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A buzzword in certain Christian circles is authenticity, a quality both Millennials and GenZs value and desire in the church. The word suggests genuineness and integrity, qualities that describe faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. But this drive for authenticity can be dangerous, if it isn’t grounded in the gospel.
The mantra of self-centered authenticity is “be true to yourself.” This sounds nice, but what if you don’t have a healthy gospel lens through which to view yourself? At least two dangerous distortions of Christian authenticity can result.
But viewing yourself through a gospel lens leads to true authenticity. And that can be dangerous in a way that glorifies God.
1. Counterfeit Authenticity
This is an oxymoron, but it captures something I’ve heard before:
“I don’t feel I can be authentic around others who are more put together than me, so I put on a face, which is exhausting. When I can’t sustain the act, I isolate myself from community. I wish people were more open and authentic.”
This distortion’s dangerous because “authenticity” is talked about as an ideal and never personally embraced. The irony? Many who talk about authenticity are often themselves guilty of living inauthentically.
But the felt need to “put on a face” betrays the real issue: people don’t want authenticity, they want solidarity. They want to feel they aren’t alone in falling short, so they desire openness and vulnerability from others. This stems from a natural but unhealthy view of self that says “I don’t like who I am, and I want to hide.”
It’s reminiscent of the fig leaves Adam and Eve hid behind in the garden after discovering their nakedness (Genesis 3:7). And there’s good reason to want to hide, since no one is alone in falling short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
Cycles of Inauthenticity
When we talk about being real without admitting our real sins and brokenness, authenticity becomes a distant and vague ideal instead of a powerful and present reality. This leads to a cycle of inauthenticity, where we show others only carefully curated versions of our best self.
But Ephesians 4:25 says we’re to put away falsehood and speak the truth with one another, since we’re members of one another. This includes putting away our false faces and telling the truth about our brokenness and need for Jesus.
James 5:16 is especially helpful here. Notice we’re to confess our sins, not to God (as in 1 John 1:9), but to one another. When we don’t confess our sins to one another, only presenting each other with social-media worthy faces, we fail to walk in the light of God’s truth.
And if walking in the light is a condition to Christian koinonia—or fellowship (1 John 1:7)—then counterfeit authenticity endangers Christian community.
We all fall short. We all need Jesus. But there’s a great difference between hiding behind the fig leaves of our own making and being clothed by the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
When we put on false faces, or hide behind fig leaves, we create an environment that encourages others to do the same. In doing so, we demonstrate our lack of faith in Christ’s atoning death and clothing righteousness. So counterfeit authenticity is a danger to both faith and Christian fellowship.
2. Complacent Authenticity
“I don’t pretend to be put together. I’m a mess, but God loves me just as I am.”
This distortion of authenticity is dangerous because it’s half true. It acknowledges our sin and brokenness, our need for grace. And since this view celebrates a high view of grace and the cross, it’s a very attractive version of ”being real.”
Complacent authenticity celebrates messiness and brokenness as ideal qualities found in those who are real. But at the heart of the statement “God loves me just as I am” is often this sentiment: “I don’t need to change.”
This is exactly the perspective Paul anticipated and spoke against in Romans 6:1-14.
Paul says the abounding grace of God is never grounds for living in and under the reign of sin. Those saved by grace through faith in Jesus experience a profound union with Him, so that His death and resurrection become our death and resurrection. Though Jesus died for our sins, we’re to die to our sins. That is, we’re to consider ourselves dead to sin, so that sin doesn’t reign over us.
The power of death and sin are broken in the death of Jesus, and we’re called to live out this reality. When we embrace our brokenness, our “old self” (Romans 6:6), allowing sin to reign over and in our lives, we distort God’s grace. Just as the end goal of Jesus’s death was His resurrection to life, so the end goal of our death to sin is a life of righteousness (Romans 6:15-18).
Don’t Celebrate Sin and Brokenness
Sin and brokenness shouldn’t be celebrated. They were never part of God’s good design for the world. The life of sin is the death of righteousness. That’s something to mourn.
But thanks be to God, the death of sin means the life of righteousness! You may be a broken mess, but by the grace of God, your old self is crucified with Christ. You can walk in newness of life, because God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
Complacent authenticity is a danger to our growth in godliness. And as 2 Peter 1:8 says, growth in godliness keeps us from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So if we want to have a fruitful knowledge of our Lord, we must not be ok with not being ok.
3. True Authenticity
Distortions of authenticity tend to orbit around self-perception. If we don’t like ourselves, we tend to hide our sin and brokenness. If we do like ourselves, we tend to lean into our sin and brokenness.
But true authenticity isn’t concerned with self-perception. It’s concerned with reality. With truth-telling. And God is the source of truth. As John Calvin states in the opening of his Institutes, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
In order to tell the truth about ourselves, we must know who God is. So if we want to be genuine, real, authentic people, we must love and pursue God and the truth that He reveals in His Word.
Here’s a helpful four-fold framework for understanding God’s truth:
- Creation: We were created to reflect God’s character and care for His world
- Fall: We’re sinful and broken, destined for death
- Redemption: Jesus died and rose again so that we could have forgiveness and life
- Restoration: The Holy Spirit is making us new, and one day we’ll be perfectly holy as God is holy.
When we tell the truth about our createdness, brokenness, redeemed status in Christ, and the end goal toward which believers are moving, we can have life-transformative, gospel-centered authenticity.
True authenticity would cause growth in godliness, it would promote Christian koinonia (fellowship and community), and it would cherish the gospel of Jesus Christ. That authenticity would be dangerous.
It could even change the world.