Our Dance with Authenticity

“I always keep it 100…”

“I’m just being real…”

“Our church really needs to be more authentic…”

Chances are you’ve heard people speak along these lines before. Authenticity is a virtue being championed in both the church world and in our culture. Since the presidential campaign started ramping up until today, many Americans have been emoting about our political situation. Impassioned social media posts, blogs, news articles, video clips, podcasts, and protests have flooded the internet. More than ever, we are telling the truth as we see it.

I was recently privileged to be a part of a conversation with other clergy in my denomination about authenticity. One person in particular had some questions on the topic. He said he had participated in conversations in the past where people would praise him for being honest, and encourage him to continue in that direction. However, some experiences in leading his church were now making him wonder if authenticity could reach a point where it fails to be helpful. The comments people shared were illuminating.

Authenticity can be good. We need genuine love and relationship—God wired us that way. So in that sense, authenticity is necessary. But I wonder sometimes if we lift up authenticity as more important than it should be, like some kind of ultimate virtue. As long as we’re honest, we can say and do whatever we want, because we’re being true to ourselves. If I say something condemning or spiteful, I can excuse it by saying “I’m just being real.” We can explain away our hurtful actions, our immaturity, or our overly critical words by claiming it was done in the interest of authenticity. Now if we believe in a total, inherent goodness of humanity, then I can see why we’d believe whatever we discover noodling around inside ourselves is a blessing to be shared. But the biblical picture is not so positive concerning human nature. People are mixed bags. I can authentically be a sinner just as much as I can authentically be a saint. Every thought or feeling that I experience isn’t always God’s gift to the world. A relentless authenticity hurts.

The fire and brimstone preachers who go to college campuses and condemn everyone to hell are being true to how they see God, but sure are causing a lot of damage. The worker who is painfully honest with her or his boss might be genuine, but sometimes it isn’t going to help the boss, the company, or (gulp) his or her future prospects with that job. And the ultimate test of authenticity: “Honey, what do you think of my new outfit?” Friends, tread wisely if you ever find yourselves in such dangerous territory.

Truth defined as being authentic to yourself is not enough. Honesty needs to be guided by a higher principle, and I believe that principle is love. Love is the heart of the Christian religion. Love seeks authenticity in obeying God and developing a friendship with him. Love seeks God’s best for others, even to the point of pain and self-sacrifice (John 15:13). Love is patient and it is kind (1 Cor. 13:4). In Christianity, God’s holy love is the foundational truth that holds all of existence together. It is the heartbeat of the Trinity. So if my authenticity needlessly wounds someone else or leads them away from God’s best for their lives, while I may be honest, I am not being loving, and therefore I am not living out Jesus’ truth.

Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, talks about how spouses dance between the values of love and truth. A dose of truth can challenge your spouse, help him or her grow, and can even be encouraging when he or she has done well. On the other hand, showing love can help spouses feel affirmed, supported, and cared for, even when they make mistakes. But an unnecessary, double-shotgun blast of truth can shake your spouse to the core and do a whole lot of damage, sometimes taking years to undo, while a constant attitude of acceptance can coddle your spouse, never pushing for growth or challenging bad behavior. John writes that Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He held these two things together perfectly.

The same dance applies to us today as we seek a holy authenticity in the various spheres that touch our lives. In these tense times, ask yourself: Is my sharing something motivated by love for the other and seeking the best for all involved, or is it just an emotional catharsis for me? Am I sure what I’m sharing is true and from a reliable source, or is it an “alternative fact?” How can I confrontationally love someone in a way that is gentle?

More than ever we are seeing people’s true colors, which creates a wonderful opportunity to talk about important things. Authenticity at its best invites genuine discussion about beliefs, identity, and ideas while minimizing vitriol. I hope times like these help all of us grow into veterans in the dance between love and truth, discerning wisely when a situation calls for a challenging honesty, when it calls for support and acceptance, and when it’s best not to talk at all.

Again, this does not mean truth is unimportant. Hardly. But when we embody a holy authenticity, the chances go up for truth becoming transformative. When our authenticity is guided by love, we will see a higher truth, the ultimate truth, come to bear: that the love of Jesus is the most beautiful and powerful thing in the world. Really.

Stephen Fincher

Pastor in Tanner, AL with my wife Laura.