There’s a lot of talk these days about authenticity. The youth of this generation want authentic leaders and authentic relationships with one another. I understand this. No one wants to befriend a phony. No one wants to follow a stuffed shirt.
But what does it mean to be “real,” and “authentic?” This question cuts to the heart of the debate raging in mainstream America today about personal identity and gender concerns. If being authentic means little more than following the deep desires of your inner being, then those with strong feelings and inclinations towards those of the same sex (for example) should freely pursue these inclinations in order to be true to their inner selves. Failure to do so means you are inauthentic, a poser, a fake, and a fraud.
The problem with this perspective is that it fails to appreciate the sin nature that infects every aspect of our being. To put it bluntly, whether we admit it or not, we are, apart from Christ, authentic sinners. This is a humbling truth to accept and not easy for anyone looking to affirm and take pride in who they really are. While we were not created to be sinners, sinners are what we became when Adam and Eve willingly turned their backs on God. Ever since, we have been tainted, marred, confused, and deceived about who we really are and who we’re meant to become.
As sinners, apart from Jesus, to be “authentic” to oneself becomes an invitation—even an imperative—to embrace the sinful self and forsake the divine design for which we were created, namely, to obey and serve our Maker in humble gratitude.
There is, however, a far more reliable and enduring source that defines who we’re really meant to be. We were created to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Our authentic selves are not found within us at all. They are found in a right relationship with our Creator made known through Jesus Christ and empowered by His Holy Spirit.
God alone can tell us who we were meant to be, providing Jesus as the example and the explainer of authentic humanity. He also gives us His Holy Spirit who supplies the guidance and transforming power so that we might become the kind of human beings God created us to be.
This provides a much clearer and more reliable picture of what an authenticity actually looks like. The genuine person knows and experiences certain realities and possesses certain character traits that can only be supplied from outside the self. God alone can be the source of authentic human life.
The authentic person, then, knows that all of creation exists and is sustained by a wise and loving God who made it and maintains it for His pleasure and glory. They humbly acknowledge that moment by moment their very life and breath are a gift from Him, that they are undeservedly loved and forgiven by Him through Jesus Christ. They spend time seeking to understand and praise and thank this amazing Creator God for who He is and what He has done, is doing, and will do.
The authentic person also understands that to lead is to follow—to serve, sacrifice, and give oneself away. They know they can only love because God first loved them, that their joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and (ironically) self-control all come from being Spirit-led and Spirit-controlled.
They understand that true security and significance come not ultimately through personal achievement or acquiring increasing amounts of material wealth and recognition, but solely through a right relationship with God.
The Christian vision of authenticity is so radically strange and foreign to what seems normal and authentic to sinners, it can only seem unnatural and inauthentic to those who have no interest in honoring their Creator. As Romans 1 points out, by refusing to glorify God, they suppress the truth and exchange authentic personhood for a lie.
Thankfully, Christians do not have to fall into the cultural trap of confusing sin with authenticity. We are made to be someone far greater than natural selves. We are called to pursue God and let Him conform us to His intended vision of who we were truly meant to be. In Ephesians 4:24, Paul puts it this way: “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
As divine image-bearers, to be authentic, then, is to be righteous and holy—to be like God. But notice this: It is an arduous and active process and not easily attained. It runs hard against the grain of our post-fall natural tendencies and sinful desires. We must, with God’s help, relentlessly, energetically, and purposefully forsake and sublimate what comes naturally to our former selves. We must embrace a radically new vision of who He calls us to be and strive with all the power He supplies to become the truly authentic person He created us to be.
In contemporary American life, this is a thoroughly counter-cultural stance. Suggesting that some of our most deeply-seated personal desires are directly opposed to our own well-being as well as the greater good of society will not necessarily make us popular or respected. In fact, it may even lead to being persecuted outcasts and vilified enemies of the state. But as Jesus reminded us in Matthew 5:10-12, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”