Everyone wants to be authentic. It helps you seem more relatable. It makes you seem down to earth. ‘That guy really isn’t that different from me after all.’ There is nothing inherently bad with this. Indeed, we should all try to be genuine and seek to connect with others. Further, we must be so careful of placing ourselves on some high and distant pedal stool, beneath all those other lesser saints. God help us if we do. Authenticity can truly guide us away from such a disposition. Admitting our failures, our struggles, our weaknesses. Remembering how far we were from Christ, and still how far we have need to grow in likeness of him. Authenticity in its purest form walks hand in hand with humility.
Now, what does concern me about the desire to be authentic is when authenticity becomes the chief virtue. Any possible chance of seeming ‘holier than though’ is avoided at all costs. We dare not risk portraying ourselves as having arrived, so forever we remind others that we too are just like them: broken, desperately sick, a fellow patient at the great hospital for sinners.
Again, an aspect of this is correct and good. We will never fully arrive. God help us if we boast in any thing other than Christ or our own weakness (I Cor. 1:31, II Cor. 12:9). Nevertheless may we ask, what is it that we are exactly saying about our condition as followers of Christ, in order to remain authentic? Are we saying that though we have come to the Great Physician, we have yet to find any substantial healing? Are we relaying a message that the power of the Gospel has won our hearts and minds, yet has left our actions unchanged? Are we still just sinners through and through? Or are we sinners being renewed day by day? In our desire to relate, have we obscured that there is any real separation to be expected between the morality of those within the church’s walls and those without?
Consider just one passage from the Apostle Peter where he states: “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they do not make you useless nor unproductive in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Peter 1:5-8). From this passage may we briefly consider what the expected trajectory is for one who follows Christ? If nothing else, surely it is not perpetual moral stagnation. Though dark valleys may come, though even gross moral failures may occur, we still have here an expected overall trajectory of growth.
We know, so well from both experience and the holistic witness of Scripture, that this will not mean perfection (Psalm 51, Matt. 6:12, 18:15-18, 18:21-22, Col. 3:13, I John 1:8-10, Phil 3:12, etc.). Nor should it ever lead us to pride as we remember we are nothing, nothing, without Christ and His Spirit working within us. But must we always remind others of only our failures in order to relate an “authentic” Christian witness? What exactly ought one to expect when following Jesus? Is growth in qualities such as moral excellence, self-control, kindness, love, and the like really too much to ask or expect? The pitfalls are indeed serious and close by on either side. Pride is forever battering at the gates. A self-focused glory is crouching behind our every step, seeking to obscure our vision of the Cross. Yet, it is never safe to wander from Scripture’s teachings, even if the path of success is very narrow indeed. But with humility clutched tightly in our hand, should we not seek to tell our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors, that the Great Physician does indeed bring healing? That for those within and those without, there is indeed a cure? That though the church may be compared to a hospital for the desperately sick (though more accurately the once dead), might we follow the analogy where it leads and speak of a place of healing and, dare I say it, of moral improvement?
Elliot Clark sums up this idea well when he states:
Isn’t the church meant to be a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints? Yes, and no. The hospital is only desirable if it’s more than a quarantined building where the terminally ill go to die. I’ve seen my share of dirty hospitals in the world, and you don’t want to go there. A hospital is only a good place if there’s medicine and a remedy. There must be visible evidence of a cure… Our gospel is for sick sinners, to be sure. But we preach as healed saints.1
- Elliot Clark, Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land, (Denmark: The Gospel Coalition, 2019), 117