Inauthenticity: the art of faking it. Only after writing these first few words did the one word, ‘art’ really strike me. Art speaks to us because it speaks about us. It explores what it means to be human. From Micheal Angelo’s David to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to Adele’s 21 the subject of art is ourselves: our desires, our fears, our experiences our ideals and our story.
I think then that there is an unintended truth in my opening words. Faking it is an art in that there is something truly human about it. Inauthenticity arises out of a vulnerability that we all share, a vulnerability we would rather others did not see. We all know this, and so it can’t come as any surprise to us that Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:5,6) that inauthenticity will encroach into the life of the church.
Hypocrisy and phoneyism have been ever-present accusations against the church throughout its history. This isn’t because Christians are less authentic than others, but because we carry the same payload of vulnerability – our shame – as everyone else and we need to keep this explosive truth about ourselves away from others. And so we fake our public demonstrations of spirituality hoping in that way to win those precious items of body armour – popularity, admiration or power – that will guard us against public humiliation.
Do others think I’m a good Christian? Are others impressed by what I’m doing? How can I get others to defer to me? How can I get others to look up to me? These are the concerns that come to dominate our public acts of ministry when our shame is too unstable for us to handle. These can become the unspoken desires behind all our petitions in public prayer.
This is Jesus’ warning in Matt 6:5,6. His point is that inauthenticity’s colonisation of our public spirituality reveals what is happening in our character.
The hypocrites have already received their reward. What they want from prayer they actually usually succeed in getting: the approval of others. But that is all that their way of praying offers. It can give them nothing more. The suggestion is that this is a pretty meagre return compared to what prayer can actually give. It’s a bit like owning the most flamboyant and best performing sports car, but using it to keep chickens. Prayer has so much more to offer than we are getting from it when our prayers lack authenticity.
That there is a reward associated with prayer is an important point for us to notice. Jesus is not referring to some prize in the afterlife. He is talking instead about the formation of character in the here-and-now. The true reward of authentic prayer is the growth of a godly character.
Through prayer God addresses our shame and leads us into growth without our shame messing it all up for us. Without this our growth will be stopped in it’s tracks by grandiose self-loathing (“I’m so rubbish!”) as we discount God’s grace, or grandiose self-admiration (“I’m so amazing!”) as we desperately protect ourselves from our shame.
Prayer is the means by which we as individuals and as church communities open ourselves up to what God is doing in the world. By it we discern him in our experiences and bring his story into our own. Through prayer we are made open to Christ who, by his love, has defeated our shame. Grandiosity is neutralised by the grace of God in Christ and true humility is encouraged. And it is prayer that plugs us into this truth. In doing so it connects us to the truth of Christ and the future that God has created through him. New possibilities for our future are opened up, possibilities that entail a renewed character and a transformed life. Through prayer Christ is formed in us.
Inauthentic prayer may well get us what we want from others through manipulation and exploitation. But prayer coupled with authenticity — prayer which leaves our shame with God — brings with it a far greater reward.