People seem to be more cynical these days—always assuming things aren’t what they seem. We live in a culture of reality TV shows that are not real at all, “authentic” social media posts that are actually marketing schemes, and “fake news” that focuses not on what’s true but what’s sensational. Church leaders are exposed for hypocrisy, and the cover-up of sex-abuse scandals shows how easily people become complicit in great evil when it serves their interests.
No wonder people are cynical about everything, even the church.
How do we counteract the skepticism of our society? How can we avoid what’s shallow and artificial and embody something beautiful and authentic?
We can start by looking to some of the early churches and their leaders to catch a glimpse of embattled and emboldened believers seeking to live out their faith.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy were beaten, imprisoned, and treated outrageously in Philippi, and yet when they went to Thessalonica, where a riot broke out, they still had the courage to preach the gospel.
“After we had previously suffered and were treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, we were emboldened by our God to speak the gospel of God to you in spite of great opposition” (1 Thess. 2:2)
God gave these leaders courage to be real in the midst of hardship. To speak boldly in the midst of chaos. When we know who we are and where we come from, we can be real and fearless in the face of trials.
Whenever we stay true to Christ, whenever we’re real in our courage—even when we have something to lose, even when tragedies pile up on us to the point we feel we might suffocate, even when we’re mocked or beaten—that’s when people take a closer look and say, There may be something real here. It’s not contrived. It’s not staged.
Courage and conviction are connected. The message Paul and his fellow laborers proclaimed courageously came from their heart. They were convinced of the truth of the gospel, and they cared more about what God thinks than what people think.
“For our exhortation didn’t come from error or impurity or an intent to deceive. Instead, just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please people, but rather God, who examines our hearts. For we never used flattering speech, as you know, or had greedy motives—God is our witness—and we didn’t seek glory from people, either from you or from others” (I Thess. 2:3-6).
If we want to be real and authentic, we must stand by our convictions without wavering, without backing down in light of cultural opposition. What the world needs is not a church that will provide a mere echo of our times but a church filled with people of conviction, who are gripped by a message from above.
That said, we must remain true to the gospel and who we are in light of the gospel for the glory of God, not for our own glory. There is no room for deception or ulterior motives. If we are to be mocked by the world, may it be due to the authenticity of our convictions, not the hypocrisy of our actions.
Courage and conviction do not result in brittleness and rigidity, but in compassion and kindness. In the same letter that describes his boldness in proclaiming the gospel, Paul wrote:
“We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).
There’s power in compassion, but not when it’s forced, or when we’re doing nice things for people because we want to feel better about ourselves, or because we feel guilty that we’re better off, or because we want something from others. Ulterior motives only serve to spread cynicism. No, compassion is powerful when it’s genuine, when it’s real. You know it when you see it, and that’s why it stands out.
In the end, our conduct must flow from our convictions. We must be ever mindful that people are watching our lives, and so is God. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian believers:
“You are witnesses, and so is God, of how devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly we conducted ourselves with you believers” (I Thess. 2:10).
Paul had a clear conscience. When you don’t have anything to hide, you are free.
But what about when you fail? That’s when you have the opportunity to be real in your repentance. The church is not perfect. We are not perfect. If we claim to be, we’re not being honest; we’re not being real. Part of our conduct is our confession, and being real in our confession means acknowledging our sins, asking for forgiveness, and turning around.
None of us is real in all of these areas. Thankfully, there is One who is real 100 percent of the time—Jesus. His love will cover our lapses. That’s why we look to him for grace and power to make our genuineness stand out in a world of skepticism.