“I’m just going to follow my heart.”
“I need to be true to myself.”
“I can’t help the way I feel.”
You’ve probably heard or said these phrases used to defend the idea of living “authentically.”
Authenticity has become a popular concept with this generation—in what we buy and wear and eat, and also in how we live. This certainly isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes, in the name of being honest and genuine, we rely on whatever we think or feel as our guide to how we should respond to life. We can be consumed by our passions, drama and dreams and think anyone that isn’t supporting everything we do just isn’t appreciating us for the unique person we are.
We have re-crafted and idolized authenticity, defining it as being true to ourselves and following our hearts. And all along on the sides of the road of our emotional promiscuity, leading to what we feel will be freedom and self-actualization, lie broken relationships, burned bridges, shreds of our reputation and our most recent, unsatisfying wanderlust excursion.
For many of us, being authentic just means we have a free pass to be a jerk, to complain, to make foolish mistakes—because to do otherwise would mean we weren’t being true to ourselves.
The Problem With Following Our Hearts
I’m the type of person who likes 100 percent honesty and authenticity and who (for better or for worse) tends to dish it out that way too. There are, however, pretty strong things to be said for the condition of our hearts and how we instinctively react to life. And it’s definitely not that we’re the end-all expert on how our lives should go and what truth is—the Bible tells us it’s quite the opposite.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” —Jeremiah 17:9
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” —Proverbs 29:11
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions … Submit yourselves therefore to God.” — James 4:1-7
John Calvin said, “From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols … So it goes. Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.”
“Following your heart” and being “true to yourself” doesn’t free you—it enslaves you to the roller coaster of your emotions and the worst parts of who you are.
While it’s important to be honest about our feelings, we also need to recognize that those feelings can often be rooted in our own insecurities, fears, idols and weaknesses, none of which are based in truth. Our feelings shouldn’t be simply ignored and shoved aside, but they shouldn’t always be catered to. In all reality, it actually may be prudent to keep our mouths shut and wait before reacting to consider the fact that we could be wrong.
When authenticity becomes all about us and our own self-promotion, it’s wrong. That version of authenticity desires to have people wrapped up in your story, your past, etc. putting your needs and emotions in the driver’s seat and allowing them to dictate your decisions and your expectations of how people should treat you.
Lysa TerKeurst talks some about this: “Feelings are indicators, not dictators. They can indicate where your heart is in the moment, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to dictate your behavior and boss you around. You are more than the sum total of your feelings and perfectly capable of that little gift … called self-control.”
The authenticity we should be striving for is being honest with ourselves and with others about ourselves, our weaknesses and our need for grace. This kind of authenticity is built on the foundation that we aren’t the experts on what our lives should look like and that we’re broken and sinful. It is being open about your issues to help bring growth in your own life and to open the door for the people around you to feel free to be honest with themselves and about themselves to seek growth as well.
None of this cancels out the adventure of taking steps of faith, though. One of the differences between reacting impulsively or making decisions on emotion versus on truth and in faith is that you come at it with a realistic picture of yourself. You know your sin, your personality weaknesses, your idols. You pray through your motivation and seek to distinguish God’s direction from your sinful impulses.
Authenticity acknowledges that we don’t know everything and that things don’t always turn out how we think they should. Jonah’s expectation of God’s leading was that he would confront Ninevah after which God would destroy them for their lack of repentance. All along though, God actually wanted to confront Jonah with himself and end with saving Ninevah.
True authenticity is so much more of a fulfilling adventure than self-absorbed heart following. It’s joining God in what He’s doing, not trying to strong-arm Him into joining us. It’s being OK with not knowing exactly how everything will go and knowing we will need to be changed in the process.
Stop following your heart and start leading it.
Bethany Shaeffer spent several years in ministry to college students at Liberty University and has also has done marketing/communications for the university and Liberty Christian Academy. She is passionate that her generation would experience the Gospel at work in their hearts and it would revolutionize the way they live life.