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The word doesn’t have to be annoying, but it usually is.

I opened up my big, red Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (yes, I still have one of these dinosaurs on my desk) and found five definitions for the word “authentic.” It used to mean (1) authoritative, but now means (2) something worthy of acceptance or belief or reproduced in accordance with the originals. Authentic can also mean (3) real or actual, or (4) refer to a musical chord progression. It’s the fifth definition, however, that has become standard: “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”

In a day where people disdain hypocrisy more than any other vice and prize transparency more than any other virtue, you can be as obnoxious as you want to be, fail spectacularly, and sin repeatedly, as long as you never pretend to be any better than you really are. It makes no difference what errors you say, think, or do, if only you are true to yourself. This is life in the Age of Authenticity.

Which is not all bad. Jesus spared no verbal expense in rebuking the hypocrites of his day (Matt. 23). It’s good to tell the truth. It’s good to be consistent. It’s even good, as a general rule, to learn to be comfortable in your own skin, to refrain from trying to be someone or something you’re not. Authenticity appeals to so many of us because it seems a welcome antidote to calculating, self-righteous priggishness.

But living in the Age of Authenticity comes with many dangers–common vices made more deadly because they are willfully mistaken for virtues.

For starters, it should be obvious (but isn’t) that if your authentic self is a boorish self-promoter, it’s hardly a great win for the cause of honor that you are true to your own personality. Many pundits have tried to explain why Donald Trump has maintained his remarkable ride atop the GOP polls, and likely their theories about economic angst and conservative disappointment with the GOP establishment have something to do with it (as does almost non-stop media coverage for months). But Trump also benefits from being virtually gaffe proof, not because he doesn’t make any but because he makes them so often and doesn’t seem to give a rip. It’s not for me to tell you what to think of Trump’s policies, but I think by any objective measure he has shown himself to be someone who, how shall we say, would not meet the criteria for church office laid out in 1 Timothy 3. But as a candidate in the Age of Authenticity, he’s a perfect fit. In 2012, Mitt Romney was undone because of an off the cuff comment about 47% of the country that don’t pay taxes. Rick Perry went from Republican darling to disaster because of the word “oops.” When people think of Marco Rubio, many people still think of him getting thirsty on live television. Trump gets caught in a dozen slip ups like these–only much more substantive–every week. But because he never seems embarrassed with himself, unsure of himself, or anything other than delighted to be himself, he has (so far) been impervious to the usual gotcha moments that bedevil normal candidates. There is something refreshing about a candidate who refuses to play by the media’s rules, but playing by your own rules is nothing to celebrate if those rules aren’t worth celebrating.

There is always the danger that commendable forthrightness degenerates into crass and loutish behavior. I like how Anthony Thiselton translates 1 Corinthians 13:4-5: “Love waits patiently; love shows kindness. Love does not burn with envy; does not brag–is not inflated with its own importance. It does not behave with ill-mannered impropriety; is not preoccupied with the interests of the self; does not become exasperated into pique; does not keep a reckoning up of evil.” Thiselton points out that the word usually translated “rude” in verse 5 is used (as a verb) in 7:36 with reference to behaving properly toward one’s betrothed and is used (as an adjective) in 12:23 with respect to the unpresentable parts of the body we cover up. In other words, “In all three contexts the contrast defines the opposition between on one side courtesy, good taste, good public manners, and propriety, and on the other side thoughtless pursuit of the immediate wishes of the self regardless of the conventions and courtesies of interpersonal life” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1049). Perhaps the pendulum was due to swing back to the “raw” and the “real,” but maybe we’ve missed the biblical (and loving) rationale behind long held prohibitions against swearing, against immodest dress, and against using sexually graphic language in public. No matter what seems most “authentic,” Christians should show the world a better way.

