Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson


On the eve of retiring from the pastorate, people have passed on their well-wishes for my next chapter. A number of congratulated me, which feels a bit odd. It sounds as if I have finished life—or I have won an event, meaning I must be headed out to pasture. But it’s not like I have crossed the finish line. I still feel very much in the race.

Maybe a better analogy is that I am no longer participating in multiple events, like one in a Track and Field competition. I’m no longer assigned to the 440, javelin throw, and high jump. I will be focused on teaching and writing—and relaxing more. There will be a day off (a weekend off!!!)—and this does sound pretty good.

There’s no shortage of advice, and perhaps the one heard most often is to just be yourself. Whatever you do next, just be you. It’s part of our age of authenticity. Retirement? Time to let your true self out. But is this what I really want to do?

Adam Grant, in a recent NY Times article, notes that being yourself is actually foolish counsel (“Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice”).  The reality is that few, if any, really want to see our true selves. We all have thoughts, feelings, motives, and fantasies that are best left unspoken. Does my wife really want to know that I prefer mom’s casserole dish to hers?

Grant refers to a writer (A.J. Jacobs, My Life as an Experiment) who decided to be totally authentic for a season. He told his in-laws that he found their conversation boring; a child that that bug wasn’t really sleeping, but dead; and told a nanny working for him that if his wife left him he would like to go out with her.  The experiment did not go so well. His findings led to this conclusion: “Deceit makes our world go round. Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse (and retirement would be a disaster).” There is a price for being too authentic. We would probably tank that next interview.

Friday night I will be honored for thirty-two years of pastoral ministry. It’s nice, but I feel a little hesitant to go. I’m sure there will be a fair amount of lying. My memories go back to Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, a retired insurance actuary who was told he would be missed, but when he came back for a visit, no one knew what to do with him.

What I like about the article is that Grant offers an alternative to authenticity—sincerity. Instead of searching for our inner selves and making a concerted effort to express them, better to start with our outer selves and pay attention to how consistent we are with our words. When we present ourselves, strive to be what we believe and who we claim to be.

After preaching for nearly forty years, Lord knows I have a lot of striving to be what I have preached. The good thing is that I am not in this alone. The work of Jesus in redemption has actually made possible radical interior change, and though the heart is far from pure, allowing the indwelling Spirit to control and fill and flow out of my life means I can really be myself—one remade in the likeness of Christ.

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