Tuesday, September 06, 2011

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.]


Anonymous said...

i stumbled across this blog and i have to tell you as a person who has a hard time being honest with people but has recently felt the call to be completely honest, i felt the need to respond. i guess ultimately every sermon or article is not going to be for every person. i think i know what your getting at but i do think we should always tell the truth.
though we are called to use our own good judgment in lots of situations, sometimes we are blind. we think what is best isn't really best at all. there are things we can't see or know about.
the words, "tell the truth in love" are helpful.
tell the truth but do it in the way that is most loving. when a stranger asks "how are you?" and we say "fine" when we are devastated, that isn't the truth at all. it's not loving truth. it's a lie. having recently been diagnosed with cancer, i have realized more than ever how much people, sometimes total strangers care and want to care. i try not to burden people with too many details if i know them to be unable or even unwilling to carry that burden but i am starting to learn to tell the truth. trying to to "help" people by withholding the truth has led to anger, bitterness, loneliness, and feeling alienated from God.
When i found myself hospitalized and unable to "help" anyone anymore, I found love pouring in from everywhere and felt closer to many people (and not coincidentally to God) than i had ever felt. people i thought i would alienate with too much information literally flooded me with love and care and acts of service. people i didn't even know allowed me to pour out my grief and had a supernatural ability to respond with grace and love and hope. even people i thought really didn't care seemed to respond positively to my raw and straightforward emotional expressions. of course some people i thought i was close to, ran or responded in a way that hurt. I thought I was close to them because I never gave them a chance to show me their true colors.
I just wanted to show the point of view of a person who has spent a lifetime thinking i was helping people by withholding the truth but realized that really i was interfering with what God could do in others (and my) lives.

Dave Telling said...

Hello Dustin,
Very good and thought-provoking blog posting. I believe that most honest believers have struggled with this question, and it is still a source of perplexity for me. Perhaps the root problem is that it can be difficult to agree upon what "authentic" actually means. Some think (as you pointed out) that this means being inconsiderately cruel in their comments to others, with the excuse, "Hey, I'm just being real!". Others may say that this means that we don't hide our emotional state, and allow our feelings to dictate how we react to circumstances (my particular leaning!) I think that the answer is somewhere in the middle. In Eph 4, Paul talks about speaking the truth in love - so this tells me that we can be "real" (i.e. honest) but it must be done in a way that is loving (having consideration for the feelings of others) and with a true desire to bless and not humiliate or dominate. In Gal. 6, Paul says something that appears paradoxical - he says that we must bear one another's burdens in verse 2, yet later, in verse 5, he says that each will bear his own load. I have heard this explained that the first reference is to the overwhelming problems that we face that we cannot bear without outside help, and the second reference is to the everyday issues with which we have to deal. Some think that being real means every little issue must be put on public display (Facebook is a good example of this) when in reality, sometimes we just have to shut up and do what needs to be done, regardless of our feelings, and not attempt to garner sympathy for these daily irritations. I suppose in the end, being authentic means that you, as a fundamental principle, make an ongoing effort to not misrepresent yourself or your character in the way you relate to others, and admit that you have areas that need improvement.