Being authentic is very tricky in British culture. We tend to shy away from confrontation and answer a lot of questions with ‘I’m fine’ even when we’ve had the worst week. The message of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ on mugs and T-shirts speaks into how we should just hold our heads high move on without sharing worry.
Being authentic is about being honest and truthful. When things are out on the open, they are known, and so they can be discussed and, where necessary, worked on.
For a lot of people I know, this is really quite hard. Personally, I’ve never really had a problem with it. I tell it how I see it. When me and Helen, my wife, first arrived at the church in 1992 we joined a small group led by a couple who had young children. On our first evening with the group we went to their house for the meeting. The living room wall was covered in semi-regular brown smudges, so I said the very first thing that came into my head: “Oh. Have you been allowing the children to throw chocolate at the walls?” To which the host replied, rather coldly: “No. Those are my stencils.” WHOOPS! Now, Helen says there is another word for this… “tactless”. Although, she does admit that I have got a lot better about this over the years.
In the Bible, John talks about walking in the light. And being authentic means we get things out in the open so we can discuss and address them with our close friends – what John calls having fellowship.
“If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” 1 John 1.6-9
Throughout our marriage, Helen and I have always aimed to be authentic with one another. When we had been married a year, we went on a church family weekend. Most people on that holiday had been married 20-50 years, so you can imagine how we felt! One night they had a “Mr and Mrs” competition, in which you scored points for stating correctly your partner’s preferences. The church family were amazed that after only a year of marriage we won it!
We did try to talk through a lot before we got married, then once we were married we tried to process everything – usually loudly and quite often acrimoniously! We seemed to have the biggest arguments over the smallest things, like the toothpaste! It had never crossed my mind that there is more than one way to squeeze toothpaste… obviously you start at the bottom of a tube and work way up systematically, right?! Apparently not. Helen just squeezes in the middle. We used to argue because it never crossed my mind that my way wasn’t necessarily the right or even normal way.
Another example was Christmas presents, when do you open them? In my family we always used to open them after lunch on Christmas Day, but Helen’s family opened them first thing then spread a few throughout the day. It took me about 30 years to realise that my approach was that of a small minority. There may have been a lot of shouting to get to a resolution but we did talk about everything. And we’ve stuck together for 35 years now, God help the poor lady!
What I realised from John’s writing and my own journey, is that God does call us to live out the truth and be known (for better or worse) by others. He calls us to walk through life and work through problems in community.
Our human tendency is to wear a mask. We are afraid of what people think of us, “If they knew what I’m really like they won’t like me”. So, in the effort of keeping up an appearance, we hide the real us. Do you know that TV show, Keeping Up Appearances, in which Patricia Routledge played “Mrs Bouquet”, spelt “Bucket”? She tried so hard to be someone she wasn’t. So much so she didn’t have many friends at all. I remember an episode where she went with a friend to visit her sick father, but pulled up outside a massive house so it would appear her father was wealthy. She left her friend in the car as she snuck round the back, and climbed over a dozen garden fences to end up on the actual road where her father lived which was far from wealthy.
Obviously, this is a massive caricature, but I think we find it so funny because it actual is something we do on a smaller scale. If we say we’re fine when we’ve had a rubbish day, it almost feels safer. It means no one can challenge us to face the truth, or encourage us out of what we’re feeling. With Mrs Bucket, her mask blocked meaningful relationships and created barriers, and they do the same with you and me.
If I’m going to be brutally honest, the person I find I’m deceiving with the mask is myself, most of the time others see right through me! Have you ever had an argument with someone and then replayed the conversation in your mind afterward? Is that just us trying to convince ourselves that what we said was justified? The other person has usually seen right through it. Why on Earth do we do it? I guess it’s that the alternative is admitting “I was wrong” or believing things like “I am hopeless” or “I am useless”. People hide so far behind masks that they pretend nothing is wrong but know, in their heart of hearts, they have no solution or no one to talk to. Our analysis of ourselves is sometimes correct, we are a mess and we do need a solution.
