When Authenticity Isn’t Enough

“Authentic” is the word to be these days.

To call something authentic—a business, a product, a person—is an incredible compliment, and most of us instinctively know what it means.

It means there’s no bait and switch. It means no one’s hands are tied by unhelpful customer service scripts and corporate double-speak. It means every interaction feels genuine, unaffected, kind, considerate, and intentional. It means the superfluous layers are stripped away, and what’s left behind is something relatable, enjoyable, and trustworthy. No games, no acts, no personas—just people being open and honest about who they are and what they’re doing, and conveying it in a way that doesn’t make them feel like emotionless robots.

I love it when things feel authentic. I love it when I’m not confronted by a high-pressure sale or forced to read between the lines to decode intentions and secret objectives. I love when I can relax and know that I’m in the presence of other people—not titles, not positions, not suits, not a status hierarchy, just… other people.

But “authentic” is also the dumbest standard in the world.

In school, you probably learned that words can have both a connotation and a denotation. Denotation is the dictionary definition of that word—the exact definition given to it by the good people at Merriam-Webster (or Oxford, or Cambridge, or whatever literary authority you turn to for your word clarification needs). Connotation is a different beast altogether. Connotation is all the ideas, concepts, and feelings that come bundled with a word—not just what the dictionary says about it, but what your head and your heart say about it, too.

When we talk about something’s authenticity, we’re mostly operating in the realm of connotation. We’re talking about a certain feeling, a certain experience, and “authenticity” communicates all that pretty effectively. But authentic (according to the good people at Merriam-Webster) really just means “not false or imitation” or “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”

In a literal sense, authentic doesn’t mean good. It doesn’t mean enjoyable. It doesn’t mean friendly or uplifting or relatable. It just means “the real deal.”

And sometimes, especially when it comes to human nature, the real deal is awful.

Connotations and denotations invariably start to blend into and influence each other—and so there’s a lot of encouragement out there for everyone to be their “authentic selves” and let the world see them for who they really are, because who you are is enough. If authentic is the only standard that matters, then no one needs to change. We all just need to work harder at being ourselves.

That’s not the Christian message, though. The Christian message is that there’s a serious problem at the core of our identity, and that if we don’t do something about it, we will die. The Christian message is that we need deliverance from “this body of death” (Romans 7:24). The Christian message is that we should not be “conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). The Christian message is that the old man must be crucified with Christ, and that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

The Christian message is that a fundamental change in our identity is both necessary and beautiful.

When you get right down to it, sin is authentic. Evil is authentic. Wickedness and perversity is authentic.

And so just authentic isn’t enough.

It’s a good starting place. None of us should be trying to hide who and what we are—but none of us should be content to stay who and what we are.

God isn’t looking to make you into His identical clone—but He is looking to reach into your heart and fix the broken, self-destructive things that are hiding there. He is looking to take hold of your character and chisel away the traits that cause pain to ourselves and to others. As we continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), God promises to transform us from just plain authentic to Godly.

This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.

But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.

(Ephesians 4:17-24)

It turns out that “Godly” is the best kind of authentic we can be.

Until next time,

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