We mustn’t forget that the goal of those who carry their cross is self-denial, not self-expression. Think about what you would you want in a father, a general, a coach, or a president. Confidence would be good, but only if it’s a confidence rooted in stability, humility, and sacrifice–pretty much the opposite of what passes for authenticity today. Contemporary notions of authenticity are highly selective. As Collin Hansen pointed out to me recently, “The guys on Ashley Madison don’t get credit for seeking their authentic selves in an affair. But the guy who leaves his kids for another man does. Kim Davis doesn’t get credit for living authentically. But Caitlyn Jenner does.” Authenticity is often just another name for unfiltered bloviating or a certain kind of sexual progressivism. To be authentic is to be free from the bourgeois values of chastity, meekness, and self-restraint.

There are other dangers too.

Like the fact that in the Age of Authenticity the fear of contradiction between the public and private self is so strong that it has forced many people to fuse the two into one. When being “real” trumps all concern for decorum, due process, and quiet deliberation, we assume that every private discovery and painful journey must be made public. There is no place for Paul camping out in Arabia for a couple years or Moses getting his act together in Midian for a third of his life; everything we are learning, everything we are feeling, everything we are experiencing must be out in the open now and forever.

With this eliding of private and public comes an even deeper confusion about the nature of Spirit-wrought contrition. When Christians talk about being broken or being messed up or being complete failures, I think I know what they mean. At best, this language is an admirable expression of the continuing presence of indwelling sin and our constant need for a Savior. But we must be careful. Admitting that you are a screw up–as if God looks at sinners with a wearied grin that says “Come here, silly boy, and let me tousle your hair”–does not exactly capture the explicitly moral language of David’s God-directed plea in Psalm 51. Likewise, simply being honest about weakness in your life is not what the Heidelberg Catechism has in mind when it says “the dying-away of the old self” is “to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it” (Q/A 89). Authenticity is not to be confused with repentance.

Perhaps the biggest danger of all in the Age of Authenticity is that our authentic self gets misplaced. For those who have been joined to Christ through the miracle of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, being true to ourselves means being true to Christ in us.  Remember, it was the Gnostics who peddled the false gospel of salvation-through-self-awareness, while the authentic gospel promised something better than authenticity. The New Testament says little about getting in touch with the real you and a lot about walking in step with the real Him. If you follow the logic of Matthew 23 it becomes clear that hypocrisy is essentially saying one thing and doing another. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that what we do or think or feel matters less than whether we admit to doing and thinking and feeling those things. To act in a way that is right and proper, even when you feel something different, is not hypocrisy. It’s called maturity.

Put on the virtues of Christ, put off the vices of darkness. That’s the New Testament model (Eph. 4; Col. 3). Give it a try–with hard work and humility, with passion and with prayer, with real progress and with a lifetime of repentance. It’s actually much more practical, much more preach-able, and much more powerful than all stylish substitutes that pass for integrity and character in this Age of Authenticity.

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28 thoughts on “Christian Virtue in the Age of Authenticity”

  1. Paul Janssen says:

    Kim Davis authentic? She fits your definition of the problem with authenticity. She took an oath she could no longer keep. The right thing for her to do was to step down at that point.

  2. Claire says:

    A hearty YES to this post. Keeping it real can be really wrong.

  3. Dan says:

    Paul, read the Washington post review of the Kim Davis situation. It appears that she has a strong legal case for seeking an accommodation to her beliefs. Under the law the right thing for her to do is seek the accommodation (which she tried to do and is doing). There is no reason for her to resign.

  4. Paul Janssen says:

    She may well have a case for seeking an accommodation for herself. And, legally, it would probably be granted. Do you believe, however, that she is within the limits of the law to prohibit her deputy clerks from also granting marriage licenses? Or that that is an overstepping of her office, to impose her religious beliefs on other officials of the state who may or may not share her religious beliefs? It seems to me that if the court were to find in favor of that move – from her own refusal to grant licenses, to prohibiting her deputies from doing the same, based on religious reasons – would clearly be an instance of state establishment of religion,

  5. Chris Vieira says:

    Very thankful for this article! The line of “To act in a way that is right and proper, even when you feel something different, is not hypocrisy. It’s called maturity”, Pastor DeYoung has shared before and I’ve found it very helpful as I’ve ministered to students/young adults (certainly a very relevant/helpful line for those much older than that as well!).

