I’ve got a problem with authenticity. I know – that sounds bad. Like saying I hate kittens. Or sunshine. Or happiness. Because authenticity is such a lovely, fluffy, catch-all term. Everyone wants it and everyone loves it. What’s not to like?
Here are some memes on authenticity:
‘By choosing to be our most authentic self, we leave a trail of magic wherever we go’
‘There is nothing more beautiful than your authentic self’
‘People who are true to their authentic selves have found the secret to ultimate happiness’.
Like I say, lovely.
But what does authenticity actually mean?
Our culture says, authenticity is ‘being true to myself’. That’s grand if your true self is a beautiful fairy princess. But what if she’s a proper warty toad? What if, (like me), she’s authentically horrid?
Be true to yourself.
…The self that has low blood sugar and feels like she’s a piece of tripe? The self that wants to thump the driver who cut her up on the motorway? The self that knows she was born into the wrong family and is actually a princess? The self that wants another cocktail and to heck with the consequences?
The self who doesn’t do repentance; or discomfort or a crucified God?
The self who says, ‘stuff everything, except lying in bed with a pile of Sunday supplements and a bag of Percy Pigs.’
Sure – I can be true to this self. But I can tell you, it won’t leave a trail of magic. And even the world gets this. Here’s what it really says;
Be yourself – as long as that self isn’t stressed or anxious or frightened or tired.
Be ‘real’ – but only if it’s filtered.
Be beautiful – in these prescribed ways.
Be on a journey – but don’t put a foot wrong, and make sure you’re headed where we’re going.
Follow your heart? Only if it’s created by Disney. If it’s your actual heart, then sorry, but it’s a lying little snake, (Jeremiah 17:9 – my translation).
And when do I know that I’ve reached ‘authenticity?’ Often, the more authentic someone appears, the less authentic they are, (the Instagrammer who spends forever on her ‘no makeup’ selfie; the guy who bares his soul as a chat-up technique; the marketer who sells shabby chic as a brand).
It would be great to think that I’m a perfect and unique snowflake. But the truth is a little scarier. Being ‘authentic’ or ‘true to myself’ doesn’t make me special or different to other people. It makes me exactly the same as the millions of others who want to stand out. What’s really revolutionary is saying, ‘I’m an ordinary sinner’ and then looking out; to Jesus, and to others. What’s really special is saying, ‘I know enough about myself as it is – now tell me about you.’
There’s certainly something good in our desire for “authenticity”. We’re tired of masks and we want to get real. But what if “authenticity” has become just another mask – one more covering for our sins? While the culture may tell me to seek the world’s validation for my authentic self, the gospel tells me to seek Jesus’ forgiveness for my inexcusable sins. There’s a big difference. But when we grasp it, something wonderful opens up – the chance to drop the act. With Jesus I can stop pretending to be good, I can even stop pretending to be “authentic”. I’m known and I’m loved by someone who does not wink at my sins or consider them “the grit that makes the pearl.” I’m loved in spite of what I’m like and in the power of that grace I can move out into the world. Nothing to prove, nothing to hide and nothing to lose. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven: that’s far better than ‘authentic.’