The solution is Jesus. Authenticity brings freedom, when we admit our errors and wrong doings, Jesus meets us, forgives us and purifies us! He has already paid on the cross for all our bad thoughts and wrong-doing, and we can be free to be who we really are. In this freedom, we can build on our relationships without hiding or pretending. I know it’s easy to read about this; stepping into it is another story. But speaking from experience, being authentic with God and others is the first step into connection, relationship and intimacy. The passage included earlier goes on to talk about exactly this:
“If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1.6-9
How have you developed relationships with the people in your life? Is it by always listening and never speaking? Or by a few chance meetings? Most of the relationships in my life have been developed by walking through situations together, making memories together and sharing. Imagine this conversation:
“Hi. Nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“How did you find this church?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
“What do you do for a living?”
It’s confidential. I can’t tell you.”
Would you feel like giving up, if it was you asking those questions? You can’t have a relationship with people unless you present a degree of openness. Yes, it can be a little at the beginning, and gradually build. But trust will build and relationships strengthen as we face painful stuff together – like me and Helen. It’s the same with God, as you trust in Him and are open with Him your connection will grow.
Honouring is a really important part of loving others. However, I find that being authentic and honouring someone are often in tension. “If I tell them what I really think, we will have a big argument or conflict which may leave them hurt.” Somehow we need to do both, and well.
There is a brilliant, brief phrase in bible to summarise the right way through this. You can find it in Ephesians 4.15: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
What we speak = Speaking the truth
How we speak it = In love
I have learnt to stop and think about how I express the truth. I try to apply a filter first, hold myself back from the first thing that comes to mind (like the brown smudges), but work out what I want to say (be authentic) and work on how I speak it (in love).
There is a brilliant example of this in the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 12:1). In Israel circa 2,000 BC, the prophet Nathan is told by God “Go and confront the king. He has done wrong in killing Uriah and taking Uriah’s wife Bathsheba as his wife” He is talking about King David – Not only Nathan’s Boss but THE KING. Obviously a daunting task, confronting the top dog, telling him he’s done wrong.
Nathan thinks long and hard about how he’s going to deliver this message, confronting the King was a dangerous business, if he gets it wrong he could lose his head! So he decides to tell the King a story…
“There were two men in a certain town, one rich, one poor. The rich man had loads of sheep and cattle and wealth. The poor man had one little female lamb. The poor man, raised his little lamb alongside his children, sharing their food together, drinking from the same cup, even cradling the lamb as she fell asleep in his arms. One day a traveller came to rich man, who prepared a meal for him but instead of taking one of his many, many sheep, he took the one and only little lamb from poor man, and prepared that.”
David burned with anger against rich man and said to Nathan, “that man deserves to die. He must pay for the lamb four times over. He was horrible. He had no pity.” And then Nathan says “You are that man. I delivered you from previous king, king Saul. I made you king over Israel. I gave you many wives. You struck down Uriah. You took his wife. You have despised me and my laws.” David humbles himself. “I have sinned against God.”
Nathan speaks gently, using a story, and David gets it, Nathan has spoken the truth – in love, and David reacts well.
Social media has changed how we behave in the UK. In the past, British reserve and understatement was very present, but now everything is out there. The masks people present on social media are very present and almost “in your face.” Social media has created a “say what you think” culture and much of that is not kind to others, or not easy for others to read. I think the main problem is that often “speaking the truth” as people see it is not so much thinking about how the recipient(s) will feel, and therefore doing in without doing it “in love.”
So let’s walk in the light, speaking the truth in love, and taking off the masks. Recognise the mask for what it is, and intentionally take it off in to open up a stage further with someone. Tell someone about the problems you are facing, they will value your openness.
Review your thoughts, ensure you speak the truth in love. My review question used to be: “is it true?” Now my review questions are: “Is it kind?” and “Is there a better way of saying it?” I also try to think about when would be the best time to say it.
Who can you be more open with today?