  6. Brenda Sawyer says:

    Thank you, Kevin, this is right on target! It goes right along with the tendency of contemporary Christians to wear our “brokenness” and sinfulness as badges of honor rather than opportunities to repent and proclaim both the healing and sanctifying power of the Cross.

  7. Dan says:

    Paul, if her deputy clerk were to grant a marriage license with her name on it (i.e. it said “Kim Davis, county clerk” or something like that), then yes, she is within her rights to prohibit her deputy from issuing the license. The issue at hand is that Kim Davis does not want to issue a marriage license that has her name on it for a marriage that she believes is wrong. To allow someone else to issue that license on her behalf, that still has her name on it (which I believe is what we are talking about with her deputy clerk) is essentially the same thing and has the same issue: there is a marriage license being issued, for a marriage that she believes is wrong, that still has her name on it (as the county clerk). Having someone else issue for her does not change the fact that her name is on the certificate. The appropriate accommodation is to change the form so that her name is no longer present, which from what I understand is all that she has asked for, and which she has a good legal case to request.

  8. ChrisB says:

    “as long as you never pretend to be any better than you really are.”

    I’d argue about this one line. It’s not pretending that you’re better than you are that gets you in trouble. It’s acting like there are any moral standards at all. You can never, ever suggest that anything is wrong (other than the sin of saying someone else’s choices are wrong) or you’ll be crucified for any blemish on your own character.

  9. Ross Riggan says:

    “There is something refreshing about a candidate who refuses to play by the media’s rules, but playing by your own rules is nothing to celebrate if those rules aren’t worth celebrating”

    “To act in a way that is right and proper, even when you feel something different, is not hypocrisy. It’s called maturity.”

    Love these lines. Some believe brutal honesty is always the best policy. This is not necessarily true. Trying to control our emotions and our tongues even when our hearts want to rip someone apart is not hypocritical. It should be an attempt to trust and obey. Yes, you may feel one way, but you are attempting to bring your feelings under the rule of God’s Word. Not hypocrisy… Hopefully, promise-believing obedience.

  10. Neville Briggs says:

    The psalmist ( 37 ) urges us ” don’t be upset by evildoers…..for soon they will wither like grass” and Paul writing to the Romans proclaims that people’s inconsistencies and falseness do not diminish God in any way or thwart God’s purpose, he says ” Let God be true though every man is a liar “.
    It’s seems to be a hard quest to find the authentic in people and even in ourselves, but the Bible tells us that the Lord is the Rock that is always firm. .

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  12. JohnM says:

    “Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that what we do or think or feel matters less than whether we admit to doing and thinking and feeling those things.”

    Exactly. Saying what you think is unimpressive when what you think is mean, dirty, or stupid. Transparency is beautiful, or not, depending on what there is inside to see.

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  14. I cannot thank you enough for the blog.Really thank you! Really Cool.

  15. In essence I find it refreshing when ministering to people that they have a honest understanding of their faults, sins and failures. Being screwed up is often the human condition, but self awareness of it is in fact half way to a solution. Admitting this state of being often leads to the need to find a way of escape. I had a person come to me with a wrecked marriage. Being unfaithful was the issue. Their partner had provided forgiveness but they believed something else was needed before restitution could occur. They sort eternal forgiveness and wanted to know how that could occur. The human condition had led them to the cross and they didn’t even realise it. Needless to say sharing Christ with them was the solution. This person excepted Christ and has a new life. So my point is honesty is the best policy its leads to a light bulb moment and conviction in some cases.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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