Should We Always Strive to Be Authentic?

Authenticity has been a buzz word in church circles for the last 10 years (at least?). It is one of the most sought after and prized “virtues” in the Christian community. Are you being authentic? Are you being true to yourself? Are you being genuine?

I understand the drive to increased authenticity in the church. This clearly comes from a reaction against the phoniness that we’ve felt and experienced in our past church experiences. People get dressed up, they put on a smile, the answer to “how are you doing?” is always “GREAT!”, etc. WIth a tiny bit of intuition and a small period of time, it’s easy to know when people are being phony. And life is simply too short to be a part of a church where people fake their way through life.

Therefore, to strive for more honesty among fellow Christ-followers makes sense. But in our quest to be authentic at all times, it’s not long before you’ve got to ask the question: “What if your authentic self sucks?” Or “Is it always helpful for you or for others to be authentic?” If in this present moment I’m genuinely a very greedy or lustful, or _________________ person, what good does it do me to embrace authenticity?

First, I have concluded that there are times when it is not healthy for you to be authentic with yourself. Generally speaking, simply camping out on how you feel gets you nowhere, but usually leads you deeper into the rut of whatever that feeling may be.

For instance, in the church context what do you do when you don’t feel like worshipping? What many people do is they simply “be authentic” to how they feel. They sit down and don’t make any kind of effort to do anything that their “self” doesn’t feel like doing. I don’t feel like standing, so I’m not going to stand. Maybe next week if I feel like singing praises to God, I will. If not, I won’t. And that is often admired as a virtuous act of the genuine self.

But is that the best thing for you? (or others?). I’ve come to conclude that it is not helpful for either. In fact, in scripture we get a much different sense when people don’t feel like worshiping. For instance, David in Psalm 103 infers that he may have been in a place of not feeling like worship.

But rather he preaches to the inmost depths of his being trying to stir himself up, to invigorate him to worship:

1 Praise the LORD, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the LORD, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—

He’s literally talking to himself, commanding himself to praise the Lord. How does that happen? By not forgetting his benefits. And then he goes on to recount all of the benefits of God’s loyal love. And in this way, he initially is listening to what his heart is saying. Presumably that is “I don’t feel like praising God.” But he does more than just listen and accept what his “self” is telling him. He actually goes the next step and preaches truth to his inmost being. He is telling it, “This is why you should feel like praising God.” He’s contemplating on God’s covenant love (specifically what that love tangibly cost) UNTIL he feels like praising God. We however tend to make the mistake of waiting it out, or rather anticipating that someday in the near future we may feel like worshiping God again. But there is another way that the Psalmist models for us beautifully. Should you be genuine with yourself and listen to what your heart is telling you? Yes, absolutely. Should you stay there until it changes? Definitely not. You can actually change how you feel.

Second, there are times when it is not healthy or helpful for OTHERS for you to be authentic

For some authenticity has become an excuse to air their grievances with humanity, with the church, and with themselves with no restraint and in a way that is hurtful, vindictive, selfish, and obnoxious. They come and puke up everything they’re feeling and leave the rest of the community sitting around smelling the vomit on the ground (metaphorically speaking of course!). They are slaves to the whims of their feelings and thoughts and show no restraint or thoughtfulness to what may be inappropriate in regard to context or relationship.

I have known people who have simply taken it for granted that it is always best to be honest about what they’re thinking and feeling EVEN when it is hurtful to other people. Their philosophy is,“Shouldn’t I be able to be honest with Christian brothers and sisters even if it’s hurtful or blunt? Shouldn’t they simply understand and have to forgive me?”

The simple answer is “No, you cannot.” I cannot even begin to understand how such a self-centered and narcissistic view has any merit in the body of Christ. It’s the attitude (thankfully not all that common) that I should be able to be myself and everyone just has to deal with it. I can assure you that there is nothing healthy or helpful about this approach (for yourself or for others).

In his letters to the church, Paul uses strong words in regard to your actions like “restrain, abstain, repent, correct, rebuke, etc.” Those are not words that are anything close to synonymous with “just be yourself, everyone has to deal with it.” No, Paul assumes that there are times when you being yourself is the worst possible decision in terms of other’s edification. And in those cases we must give up our right “to be ourselves” FOR the sake of others. (read 1 Corinthians for an entire test case of this).

Sometimes, out of discipline, you simply have to strive to be better than your current-self. The question of course is, when is it best to be transparent and when is it best to show restraint?

I think the answer to that is found in the nature of the relationship. Not all relationships are meant to be in the category of “intimate”. Intimate relationships are reserved for those few, close, meaningful relationships that you have with 1-3 other people including a spouse. The fact is, not everyone needs to or even should know everything about you. That is not healthy for you or anyone else. Unfortunately, in the past the church has given the impression that if a relationship isn’t moving toward intimacy, then it is failing. That simply isn’t true. (You can read further about that in The Search to Belong by Joe Myers.) Coupled with “authenticity” being one of our generations greatest virtues, the myth that all relationships should be intimate drive us to give more details about ourselves to others than are healthy or profitable.

A few questions to ponder as you wonder what is appropriate to disclose:

  • Will this be helpful to those who aren’t quite as far along in the journey of life as I am?
  • Is this going to be something that I regret or am ashamed of?
  • What is my motivation for talking about this? Am I simply venting or vomiting?
  • Am I talking about this struggle because it has become part of my identity?
  • Should I share this with trusted friends first?

Do I want to revert back to a state of peer-plasticity? No, of course not. In the church community at large I want to be as honest as I can allowing that it is beneficial to myself and to others. There are no cut and dry rules for this. It takes maturity and wisdom to understand when your authenticity is helpful, and when it is not. Many frustrations and feelings I reserve for those few who know me the best so they can lovingly guide, support, and even correct me. The wisdom of course comes in knowing the difference between what is healthy and beneficial and what is not.

This is a wisdom that we learn in community. What this means of course is that we will get to practice forbearing with people who have overstepped what is healthy and profitable in terms of genuineness and allowing others to do likewise for our own misjudgment.

[The truth is, it is possible to be authentic, or true to myself in the church community without being a distraction or a hindrance to other people. And so this article is a response not so much to the pull to be authentic, but to the misunderstanding and misappropriation of the act itself.]

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