When my sisters and I were in our mid to late teens, we suddenly and surprisingly found ourselves in prime role model territory. On paper, it probably looked beautifully ideal: we followed God, we had graduated or almost-graduated from highschool at home, we liked each other and our family, we published a magazine for Christian young women, and we helped our parents run a café and quilt store in a hundred-year-old schoolhouse right next door to our home. If it sounds fun and happy and kind of idyllic, that’s because it was. We loved it.
But we were also just three very ordinary girls following God and doing life, and that’s how our closest friends (and the girls we actually were mentors to) saw us. But from the flattering blur of distance, maybe we looked like a trio of Rebecca St. Jameses (with less fashion chops and worse voices) or something, because we soon found ourselves with a social calendar quickly filling up with people who had ‘heard about the Careys’ and wanted to come meet our family. Having a café next door gave our home a kind of open-all-hours feel, and friends of friends of friends would pop in to meet us in the hopes of like-minded companionship.
We made some incredible enduring friendships that way, but we also got severely burnt out. In amongst the genuine requests for fellowship, there were a lot of people who really just wanted to see what the perfect homeschool family looked like in the flesh – and of course they were disappointed. Perfection is one thing we’d never really mastered. You can bet I tried, though. When I realised people were visiting once, discovering we were normal (boring, even) and never contacting us again, I began to examine all the reasons why my family and I had failed to meet the standards of Christian perfection, and then I started striving to achieve that.
I wasted a lot of time chasing my tail and inwardly critiquing aspects of our lives that I thought failed to come up to scratch. But while striving to realise perfection, God helped me realise something else altogether: that the Christian walk has never been about perfection, particularly a perfection that strives to meet others’ approval. The desire to please people continues to haunt me, but growing up alongside it is a passion for authenticity, one which influences how I relate to others, how I share, how I think about community, and how I write.
Authenticity can mean a bunch of different things to different people, but in the context of Christian community, I see authenticity played out in Christians being honest, open, and genuine about their lives and their individual walks with the Lord. The idea that Christians should represent themselves to the public and to each other as perfect has at times become an unspoken rule, particularly amongst conservative Christian circles.
‘We are afraid of what will happen if we reveal ourselves, even to (perhaps most especially to) other believers. If others see our sin, if they see us for who we really are, they won’t want us. They won’t include us. They won’t respect us. We all crave love and respect, but living to get them always leads us away from them.’
(Joy: a Godly Woman’s Adornment, Lydia Brownback, p. 63)
Perfection has never characterised the Christian church. Perfection characterises Christ, and that’s why we need Him: because we possess none of it ourselves.
During the time of Jesus’ ministry, inauthenticity was evident in the attitude of the Pharisees, who were incredibly concerned with how they represented their religion (ouch — that hits close to home). The problem is that they focused on an outward representation while neglecting the God-centred relationship that was supposed to be undergirding it all. The Pharisees wanted to perfectly represent God without actually seeming to need Him. In response, Jesus called them whitewashed tombs which ‘outwardly appear beautiful’ but which inwardly are full of filth (Matt. 23:27, ESV). ‘It’s not the healthy people I’m here for,’ Jesus told his disciples, ‘but the sick’ (Luke 5:31, paraphrase).
Next to Jesus’ perfect healthiness, we are all sick.
‘All of you labour and are heavy laden, [Jesus] says. It is an appalling thing to tell us when we are trying so hard to pretend that it is not so, just as it is appalling to tell even the young and beautiful and full of hope that the poor naked wretches of the world are themselves.’
(Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner, p. 42.)
Churches, then, are meant to be hospitals – filled with the broken, the wounded, and the ill, all of us in need of a physician. If in any way we are whole, it is a borrowed wholeness, a gifted wholeness that comes through the sacrifice of the cross. It’s not something we earned or worked towards. It’s grace.
Authenticity, then, is being honest and real with one another about our brokenness. It is ceasing the pretense that we’re perfect. It means accepting our imperfection so we can point to the One who is perfection. It means acknowledging to seekers that we are all alike in our deep humanness. It means removing the masks and admitting that we face challenges, that we cry sometimes, that we laugh too loudly, that we like watching TV.
‘True integrity goes deeper. It has to do with authenticity. Persons of integrity are free from duplicity. With them, you don’t go away wondering whether they are motivated by hidden agendas. Authenticity points us toward an even more important dimension. Integrity means “acting in accordance with one’s stated beliefs”. Persons of integrity stand for their convictions, even at great personal cost’.
(Who Needs Theology? Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, p. 132)
The men and women God chose for communicating His message throughout the ages were invariably broken people, and the ones whose words continue to bolster us on the journey are the ones who were deeply genuine about their faith. The apostle Paul was open about his own struggles and imperfections and the God who redeemed him in spite of them, while the Psalms overflow with authentic confession, lamentation, questions, and praise.
Authenticity does not mean wallowing in our filth or reveling in our humanity for its own sake. Since it naturally occurs in every one of us, there is no great virtue in being flawed. But neither is authenticity about telling deep details of the truth when they’re not asked for, or continually calling other people out on their junk. There will probably be times in all of our lives when we need to say a hard thing to someone we care about. But Jesus warned against focusing on specks while ignoring logs (Matthew 7:3). Authenticity is less about calling other people out on their issues and more about not sweeping our own under the carpet. It’s calling ourselves out on our dishonesty, our preaching of a Saviour that we pretend we don’t need.
The passion for authenticity finds purpose in my life in many reminders from the Lord. I’m so far from nailing this authenticity business that there’s a constant back-and-forth between my desire to please man and my desire to learn of God in faithfulness and truth. But He won’t let me linger under a spotlight, hoping someone will notice and approve. Instead, He reminds me to share, to be real about my faith walk, to be comfortable asking questions and not having all the answers, and even just to realise it’s not the end of the world if I cry in front of someone. There are certainly times in my life – and, I suspect, in all of our lives – when I have to fake an outward expression, like putting on confidence for a job interview (when inside I am dying a thousand nervousness-related deaths) or forcing a smile and speaking kindly (when inside I really would like to lock my small brother in his bedroom for about a week). I think the difference in motivation is usually obvious to each of us, though. Being inauthentic is about covering up what I am in order to look better; choosing to represent joy or confidence is pushing aside weakness to be who I am meant to be.
God’s people are called to be honest. They are called to share. And they’re called to carry each other’s burdens.
‘If we open up and be real, others will feel free to do so. There is nothing more hollow and Spirit-quenching than a roomful of believers who whitewash their conversation with superficial piety. Real love opens up, and it always leads to joy.’
(Joy: a Godly Woman’s Adornment, p. 63)
We cannot achieve this by wearing masks. Instead, we must practice authenticity, praying that we may be broken, marred vessels pointing to a whole and perfect God.