. I will be everything I am supposed to be. If I can just get past pretense, I can be great.
Let none be deceived: it is important to understand who we really are. We do well to recognize our strengths and identify our weaknesses; we must appreciate how God has made us who we are and dedicate ourselves to serving God in the Kingdom of Jesus according to our abilities (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Peter 4:10-11). Nevertheless, our “true self” is far from ideal; our true self is really often rather ugly (cf. James 1:22-25). Ironically, searching for our “true selves” as some kind of ideal proves insincere and inauthentic, because all of us have deficiencies, flaws, inadequacies, unhealthy coping mechanisms, eccentricities, etc., which we do not really want to associate with our “true selves.” We want to think of ourselves as well-informed even if we prove quite ignorant in many respects; we want to think of ourselves as fair-minded and non-judgmental even though we prove susceptible to tribalistic thinking and judge others for the same inadequacies we would rather not see in ourselves. Our “true selves” are on display when we think no one is looking, and very few people prove content with what they find in those circumstances.
Therefore, while authenticity and sincerity in understanding who we are and what we are about are essential for character and virtue, they prove insufficient to manifest quality character or virtue. We must strip ourselves of our self-deceptions and pretenses about who we really are; it is not as if God is ignorant of our true condition (cf. James 1:22-25)! Ascertaining our “authentic self” then provides a basis upon which to cultivate greater virtue, trusting in God in Christ, submitting to His purposes, praying for strength to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, and developing the habits which facilitate the manifestation of those character traits (Galatians 5:22-24, Ephesians 3:14-21). Yes, God loves each and every one of us, and will accept us as we are: God does not at all intend to keep us there, but would have us grow to become ever more like Him in His Son (Romans 8:29).
Authenticity is therefore an important means to an end, but it is not an end unto itself. We do well to manifest authenticity and sincerity in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; we must recognize who we are, for better and for worse, and we should stop pretending to be what we are not. Yet just being what we are will never be sufficient, for we are weak and prone to sin (Romans 3:23); we must strive to greater trust in Jesus and manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, dependent on God’s strength and provision, manifesting sanctification through greater development of virtue in Jesus. May we trust in the Lord Jesus and be conformed to His image so we may obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry