Being a part of the church can be hard. While the church is Christ’s body here on earth, it’s still filled with messed up people. It’s not supposed to be, but it can also be a place where we “rank” people according to their spiritual maturity. It can be easy to throw around a lot of spiritual language because it makes you feel more holy, but it also gets to be confusing. Who is being authentic in their spiritual talk and who is just to fit in or look more holy? What does authenticity really look like?
The following is the story of two different girls I met in Christian settings. While experience is never the ultimate gage of truth, we can learn from stories. I learned a lot about authenticity from my experiences with these two girls, Ally and Kari. These lessons have helped me greatly as I’ve entered new Christian contexts and met new people.
The Story of Ally
When I was in high school, a new girl started coming to our youth group when I was a junior. We’ll call her Ally. From the beginning, I was wary of her. Ally used a lot of spiritual language and talked a lot about how she heard the Lord and had all these experiences with God.
I’ll be honest, a part of me was jealous of Ally. Though I had grown up in the church and known God my whole life, I couldn’t think of a time or place when the Lord had spoken to me in as clear of a way as Ally described. I had never had experiences with God like the ones she claimed she had. I started to doubt myself. Maybe I wasn’t a very good Christian. Maybe I had done something wrong or something was just wrong with me.
Even while I doubted myself, a part of me wondered if Ally was telling the truth. There was something about her that didn’t sit right with me. Almost everyone else seemed to love her and think she was great. Once again, I wondered if something was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I feel the same way about her that everyone else did? Was it just because I was jealous?
A year or so after Ally started coming to our youth group, her shine started to wear off, and not just for me. Her actions didn’t match up with the message that she preached. There was a lot going on in Ally’s life. I don’t know that she meant to deceive anyone or act hypocritical. I think maybe she was just trying to fit in. Regardless, it turned out that her use of spiritual language didn’t match the reality of her life. At that time, I inwardly vowed to never trust someone who talked like that again.
The Story of Kari
A few years later, I met Kari. Kari and I were in a small group together in college. When I first met her, I was very wary of Kari because the way she talked about God reminded me of Ally. I didn’t want to get duped or doubt myself a second time. I liked Kari off the bat and I didn’t have the same bad gut reaction to her that I had with Ally, but I found it hard to trust her completely in the beginning.
However, as time went on and I got to know Kari better, I realized that she, unlike Ally, wasn’t embellishing. Though she used similar spiritual language and similar phrases that Ally had used, Kari actually meant them. Kari loved the Lord through and through and she meant every word that came out of her mouth. She said she had real experiences with God and I truly believe she did. Her life was a testimony that what she said was the truth.
What I Learned
Looking back on these two experiences, I learned a few things about discerning authenticity in the church:
Don’t assume someone is lying just because the way they talk about God doesn’t match your experience.
This was my default position after my experience with Ally and it was wrong. Just because one person is hypocritical or untruthful doesn’t mean that everyone who talks like them is. Having a different experience doesn’t automatically mean one experience or the other is inauthentic. We all have different spiritual backgrounds and the Bible even says we’re all created with different gifts. That means we all relate to God slightly differently. If you want to learn more about how God speaks to us differently, and that’s okay, you can read this blog post.
Sometimes, your gut is right.
I’m not a huge fan of the phrase “trust your gut”, but there are places where I think it’s a good idea. This is one of those places. If you’re getting a weird feeling about someone and you don’t have a good reason why you would have that feeling, it could be that the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you something. Be careful though. This can be really hard to discern. Originally, I thought maybe the only reason I was wary of Ally was because I was jealous of her. However, since then I’ve had the same feeling about other people and those feelings have later been proven to be justified. I truly believe that sometimes the Holy Spirit warns us about people or situations through our gut instincts, so don’t be afraid to prayerfully trust them.
Look at the fruit of their life to figure out if they’re authentic.
In my story above, Ally didn’t have any good fruit in her life that what she was saying was actually how she lived. Kari did. If somebody talks about spiritual things often and they’re authentic, you shouldn’t have to know them too long to see the good fruit that God is producing in their life. Jesus tells us that good trees produce good fruit and bad tress produce bad fruit. If someone is using a lot of spiritual language and there’s no fruit in sight, there’s a good chance they’re a bad tree (Matthew 7:17-18).
Even if someone is being inauthentic, give them some grace.
I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t do this with Ally and I probably should have. She had hurt my friends with some of her actions, so it was hard for high school Ashleigh to show her grace (plus, as last week’s blog post showed, high school Ashleigh didn’t really have a good understanding of grace). Still, I should have. I was very judgmental of her and I’m sure that didn’t help anything. Thought I don’t know everything that was going on in her life at that time, I do know that it’s usually hurt people who hurt others. I pretty much wrote her off as a fake and someone who was hopeless. That was wrong. We know from Scripture that God uses even the most messed up people in His plan and no one is beyond redemption. I didn’t live this out well at the time, but I wish I would have. If you need help showing grace to others, check out my Ebook devotional, 30 Days of Grace.
Grace doesn’t mean letting them hurt you or others.
If you figure out that someone is being inauthentic, it’s okay to talk to them or a trusted leader about it. You shouldn’t call them out in front of a room full of people, but you should ask them what’s going on if you’re in a relational place to do that. The goal here is not to shame someone. It’s just to call attention to unhealthy behavior the person might not even be aware of. Remember that we all have blind spots in our lives and it can be hard to confront them. Be gentle, full of grace, and loving, but also be firm. You don’t want someone’s inauthenticity, purposeful or not, to harm another person.
Get the Plank Out of Your Eye Before You Worry about Anyone Else’s Speck
Make sure that you’re doing your best to be authentic before you go questioning everyone else’s authenticity. Jesus talks about this on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Don’t judge others and don’t try to get specks out of their eyes when you have a plank in yours. It’s okay to be discerning towards others, but make sure your primary focus is to work on your own life. After all, you are really the only person that you can change.