The “Authenticity” Paradox
“You do you,” is all the rage these days. Personally, I’m not a fan. It sounds to me like it gives carte-blanche permission for people to be or do whatever they want. This past week at the Rooted Conference, I groaned after a friend said it and she quickly rebuked me, telling me how it’s actually a healthy phrase because it affirms a person’s self-identity. She described the saying as an encouragement to embrace who God authentically made us to be, without the pressure of fitting in to what others want us to be.
She’s probably right, but I still don’t love the phrase.
I think this conversation gets to the heart of some confusion about what we mean when we call someone or something authentic. We can all agree that authenticity, basically, is a good thing. We obviously shouldn’t be fakes. And as much as I may try, I literally can’t be someone else. So I need to be me and you need to be you. Sure.
When it comes to true, organic authenticity, I’m a big fan. I hate big productions, especially in ministry, because they always seem forced, staged, and inauthentic. But there’s still something about the word “authenticity” that makes me cringe. It sounds too intentional; and intentional authenticity seems painfully inauthentic, doesn’t it? Thus, the paradox.
I’m concerned that in all this talk about authenticity today we give ourselves (and others) permission to give voice to thoughts and action that we need to bring under submission to the Word of God. You cannot live for Christ while constantly saying “yes” to yourself. We all know Christians who boast, “I’m a Christian but I’m not perfect,” “I drink beer,” “I swear.”
Good for you. I appreciate that honesty. But when I hear these statements I’m not sure if it’s a brag about that person’s liberty, a confession about something they struggle with, or if they’re just trying to tell me how Christian cool and edgy they are. Maybe I’m simply jealous of that person’s cool-factor, and I wish I could cut loose too, but I “authentically” don’t know how I’m supposed to respond to these statements.
What I do know is this: authenticity doesn’t mean airing your dirty laundry, doing whatever you want, and then framing it as grace-driven liberty.
But the nuances of true authenticity often fly under the radar.
Here’s what true authenticity looks like: Our boast is in Christ (Galatians 6:14). Paul’s example in 1 Timothy 2:12-16 can be instructive. When we confess our brokenness like St. Paul (“though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent”), we don’t stop there. We point ourselves and our students to the amazing God who uses us in spite of our selves (“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life”). We remind ourselves and our students of the steadfast love of God who heals and mends broken clay pots, instead of throwing them in the landfill.
If there’s anything truly authentic about us, it’s that we are sinful and broken people in need of a perfect Savior – a Savior who satisfied that need on the cross. That’s it. Let your students hear that you are authentically broken and redeemed before God. Let them know that you “do what you do” because of what you’ve received: new life, hope, peace, and joy. But we must be sure that our boast is primarily in our authentic Savior and salvation, not just in our brokenness. Let the beauty and provision of Christ be the emphasis.
“You do you” is probably a fine phrase, and my wise friend is probably right. But as we seek to build a culture of authenticity in our ministries, let’s remember the authenticity paradox: the more you pursue authenticity, the more elusive it will be. Instead, boast in Jesus Christ who saves sinners. And because He saves sinners, the need to “have your act together” can drop to the floor.