What does it mean to be an “authentic” Christian?
So many people have ideas as to what authenticity means for the Christian life. Some see an authentic Christian as someone who embraces that they are imperfect and prone to sin, and want to be recognized as a struggling sinner. The sins they struggle with could be of any order: “recovering” alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual sin, pornography, homosexuality, cussing, anger, you name it. These sins, once named, become synonymous with the persons themselves. They become identified by their struggles as much as their salvation.
The first step in this approach is to admit that you’re free to struggle, free to mess up- free to go to your small group and admit that once again, you’ve failed. Free to go to the same places you used to and not do what you did the last time when it got you into sin. It becomes the norm and easy to admit when you’ve gone wrong once again with your ex, clicked on that ilicit website another time, and cussed out your mom as you always do when she makes you angry. After all, you’ve been given a “second chance,” you can try again.
The second step in this process is embracing a lifestyle that continuously straddles the line with sin. Though we wouldn’t clothe it in such language, this is what happens. We recognize that sin is ever present, so we look at each temptation as another opportunity to succeed at defeating it. However, since there is no measuring rod for repentance in these areas, there is no external change to how we do things. We just avoid specific situations or choices, but for the most part, things remain the same. You do things “just short of sin” in all areas of your life: You drink just shy of drunkenness. You stop just short of sexual sin with someone. You abbreviate curse words so they’re barely shy of saying the real thing.
Since we are sinners still, and name the name of Christ, we have to “embrace” both realities: the bad news that we still sin, and point to the good news that Jesus died for all of it. Jesus gets the credit when we mess up, because it makes His grace look good. In order to move forward, I have to recognize the past is still with me to some extent, and I can’t rid myself of these vices overnight. That feeling is true and at some point we have all felt the burden of trying and not succeeding. So, what’s the issue here? Both are true: I sin and I am redeemed. What’s wrong?
Perhaps addressing another angle of authenticity might be helpful. I will call it the “fake it until you make it” approach.
Fake It Till’ You Make It
You are nice to everyone, but really, on the inside, you feel something entirely different. You gossip about the very person you spoke to who interpreted your kindness as genuine care and concern. You have an internal world where you measure everything according to how you feel about it, how you think about it, and few (if any) people know what you really think about things. You are not easy to read and people may get the sense that you’re happy when you’re not. You have read the Bible enough to know what it means and how to live it out in a practical sense, but emotionally and intellectually, you see or feel no need to build upon your own understanding of it. You have a very practical understanding of theology and can articulate the faith to anyone on the spot. You went on all the mission trips you could be a part of, you’re in the pictures on your church’s website, and have a reputation of being nice, carefree, and a faithful servant. But, inside, you’re dying. You don’t know how to articulate the sense of dullness and dryness you feel spiritually. You don’t quite know anymore if God hears your prayers or even listens to you; you feel nothing when you pray.
The struggles you face on the inside are kept so deep and so secret that everyone only sees one layer of your true personality. You know you are a Christian, as far as believing goes, but life seems to just keep progressing outward while you feel frozen, conflicted, and unsure inwardly. This is the reality you’ve come to embrace. For you, this is authentic Christianity. Authenticity can just mean being real about yourself and recognizing the truth of the matter. But, what are we really supposed to recognize about ourselves? How can we reconcile the tensions we feel on the inside with the world we are called to live in on the outside?
We live in a culture that wants acceptance: We want to be accepted as people who “fall short,” because consistently we do experience set backs by the sins we turn to and embrace often. There is a sense of relief in accepting these definitions, because in a sense we can finally, at this point, be “real” with ourselves and each other and not set such a high bar for our behaviors. There is no Christian standard so difficult as the one we set for ourselves. By freeing ourselves from the pressures of perfectionism we can take a realistic approach to life. The problem is, these ideas have created a legalistic approach to legalism. By accepting things as they are, we are not accepting the truths that encompass all the things we deal with: there is a holiness to be pursued, not romanticized or idealized, becoming an idea of who we want to become.
To help bring this towards a solution, I would like to list five ways in which you can know whether your Christianity is authentic, fake, or out of alignment.
1. An authentic Christian is someone who is not double-minded, appearing one way and feeling or thinking another. They are not divided in how they express themselves, or how they think of God.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8, ESV)
2. An authentic Christian is someone who does not look back at what was in order to make a judgement about their commitment to Christ in the present.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”(Luke 9:57-62, ESV) Italics added.
3. An authentic Christian counts the cost and calculates the meaning of their faith and what their repentance actually is: turning everything away from where it was and submitting yourself to Christ. Killing the old you.
(Luke 14:27-33, ESV)
4. An authentic Christian is not two-faced, what they are towards others is who they are at every moment. They recognize they are not their own.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.(Romans 12:9-13, ESV)
5. An authentic Christians does not look at who they were to determine their lifestyle, but at who they are in Christ and what they are as new creations in Him.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.(2 Corinthians 5:16-21, ESV)
My desire in showing these passages is to help you recognize who you were, who you are, and what you are called to be in Christ. You cannot live out what you don’t know, and you must learn about the person God has made you to be. You cannot truly be yourself until you recognize who you truly are in Christ.
The Christian life is not about faking Christlikeness: you are Christ’s and you are His likeness to others. It’s not about embracing your struggles- Christ died and defeated sin and it’s power over you. You no longer idenitify with your sin, but your Savior. You don’t identify with the ungodly, but the righteous who have been made new people in God. You don’t look, sound, or appear like the world, you are a light that shines without needing to prove you are a light.
If you’re “free to be weak,” then there is no drive to grow in character and the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” You are weak, but in your weakness God is not leaving you there- He is strengthening you (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Like a tree you will grow (Psalm 1)- you are connected to the Author of life and the Savior of your body, heart, and soul. You are not who you were, and are not identified by your past or your struggles. You are free to be holy. You are free to love as God has loved you. You are free to repent and choose obedience over fleeting pleasure. You are free in Christ, so live out that freedom (Gal. 5:1ff).
Living out your Christian belief in the most authentic way to interact with the world.