Authenticity has been watchword among Christians for a couple of decades, so much so that it’s virtually been added to the catalog of Christian virtues alongside love, joy, peace, and patience.
But it is not a virtue. I do not seek to be authentic, not in the sense that we usually think of it. I’m interested in a deeper, more powerful experience. I hunger for holiness.
The Adulteration of Authenticity
Authentic has a range of meanings, so defining is as used by countless conference directors and small group attendees is a bit tricky. But it generally means being truthful about oneself.
Authenticity is presenting your unvarnished character, warts and all, with no attempt to make yourself look better than you really are. The opposite of authentic, in this sense, is phony. And nobody wants that.
The term has bled into another meaning, however. We also understand authenticity as something like “true to self.” So being authentic is not merely saying who you are, but owning it and acting accordingly.
Authenticity means not saying thank you when you don’t feel grateful, not going to church when you’re mad at the preacher, being rude to people because you are plainspoken by nature, and acting on aberrant sexual urges because “that’s the way God made me.”
Authenticity has become a celebration of the self, flawed but forgiven, carnal yet somehow more righteous for admitting it, reveling in the grace of a God who loves us, forgives us, and even celebrates us, no matter how persistently we resist improvement.
To claim, pretend to, or even hope for a different experience would be inauthentic—untrue to the real you. Any attempt by others to call for change is labeled “judgment” or “shaming,” which is the height of hypocrisy because we’re all sinners, after all.
So the goal of the Christian life, for many, is to see yourself accurately, accept who you are, and never let anyone tell you there’s something wrong with that.
How We Got Here
We can thank fifty years of pop theology for this de-evolution of the Christian experience. Witness these catchphrases that have migrated from bumper stickers all the way to the pulpit:
“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” And that’s the way it’s going to be.
“If you were the only person in the universe, Jesus would have died for you.” Because you’re that special.
“God loves you just the way you are.” Which means you’re basically okay.
“No one sin is worse than another.” And none of them are all that bad.
“We’re all sinners.” So let’s quit worrying about it.
Each predicate statement may be true at face value, but their aggregate forms a bedrock belief that Jesus came to affirm broken humanity, not transform it, and that the goal of salvation is to make deeply flawed people feel good about who they are.
As a recovering sinner myself, I understand the need for grace. I understand it deeply, personally. Grace has changed my life. God offers love, acceptance, and forgiveness without judgment to every person. I have received this unconditional pardon, and I offer it to others.
Yet the Christian life is not an exercise in self-esteem. It’s an exercise in self-annihilation. It is the creation of a new self that begins with the destruction of the old one. Jesus doesn’t want me to feel better about being a sinner. He wants me to become a new, different, and, yes, better person.
Written All Over the Bible
This concept is so clearly written across the pages of the New Testament that it’s difficult to understand how we lost sight of it.
Jesus himself said that we need to be “born again” (John 3:3) and that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for [him] will save it” (Luke 9:24).
Paul wrote that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5:17). John adds, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if [not when] anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1, comment inserted).
Authenticity as fidelity to self is precisely the opposite of the good news. The gospel promises a new self, a transformation of the old version of you into a new and different person.
And because every beginning starts with an ending, a death must precede the birth. Hence, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
The Deeper Life
Spiritual giants from Madam Guyon to John Bunyan, John Wesley, Oswald Chambers, Hannah Whithall Smith, William and Catherine Booth, D. L. Moody, Mother Teresa and many more spoke of this soul-emptying experience, often using different terms.
The aim of the Christian life is not to become the best version of myself I can possibly be. It is to become a new person, empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the best version of Jesus I can possibly be.
There is something beyond confession and the freedom condemnation it brings. There is a deeper death that results in a deeper life. Surely that is a better aim than simply being honest about how broken we all are.
I seek this other experience, a surrender to the Holy Spirit at a deep level, a level so deep I am barely aware it exists, that results in a crucifixion of the ego with its selfishness and subtle self-deception. I want to die this deeper death so I can live that deeper life.
In the meantime, yes, I will be forthright about the true state of my soul. It’s a mess. But I thank God it doesn’t have to stay that way.