My fourth-grade teacher was, frankly, horrible.
In Singapore, at least when I was growing up, teachers can physically discipline you if they had to. I’ve had teachers who strangled little girls, slapped students in the face, forced a male student to strip off his shirt, kicked a little boy, and all sorts of horrifying acts that would now shock the school board but at the time, proceeded without repercussions.
My fourth-grade form teacher was a yeller. No, she was a shrieker. Her shrieks were like thin metal scraping glass—shrill, scratchy and wobbly, full of pale speckles of spit. She shrieked every 15 minutes over the most trivial things, and at times when she got really angry she would either yank the students’ ears, slap them on the back or shake them like a rag doll.
I don’t think I ever saw her smile. Her facial muscles seemed permanently scrunched down into an irritated scowl.
Everybody hated her. So did I. She made school painful, not that I needed any more excuse to hate school. To retaliate I never paid attention to any of her classes, which hurt nobody but myself because she taught all the main subjects like math and English. Sometimes, I ostentatiously pressed both hands onto my ears when she started shrieking again, with a scowl as unpleasant as hers. Thankfully, she never caught me.
I went home and complained bitterly about her. My parents told me it’s because she’s unhappy in her life. “She needs to know Christ,” they told me. “Instead of hating her, pray for her.”
So I did. I prayed every night for her soul, and tried to see her as a pitiful heathen who didn’t know Christ.
And then I found out that she was a Christian, because during one class she mentioned something about her church. I was shell-shocked.
I realized then that being “Christian” is just a label. It doesn’t mean you’re a gentle, sweet, smiling saint. I felt slightly disillusioned. Weren’t Christians supposed to be models for the world? Weren’t they supposed to be fragrant with the tender love of Christ?
And then as I grew up I discovered “un-Christian” behaviors within myself as well. I, who attacked my cousin with a sharpened pencil because she wouldn’t obey me. I, who deliberately disobey my parents and teachers just because I don’t like being told what to do. Why, I even troll the playgrounds looking for kids to pick fights, and I get into catfights with my best friend at least once every two weeks over stupid things like food. What kind of Christian is that?
As I grew older I discovered subtler but just as unattractive traits about myself: I am proud, impatient, willful, spiteful, foolish, selfish and rash. I’m quick to judge, quick to temper, quick to swear, but slow to love, gentleness and kindness. At times I wondered if maybe I’m the anti-Christ, because I sure was the opposite of everything He was.
At some point in my life I discovered I have no idea what it means to be a “good Christian” anymore. I realized that I’m not the only “bad” Christian. I mean, just look back into history. Read the flawed, weak characters in the Bible. Observe the people in the church then, and the church now. It was a huge revelation for me to understand that God doesn’t command us to be “perfect Christians.” He wants us to be Christ-like, but He also wants us to be authentic.
But then that brings me to this raw question: What does it mean to be an “Authentic Christian?”
In my quest to be authentic and honest, I loosened up my principles. I became increasingly antagonistic to legalism, which I considered deadweight to understanding true Christianity. I bristled when people told me Christians shouldn’t swear, smoke or drink. I wanted to go against the grain of the conventional Christian. I was sick of people sprouting negative stereotypes of Christians. I was also tired of being tied down to what I can and cannot do as a Christian, and what I must and mustn’t do to be that model Christian. You just never seemed to be able to do anything right as a Christian.
I’m starting to reevaluate these notions.
Last weekend I received a butt-load of verbal lashing from my father. Those of you who are regular readers might have noticed that I deleted my last post. In that last post, I had taken and posted a picture of my Bible and a glass of wine.
My dad went ballistic—not because I drink wine, but because of the sinful connotations of alcohol, and my flippancy with it by juxtapositioning wine with the sacred Bible. He asked, What would readers think, given the context I framed? Why would I want to send out that kind of easily misinterpreted message?
I argued back as I always do; I wasn’t about to be yelled at without defending myself. We argued back and forth for more than an hour, but he being the wiser father of course got the last word. In the end I told him I’ll obey him in this matter because it’s so important to him, but regarding his reasons for it, I need to think and pray about it and determine a clear stance for myself.
One thing my dad said that night stays with me: “Are you that proud and confident, that you think you can overcome the vice of alcohol? That you’re impervious to the temptation of addiction and abuse?”
At first when I heard that, indignation flared up inside me. “What do you mean by that?” I exclaimed. “That I’ll become an alcoholic? For Goodness sakes, I drink at most a glass once every few months!”
But later as I thought the conversation over, I understood what he meant. I never thought it possible that I would be enslaved by anorexia. I remember the same prideful scorn I had when I first heard of anorexia, which sounded like a stupid, insane disease to me. I have a history of self-abuse and addiction—who am I to confidently boast I would never fall prey to other kinds of vices?
I’ve been stubbornly blind and insensitive to the legion of dark temptations that whisper all around me every single day. I believe in a spiritual world, in which all sorts of spiritual battles are fought. I believe in dark and good forces, in sinful natures and temptations, in absolute rights and wrongs.
But knowing isn’t the same as being aware. These are different conditions that produce quite different behaviors and attitudes.
I want to be an authentic Christian, and I know that’s what God wants me to be, too. I don’t want to be weighed down by legalism, self-imposing laws upon myself and others. I don’t want to play the dangerous game with liberalism either. Neither do I want to be muddled up by ethnic customs or ulterior motives. Nor do I want to be immersed in apathy, merely following habitual motions without freshness.
So what does it mean to be an authentic Christian?
I want to say it’s a lifelong pursuit, a long process—but that’s laziness. Authenticity can and should be enjoyed right now, right here, with my present flaws and strengths.
First and foremost, I want to enjoy Christ. I want to first have a real, authentic relationship with Him—who cares what others think of our relationship, what matters most is that I can have a natural intimacy with Him first.
Second: Being a Christian shouldn’t be painful, but it shouldn’t exactly be a safe bubble of comfort, either. The world isn’t an oasis for us Christians—that’s been prepared for us in another world. There are things we need to stand and fight for, principles that need to be clearly drawn, tasks to perform, mistakes to be made and learned.
It’s too easy to go, “Well, God loves me, He forgave my sins, thank you Lord, Hallelujah!” and then forget the next desire God portrayed: to love others. How many times have non-Christians ironically re-quoted “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?”—simply because we Christians don’t exemplify that famous line by Jesus?
It’s not easy being a Christian. Being an authentic Christian isn’t all that straightforward, either. But I’ve been pondering what it means to truly live out an authentic Christian life, because I think it’s absolutely worth mulling over, especially because it’s so easy to fall prey to less-than-ideal—well, inauthentic—understandings of Christian living.