Over the last ten years, especially in Reformed circles, there has emerged a vision of the Christian life where one of the defining characteristics of a believer has now become transparency. A Christian is someone who is authentic, real, and open.
While prior generations might have suggested the essential mark of a Christian was obedience, those days seem long gone. In fact, for many (post)modern Christians the central issue is not whether someone obeys God’s law but whether they are honest about whether they have obeyed God’s law.
Authenticity has become (for some) the number one virtue.
Thus, we come to our very first instance of Christianese: “The Christian life is all about being transparent and vulnerable.” This is the first installment in the “Taking Back Christianese” series originally announced here.
Our purpose in this post (as in all the posts in this series) is simply to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this phrase. We will do this by asking three questions: (1) Why do people use this phrase? (2) What is correct or helpful about this phrase? and (3) What is problematic about this phrase?
As we answer these questions, it is important to be reminded again that these phrases are not included in this series because they are (necessarily) mistaken. This is not a series about wrong Christian phrases. On the contrary, these phrases (at least understood correctly) can capture helpful biblical truths. But–and this is the main issue–these phrases are often misunderstood. And thus they are subject to abuse and misuse.
Why Do People Use This Phrase?
The quest for transparency in modern evangelicalism has many interesting historical roots, which we do not have space to explore here. But, there is little doubt that it is fueled (at least in part) by concerns about the lack of transparency in prior (particularly baby boomer) generations. Christians have grown weary of their parent’s version of Christianity: show up to church on Sunday, put on a good face (along with good clothes), and pretend everything is just fine. Meanwhile their life is falling apart, they are struggling with besetting sins, and they are sweeping it all under the rug.
Put simply, the push for authenticity is a reaction to Christian hypocrisy. And, at least in this way, the push for authenticity is a good thing.
But there is likely more going on here. In Reformed circles, the push for authenticity also has a theological rationale. If people are really sinners through and through, and our sin is deeper and darker than we think, then why live a life that pretends this isn’t true? Why not put our sin out there on the table and just admit it? After all, should it really shock us given what we believe about human nature?
Moreover, if Jesus is the solution for our sins, then aren’t we really just highlighting his grace and forgiveness when we are honest about what a mess we are?
For some folks, then, being “vulnerable” is just code language for being about grace. It is about giving up on our own strength and trusting in Christ.
Now in many ways, of course, this is a good thing. But there are also pitfalls (and we will get to these below).
What Is Correct or Helpful about This Phrase?
As we have already seen, there is much in this phrase to commend it. For one, Christ abhors hypocrisy. To suggest that Christians should put on an outward show, while hiding the sin and struggle within, is simply to follow the path of the Pharisees:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matt 23:27-28).
Indeed, in contrast to hypocrisy, the Bible calls us to honestly confess our sins:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed (James 5:16)
And, in as much as we confess our sin, we should look to Christ in repentance for forgiveness and grace. So, at least understood in this way, authenticity and vulnerability can be positive.
What Is Problematic about This Phrase?
Unfortunately, the phrase under consideration is not always understood in these positive ways. In fact, there are some serious misuses of the phrase that can become problematic if not addressed.
First, being “vulnerable” can be used as a replacement for repentance. If honesty and openness become the ultimate goal then people will get the impression that sharing about their sins is all that is needed. They need only “get it off their chest” and all is well.
This may create a culture of “sharing” but it doesn’t create a culture of repentance. To put it another way, such repentance-free vulnerability may create intimate community with fellow believers but not necessarily more intimacy with God. It runs the danger of prioritizing the horizontal over the vertical.
Second, the push towards vulnerability (if not correctly balanced out) can communicate that there is no real power to fight sin in the Christian life. Putting so much emphasis on being open about failure, can lead to minimizing the power of the Spirit at work inside each believer.
The goal ceases to be renewed obedience, but instead simply becomes admitting defeat.
Indeed, sometimes the quest for vulnerability can take on such enormous importance for certain Christian communities, that the greatest praise is reserved for people who share massive failures. They are the “real” Christians. And people who seem to be making progress in holiness are regarded suspiciously as closet legalists.
Such an approach may seem to be Christ-centered at first glance. After all, isn’t Christ most glorified in our failures so that grace may abound? Yes, grace abounds in the midst of our failures. But, we must not forget that Christ has saved us from both the penalty of sin and the power of sin.
In other words, Christ is not only glorified in our justification. He is glorified in our sanctification.
In sum, it is clear that this phrase–“the Christian life is all about being transparent and vulnerable”–has both positives and negatives. If used (and understood) rightly, it can be wonderful. It rightly shuns hypocrisy, encourages honesty about our sin, and points us back to Christ as savior.
But, used (and understood) wrongly, it runs the danger of creating a Christian culture that is more about authenticity than about repentance; more about admitting things than changing things.
Truthfully, if it is used wrongly, the phrase becomes more about ourselves and less about Christ.