Becoming Authentically Human is Hard. But Not Impossible.

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When I was 21, I signed a Nashville publishing deal. As a shy teenager I had discovered songwriting as a form of prayer, therapy, and self-expression. Now, given the opportunity to turn my introspective hobby into a career writing material for other recording artists, I figured I’d better make my songs less intensely personal. I began writing lyrics on more generic topics, hoping any vocalist could relate to them.

I soon got a call from my publisher. ​“Why,” she asked, ​“are you suddenly writing terrible songs?”

That was the day I learned, as a general rule, the more personal something is, the more power it possesses. Any contribution we wish to make holds much greater potential if it’s an authentic expression of who we are.

“Authenticity” has become, rightly, a buzzword. We crave it in culture, relationships, churches, and lives.

Something is authentic when whatever claims it makes for itself are consistent with its own interior reality. Songs are authentic when they express something their writer actually feels. Mexican food is authentic when the ingredients and recipes used to make it really do come from Mexico. People are authentic when their hidden motivations match the things they actually say and do.

What if in becoming authentically good, we actually become ourselves?

Carolyn Arends

It’s the inner condition of a person that determines whether his or her authenticity is a good thing. The man who leaves his family to be true to himself is being authentic, but not good. Conversely, most of us know someone who is genuinely himself—unmasked and transparent—in ways that are very good indeed. When a person’s inner and outer realities are both healthy and aligned, she becomes a profoundly powerful presence.

I’ve noticed a trend regarding authenticity in some of our circles. We’ve rightly rejected an emphasis on an outer appearance of holiness if it doesn’t match the real state of a person’s heart. Instead, we honestly acknowledge our brokenness. A lot.

It’s good—it’s essential—to get real about the truth of our condition. But what would happen if we focused less on downgrading our exterior emphasis on holiness, and more on upgrading the interior possibility of it?

It scared me to type that last sentence. God forbid I should ever wield the self-wounding sword of legalism. I’m not arguing we harangue ourselves into moral rectitude. I’m just asking what would happen if we let ourselves imagine it is possible to grow—slowly, gently, and with God’s help—into people who are both authentically ourselves and authentically good.

To put it the other way around, what if in becoming authentically good, we actually become ourselves?

What if we discover that, in the words of C. S. Lewis, ​“The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become”?

I’ve been in dozens of prayer meetings where we’ve used John the Baptist’s cry: ​He must increase, but I must decrease! (John 3:30, KJV). Every time I’ve uttered that prayer, I’ve imagined my own personality receding into a generic state of Christlikeness.

But it has started to dawn on me that John only became more completely his confrontational, unshaven, locust-eating self in Jesus’ presence. John actually became Johnier and Johnier—but now all of him was pointing to Jesus. He was authentically holy, but in an authentically John the Baptist sort of way.

And this Jesus John was pointing to? He is fully divine, yes. He shows us what the Father looks like. But He is also authentically human. He shows us what it looks like when a human being is flourishing and whole—and He shows us that, with His help, such a thing is possible.

The first single from my new album is called “Becoming Human.” Taking Pinocchio and King Lear as its subjects, the lyric is as odd as I am, and nothing like those generic songs I offered my publisher long ago. 

The song argues the case I hope the album makes—the fact that we are “only human” is not a cause for resignation, but a high and holy calling… and an invitation to become authentically good.

Click here to listen to “Becoming Human” on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music.

Click here to buy the full album, Recognition, in the Rabbit Room Store.

Parts of this article were adapted from an earlier piece entitled “Authentically Holy,” first published in Faith Today.


4 Comments

  1. Daniel RG Crandall

    @visualjah

    Thank you for this wise unfolding of being authentic. Seth Godin suggests that the desire to be authentic is like wanting to just be a child again, without taking responsibility. That’s the common abuse of “authentic.” But you rightly call out that we desire strongly to be authentic, to be known for who we truly are, especially today, but that we can grow up into who we are authentically created to be. It’s a vulnerable move to die to self and become childlike toward God, the ultimate authentic self we desire. Thanks again!

  2. Carolyn Arends

    @carolyna

    Thanks, Daniel. I hadn’t heard Seth Godin say that, but he’s on the money with respect to the way we abuse the idea of authenticity. Great thoughts.

  3. Ben Johnson

    @tending-oaks

    Carolyn, thank you. I appreciate this reminder that growth in holiness is both desirable and possible. I’ve wrestled with that idea of holiness involving my own personality “receding into a generic state of Christlikeness,” but I don’t think I’ve been able to name it that specifically, so I appreciate your help.  

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