Merriam-Webster just announced their “Word of the Year.” They say this word has seen an uptick in online searches the past several years, but more recently its popularity exploded.

The word is “authentic” and Taylor Swift’s usage is cited as typical when she pronounces to her hundreds of millions that she’s now on the journey toward her “authentic voice” and “authentic self.”

Back thirty years ago, about to take up a new call here in Bloomington, one preparation I made was reading through old copies of the church newsletter and listening to past sermons of the pastor who had just left. What I remember most striking about his sermons was his love for this word “authentic.” He used it constantly—so often, in fact, that it would be hard not to conclude he viewed authenticity as the supreme spiritual good.

These sermons had been preached over thirty years ago, now, so he wasn’t referring to what image his congregants projected on social media or whether their purse was a Vuitton knockoff.

At the time, I found his use of “authentic” and “authenticity” disturbing because its frequency seemed strained in some way, as if his love of the word was aspirational. I concluded that his calling his congregation to be authentic in their spirituality was partly for the purpose of presenting himself as authentic. The natural thought is that a man calling people to be authentic obviously is himself authentic. As he uses the word, it rubs off on him.

Authentic is truthful. If a coin dealer tells you the coin is authentic, it is not a counterfeit. An authentic man is the real deal. In the church, a pastor calling his people to be authentic is warning them against hypocrisy. Whether or not he is authentic, himself, he’s calling the sheep of his flock to be real. Not to put on airs. Not to present themselves as something they’re not. To avoid living one thing at home and another at church. To show his children at home the same faith and obedience of Jesus Christ he sings and prays and speaks among Christians outside the home.

Have you noticed how irony began to take the world by storm ten or fifteen years ago? It was everywhere and the men I knew who used the word seemed to issue it from their mouth after having sucked sugar from it. “Well, ironically…” and then their observation they didn’t want to declare their own, but just point to in a glancing way without having to defend their almost-conclusion. As in “It’s ironic how President Trump calls everyone else a liar.” Then full stop. Only rarely would they continue, “when he’s such a liar himself.” That second statement requires too much conviction and commitment, so they leave the first half dangling in the air to see if they can stick with implying, and avoid declaring.

Irony is a way of hiding what you think or feel; who you really are. It’s not always bad. There are people of such a character that we owe them no revelation of our true thoughts. Jesus pointed out the irony of the religious leaders calling for the execution of the woman caught in adultery when he told them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).

Irony is mentioned here in connection with the explosion of our usage of “authentic” because an ironic age is an age lacking in directness, truthfulness, and courage. It winks rather than smiling. It crosses its fingers behind its back. If you catch a man lying and point it out, he responds that he was being ironic.

The ironic man extends by just a few seconds the moment when he has to commit himself.

One of the infinite perfections of God for which we love Him is His fundamental truthfulness. Each time we read even the smallest part of His Word, we come away from it remembering the Apostle Paul’s declaration, “Let God be true though every man a liar” (Romans 3:4).

God is true. That is true.

Man is a liar. That is true.

God is authentic. That is true.

Man is ironic. Man dissembles. Man equivocates. Man suggests. Each moment of each day the moral burden of our breaking of the Ninth Commandment grows more unbearable, until finally we break down and confess our sin to God, pleading for Him to make us authentic.

Each time I begin preaching, I lead the congregation in the same prayer of Scripture my father also used as his prayer before his preaching:

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of [our] heart[s], be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, [our] strength, and [our] redeemer.(Psalm 19:14)

Words of our mouth and meditation of our heart will only be acceptable in His sight when they are congruent. As the preacher begins preaching, this is a prayer for authenticity.

While he was serving here in Bloomington, the pastor I succeeded wrote a book titled, Selling Jesus. When I began preaching to the same congregation, what was oppressive was the cheap talk about Jesus. I understood why my predecessor used that title. The congregation we both served was utterly certain of its spiritual superiority and the closeness of its walk with Jesus. Sunday mornings as worship was momentarily to begin, people kept walking around and talking, loudly. When worship began, no one stood up in honor of our Lord Jesus as we approached Him in worship. We just sat there.

Not long into the call, I had concerns that this church didn’t fear or obey Jesus because they didn’t know Jesus. They had imbibed cheap grace and had grown beyond true self-knowledge.

Early in that time, I read Luther and his fellow pastors warning against preaching grace without the Law. He said the congregation whose pastor preaches grace without preaching the law becomes “without compunction of conscience.” Then he adds that “this is an error worse than all those hitherto prevailing” (meaning by this all the heresies of medieval Roman Catholicism).1

Burdened by this growing awareness of the true condition of the souls under my watchcare, I decided to preach through the Gospel of Matthew. Spending a couple years in Matthew would reintroduce the people to the Jesus I hoped they once knew, and would reintroduce them to the repentance and living faith I hoped they once had.

When words like “authentic” explode in usage, they tell us what we need to know about our age and ourselves. The truthful, direct, manly age doesn’t yip-yap about authenticity.

It used to be said that the salesman who made his pitch starting, “let me be honest with you,” was telling you he was a liar. So it is with those precious words of the past quarter-century, “authentic,” “robust,” and “flourishing,”

The age of contraception yip-yaps about “flourishing” because it murders its babies.

The age of LGBTQism and effeminacy yip-yaps about being “robust” because it despises manhood.

The age of social media and megachurches yip-yaps about “authenticity” because it can’t stop lying.

Over fifty years ago, my father was writing out some prayers he used. Not for publication, except my father-in-law found out and asked if he could publish some of them? Dad agreed. Here’s one of my favorites:

A Psalm of Single Mindedness

Lord of reality
make me real
not plastic
synthetic
pretend phony
an actor playing out his part
hypocrite.
I don’t want
to keep a prayer list
but to pray
not agonize to find Your will
but to obey
what I already know
to argue
theories of inspiration
but submit to Your Word.
I don’t want
to explain the difference
between eros and philos
and agape
but to love.
I don’t want
to sing as if I mean it
I want to mean it.
I don’t want
to tell it like it is
but to be it
like You want it.
I don’t want
to think another needs me
but I need him
else I’m not complete.
I don’t want to tell others how to do it
but to do it
to have to be always right
but admit it
when I’m wrong.
I don’t want
to be a census taker
but an obstetrician
nor an involved person
a professional
but a friend.
I don’t want
to be insensitive
but to hurt
where other people hurt
nor to say
I know how you feel
but to say God knows
and I’ll try
if you’ll be patient with me
and meanwhile I’ll be quiet.
I don’t want
to scorn the clichés of others
but to mean everything I say
including this.


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References
1”Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony,” in Luther’s Works, v. 40: Church and Ministry.

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