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By Brian Keepers
“The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.” – C.S. Lewis
I’m someone who has always placed a high value on authenticity. Being genuine and without guile is important to me. It’s important in the way I want to show up with others and in the way I want others to show up with me.
But recently I’ve been wondering: can we place too high a value on “being authentic?” Or at least on what authenticity means for so many in western culture? Some of my relatives and friends voted for Donald Trump on the grounds that he is so “authentic.” “He’s says it like it is,” I’m told. “What you see is what you get.” It’s this line of reasoning that is still used to justify Trump’s ongoing tirades on Twitter and his “off script” controversial remarks. If this is what it means to be authentic—to speak and act on whatever impulse one has in the moment with little regard for its impact on others—then who cares what kind of damage such expressions of authenticity might cause. Let the chips fall where they may. It’s just the price we pay for “keeping it real.”
In his thought-provoking book I Told Me So: Self-deception and the Christian Life, Gregg Ten Elshof explains how with the rise of the late 19th century philosophical movement known as existentialism (think Kierkegaard, Sartre, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others), authenticity was elevated to a place of supreme importance among the virtues. The “good person” was considered to be “the authentic person.” Being true to oneself became the chief end of the virtuous life. Likewise, the supreme vice became inauthenticity—not being true to oneself.
Ten Elshof goes on to make a compelling argument that while authenticity is a good thing (especially if it means not being fake), it is not the most important thing for Christians. After all, the heart of Christian discipleship is a call to die to oneself—or rather, our whole myriad of selves—in order to be raised in Christ as our truest self. St. Paul describes it as a call to put off the old self and put on the new self—to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”(Rom.13:14). This is both an event and a process as it involves both justification and sanctification. Through faith in Christ, we are given a new status before God as adopted sons and daughters. The rest of life, then, involves a process of transformation whereby we become who we already are in Christ by the Spirit.
We become who we already are in Christ not by “being authentic” but by imitating Jesus. And this requires practice and growing in the fruit of the Spirit. We don’t just say and do what we think or feel (in the name of “being real”) but we follow Jesus’ example and pretend to be like him.
In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has a chapter titled “Let’s Pretend” where he describes two kinds of pretense. There’s the bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing. Like when you pretend to be someone’s friend, but then you stab them in the back. This is hypocrisy. But Lewis says there is a good kind of pretense, where the pretense leads to the real thing. Like when you are not feeling particularly patient, but you pretend to be more patient than you are because it is the right way to act. And Lewis says something remarkable happens over time, the more you act patient, the more patient a person you become. “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.” (p.163)
Imitating Christ will, at times, feel unnatural and insincere. But this doesn’t make it hypocrisy. We act contrary to our natural impulses not to deceive anyone or be phony but to surrender and retrain those impulses in the power of the Spirit. Over time, what initially may feel artificial and foreign becomes like second nature–our truest nature in Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal.2:20)
“Imitation, then, can be perfectly authentic,” writes Ten Elshof. “It can be the out working of an authentic intention to take on the heart and character of Christ.” (p. 134) It is in dying to self and playing the role of a disciple that we actually become like Christ—“little Christs.” As long as the goal is to “keep it real” simply by expressing our present “authentic selves,” we will never discover what is most real by finding our truest selves hidden in Christ.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.