By Reinder Bruinsma
In many developing countries tourists are constantly urged to buy “expensive” articles at ridiculously low prices. When I lived in West Africa, I could buy La Costa shirts on the beach for two to three dollars. Of course, they were fake. And so were the Rolex watches. They looked very real and did have the name Rolex, or some other exclusive brand name, but that did not make them genuine. They were made in China rather than in Switzerland. Sometimes, the fact that they were fake was not even denied. I remember seeing a market stall in Turkey with “genuine fake watches.” Most of us do not like it when cheap things are given expensive brand names. And, in fact, this is a form of deception and a crime.
It is even worse when Christians are “fake” rather than “real.” Often Christians do not have a good reputation. For many, especially among the millennials, the word Christian tends to be synonymous with hypocrisy. Ask many of the younger generations in the Western world what they think of the church and the answer will most likely include terms like “politics,” “power-play,” “greed,” or, at best, “irrelevant.” In many countries the reputation of the church has been tarnished by endless cases of sexual abuse by the clergy. In the eyes of many Muslims the people in the Christian world are immoral, for is it not the Christian West where immorality is rampant?
What are non-churched people and, in particular, those who have given up on the church, looking for when they look at us? What do they expect to see? They may know we are Seventh-day Adventist Christians, but are they primarily interested in whether we know and support all twenty-eight fundamental doctrines of our church? Do they expect to see people who are perfect, who have all the right answers, and who never have any doubts?
No, when they look at us, they want to see who we really are, deep down. Their question to us is not so much, “What do you believe?” It is not even, “What do you do?” The question is, “Who are you?” Not when you are in church or among like-minded family or friends. Who are you when no one is looking?
People want to know: Are we for real? Are we authentic? If not, why should they listen to us? People today, especially young people, can smell phoniness from a mile’s distance. If we are not real, forget it!
And, let’s be honest. There is also a lot of window dress- ing among Adventist believers. We all know the principles that are supposed to govern our lives. But do all of us live according to these principles, even when no other church members are in sight? I have noticed (and many of my pastoral colleagues have confirmed this) that often those church members who act and talk most piously are the ones with serious behavioral problems. Often those who always speak about the loose morals of others are the ones who need to clean up their own lives.
But what is new? Jesus did not mince words when addressing some of the religious leaders of His day. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 23, He repeatedly calls the Pharisees and teachers of the law “hypocrites.” He says: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Verse 27).
And remember the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts, Chapter 5? They appeared to be very generous people. They decided to sell a piece of land and pre- tended that they were donating the full proceeds to the church. But they were phony. They wanted to look good; they gave to enhance their own reputations and the story clearly indicates that this was not acceptable to God.
We must never forget that we can perhaps fool people around us for a while, but we can never fool God. When looking at people we may like what we can see. But “the Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
So, how does a person become “authentic?” I cannot offer a concise ten-step program or an Authenticity for Dummies guidebook. It is not really about learning, or knowing, but about being. Here are a few aspects that are essential for being or becoming real.
Being genuine presupposes that I am brutally honest, not only in my dealings with others, but also with regard to myself. Many of us are clever in the way we handle our own PR. We take great care with the image we project. But some of us may be quite different from this image. We may not be such a considerate husband as we want others to believe, or the caring mother we hope people think we are. We may not be so spiritual as our pious words in Sabbath School suggest. The reality, however, is that sooner or later the truth comes out. Somehow people can smell it, if things do not add up in how we present ourselves.
If you want to be authentic, start with being totally honest. Look in the mirror to discover who you really are. If you do not like what you see, work for change. Ask God to give you the strength you need to face your fakeness. It will earn you respect when people see you struggle. Living a lie does not bring you respect but only disillusion.
Admit Your Doubts and Mistakes
Admitting that you have doubts does not make you weaker. All of us have doubts, that is, all of us who do any thinking. The question is what we do with our doubts and uncertainties. Do we cultivate them and suggest to ourselves and others that our doubts and questions simply reflect our superior intelligence? Or do we prayerfully search for answers? Are we trying to deal with our questions—one by one—even if it takes a long time?
Most human beings like to talk about themselves. But usually we tend to emphasize the things we do well, the skills we possess. We may exaggerate our role in the organization that employs us—a little (or not so little). We extoll the virtues of our children and may somewhat stretch the social status of some of our relatives. We tend to drop the names of important people we happen to know (even if that “knowledge” is extremely flimsy). People notice, and, as a result, they will not take us seriously.
It is only when we are willing to share—at some appropriate moment and with the right person(s)—that not all went well in our lives, that we made some serious mistakes, that our family situation is not always ideal, and our career had its ups and downs that people accept us as genuine.
It took me quite some time to learn this. One of the great tragedies for many who work in the church is to see that their children have not followed the same path. When people asked me whether my children were “in the church,” for a long time I tended to answer vaguely. Now, I openly acknowledge that my children have not become Adventist church members. I have experienced that most people do not judge me but rather sympathize with me. Many have the same experience and they appreciate that I dare to make myself vulnerable by also telling about some things that did not go so well in my life. In fact, often they are more willing to talk with me, knowing that I have some of the same problems they are facing.
Tell Your Story
We must realize that most people have a need to tell their story. They need to be listened to. But we must also keep in mind that people want to know our story. Knowing who we really are behind our professional or social facade, where we are coming from, helps to make us into real, authentic people.
If we say we are Christians, the million-dollar question is whether our everyday choices reflect those beliefs. Has following Christ made us a nicer and more compassionate person? Can people see that we care? Can they see our integrity and honesty? Do we model inclusiveness when we interact with those who are “different?” Do we graciously extend forgiveness and accept forgiveness when we need it ourselves?
We must constantly ask these questions: Have the things I talk about to others become, at least to some extent, a reality in my own life? Can people see that I am living a life that matters? What do people see when they look at me? A faithful steward? A real disciple of Christ? A Christian is his or her relationships? Someone who is transparent and can be trusted? Not just occasionally but 24/7?
Christ: Our Model of Authenticity
Becoming authentic remains a work in progress. But in essence it is about gradually becoming more like Christ. He became truly human. He was not afraid to make Himself vulnerable. We do not become like Him overnight. In fact, we will never be at His level. But He can help us in our life-long commitment to authenticity. In His footsteps we can become real!
–Reinder Bruinsma has served the Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books are In All Humility: Saying “No” to the Last Generation Theology, and a daily devotional, Face-to-Face with 365 People from Bible Times. Email him at: [email protected]