Seven Letters Seven Dangers: Sincerity

Dear Theophilus,

Since God’s word makes abundantly clear that the human soul is “deceitfully sick, beyond cure”—that is, human cure—and that God alone knows it (Jeremiah 17:9), we are wholly incapable, on our own, of accurately discerning the biblical validity of our desires, thoughts and actions. Even as redeemed sinners, our best of intentions and thoughts are stained by our sin. This is why I believe that the greatest danger facing the church is our tendency to be primarily oriented towards, and trusting of, our sincerity.

We could define sincerity as that quality of mind in which we believe ourselves free from deceit, dishonesty or pretense. The sincere person is one who is not conscious of being willfully deceitful. Of course, sincerity can be faked. Entertainers and politicians are perhaps our best examples. But when Scripture tells us we are deceitful because we are sinful, it is not affirming that we are always conscious of our deceit; our sin is expressed in ways hidden from us.  

It is easy in our time for Christians to focus on their and other people’s feelings. How we arrived at this point has been presented by many. Read especially David F. Wells’ books over the past 25 yrs. He not only analyzes these matters historically, culturally and theologically, but will direct you to the work of others. This way of thinking and functioning primarily according to our feelings is nothing new. What’s “new” is the precise way it is demonstrated and how it relates to the specific features of American culture.  

What we have seen in the West is people thinking and acting as if there has been a collapse of external realities with the individual’s internal life. I say “as if” because in reality the two cannot actually be collapsed. Yet we live at a time when the internal life is regarded as authoritative over the external realities, so that what we feel is regarded as determining the actual existence and identity of the external realities, and how we act in relation to them.

We are prone to latch on to the most extreme forms of this (like choosing one’s gender or the justification of infanticide), and consider them the only demonstration of it. But the church in every generation in every culture has been susceptible to adopt unknowingly the non-Christian thoughts and practices of the society in which it lives. In our current situation in which sincerity is king, Christians are likely to lose all sense of the unyielding objective character of the Christian faith and life, and then, in turn, fail to understand the proper role of internal subjectivities that have their own kind of objectivity.        

When we begin to function with our sincerity as our chief authority, we become our own authority and resist accountability to anyone that does not agree with us. We believe God directs us by those who validate our feelings. If people won’t validate our feelings, then we suspect them of sinister motives and actions and have no place for them in our lives. Validating other people’s sincerity can begin to warp all we do individually as Christians and corporately as congregations. We become marked by the disorder and vile practices unleashed by our jealousies and ambitions.  

Worship practices get changed so that the worshipers feel what they believe they ought to feel. We endorse the preachers and worship that give us the feelings we want. We determine our actions based on whether those actions give us the feelings we want and achieve goals we want achieved. Even those who talk about “getting outside their comfort zone” are some of the most feeling and sincerity driven people; they think that feeling discomfort is the supreme test as to whether they or others are obeying God. We fail to recognize Scripture teaches that the denial of self is united to glorifying and enjoying God, and such denial is not rightly captured by merely “getting outside our comfort zone.”  We endorse the notion that Christian obedience is about doing something radical, amazing or extreme for God. We validate people by talking about how we “love their heart,” even though Scripture makes clear we know neither their heart nor our own. We miss that God’s kingdom is received, not taken, and above all about what God grants, not what we go get.

Sincerity is necessary, but not sufficient for the Christian. Yet when thought to be the primary virtue it becomes the most pernicious vice.  

In Christ,

D. S.

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.