Is There Such a Thing as Being Too Authentic?
There's more to authenticity than just being real.
Half way into my story, I had a choice to make. How was I going to finish it?
There were many details I could choose from, and not all of them were pretty. I told myself I was being “authentic” to tell the story as I did: highlighting the parts with all the drama and disappointment.
In hindsight, I chose wrongly. My “authentic” story was, in truth, less about telling the truth and more about being vindicated in my audience’s opinion—more about telling a dramatic story with me painted as the long-suffering, good-natured one at the end.
The issue of authenticity in relationships deserves our thoughtful attention, as we daily make choices of how much to share in our face-to-face and online communication. There is a real tension between wanting to be authentic and honest, and yet also wanting to selectively omit certain things. We don’t want to air dirty laundry in public, but denying its existence can be both cowardly and superficial.
The question is this: if I only reveal part of myself, share part of my opinion or leave out some details of the story, am I being untruthful? Does authenticity require telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, even when the whole truth has a great deal of ugly in it?
The 21st century questions about authenticity are modern iterations of a much more ancient struggle. Believers through the ages have battled with when to speak, how much to say and how to say it.
Two thousand years ago, the first apostles had much to say about choosing our words. “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt,” Paul wrote to the church in Colossae (Colossians 4:6). James lamented that “From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be this way” (James 3:10). Similar words were penned to the Ephesian believers: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
The apostles suggest that there should be some limits to our authenticity. We should tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but loving relationships do not necessarily always need (nor can they bear) the weight of “the whole truth” as we see it.
My husband doesn’t need to know every angry or unrighteous thought I think, and I certainly don’t need to know if I really do look fat in this.
My friends don’t need to hear about my every marital frustration, or my children’s failures or every opinion I have—no matter how true all of those things may be.
On a personal level, authenticity begins with acknowledging, rather than hiding, that we have shadows in our souls. Brennan Manning observed that accepting our authentic selves means accepting the reality of our sinfulness: “Judas could not face his shadow; Peter could. The latter befriended the impostor within; the former raged against him.” May Sarton’s challenge was this: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”
It is a frightening and strange thing to accept our soul’s darkness, but we cannot hope to be humble and hopeful truth-tellers unless we do so. God can and should hear every thought, whether hellish or holy, and His grace gives us courage to face those things ourselves. As Francis Schaeffer famously said, we are “glorious ruins,” and we need to speak about ourselves accordingly. We need to speak of others showing the same grace. Unless our truth-telling is filtered through fingers of love, our words are in danger of running headlong into pit-filled lands of Gossip and Criticism.
Authenticity, then, begins with acknowledging the presence of sin in both myself and others, and speaking humbly from that vantage point.
Scripture teaches us that truth and grace are not opposite ends of a spectrum, with “authenticity” parked closer to the truth end, maintaining a regrettable but unavoidable distance from the grace end.
Rather, truth and grace are both concurrent values on God’s graph, and we are to plot ourselves into the graph so that what we say expresses both. Too much “grace” with no truth makes us smarmy. Too much “truth” with no grace makes us jerks.
John described Jesus, the most authentic person who ever lived, as being full of both grace and truth (John 1:17). In Jesus we find that authenticity and kindness make divine bedfellows. Withholding a comment or deciding not to correct someone’s error because of kindness, then, could perhaps not be seen as a mark of inauthenticity so much as a sign of self-control.
I have Ephesians 4:29 written on a post-it above my computer screen. As I speak to my children, write blog posts, post on Facebook and make phone-calls to friends, its words are before me: a spiritual TSA checkpoint to frisk my conversational content. Do these words corrupt? Do they give grace to the hearers? Is it excellent? Is it honorable? Is it true?
If I had applied the checklist to the previously mentioned dinnertime story, the version I told would not have made it past security.
We want our words to be the truth, and nothing but the truth. But when it comes to others, love may require us to withhold certain opinions, to keep certain confidences, to edit certain stories. The authentic Gospel requires authentic believers to speak the (graciously selected) truth.