Your professional self displays commitment to the job and eats lunch at a desk. Your whole self is planning the next holiday and binges ice cream on the sofa. Your professional self makes presentations to the board and says things like: “Let’s get the analytics team to kick the t[i]res on this.” Your whole self cannot operate a toaster and says things like: “Has anyone seen my socks?” Pretending to be someone you are not is not a problem; it’s essential.
That description speaks to what lies at the heart of the modern re-definition of “authenticity.” From counselors pushing transgender ideology on kids, to Christians deconstructing faith, to the recent trend of “quiet quitting,” many people today think that true authenticity is the only means to real happiness. It means always expressing our feelings, always feeling completely supported in whatever we say or do, and rejecting any relationship that asks us to do otherwise.
The problem, as the late Tim Keller once illustrated, is that this understanding of authenticity is based on a faulty premise.
Imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800. He has two very strong inner impulses and feelings. One is aggression. He loves to smash and kill people when they show him disrespect. Living in a shame-and-honour culture with its warrior ethic, he will identify with that feeling. He will say to himself, That’s me! That’s who I am! I will express that. The other feeling he senses is same-sex attraction. To that he will say, That’s not me. I will control and suppress that impulse.
Now imagine a young man walking around Manhattan today. He has the same two inward impulses, both equally strong, both difficult to control. What will he say? He will look at the aggression and think, This is not who I want to be, and will seek deliverance in therapy and anger-management programmes. He will look at his sexual desire, however, and conclude, That is who I am.
As Keller concluded, none of us simply choose to “be ourselves” in a vacuum. We constantly sift through contradictory feelings and evaluate them in the light of our values, which are often absorbed from our cultural setting.
The modern vision of “authenticity” is not born merely from an alternative understanding of morality, but from an alternative understanding of anthropology. In a world that has largely rejected God and objective truth as external realities, people increasingly turn inwards in deciding who they are and what they should do.
Any true understanding of self must begin by looking outward and upward, not inward. In the end, we may find conflict between what is true and how we feel. We must choose what is true. As Biola professor Erik Thoennes put it,
There’s this idea that to live out of conformity with how I feel is hypocrisy; but that’s a wrong definition of hypocrisy. … To live out of conformity to what I believe is hypocrisy. To live in conformity with what I believe, in spite of what I feel, isn’t hypocrisy; it’s integrity.
In her latest book Live Your Truth and Other Lies, author and apologist Alisa Childers points out another problem with a feelings-first version of authenticity: I can’t love myself if I’m fooling myself about who I actually am. If I deny that there is something wrong with humanity (and thus, myself), the kind of love I will offer myself will be the opposite of authentic. It will be artificial authenticity.
While it is completely out of step to think this, Scripture is clear that “the heart is deceitful above all things.” Today’s worship of authenticity requires that we lie to ourselves about this difficult reality. If we do, however, we will never truly know who we are and how we should live.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. If you enjoy Breakpoint, leave a review on your favorite podcast app. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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