“Fake it till you make it.”
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression. People use it when they are so anxious to achieve a goal that they pretend to have real confidence and skills. By faking it for a while, they hope they will succeed.
Starting a new job, a person might fake it until they make it in the workplace. Newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous often adopt the philosophy as a way of adapting to the challenges of the 12-step program. A person who wants to date someone might fake self-confidence to ask them out. If accepted, they hope that real confidence will follow.
A certain amount of “faking it” is part of every person’s life. You cannot become a good dancer until you get out on the floor and fake it for a while. You cannot become part of a new school, church or business unless you throw yourself into the middle of the community and figure it out. But there is also real danger associated with faking it until you make it.
A salesman named Glenn W. Turner told people that there was a single key to being as rich and successful as he was: Make an investment in his multi-level marketing company. At one point, 60,000 people in 40 states and Canada worked for him. According to The Washington Post, these people “would peddle ‘mink oil’ makeup and his ‘Dare to Be Great’ motivational tapes, and they would collect more money by recruiting others and taking a percentage on their sales.” When salespeople struggled to move up in the world, “they were told to ‘fake it until you make it’ by wearing expensive clothes and waving around $100 bills to lure in others.”
They faked it. But they never made it. Prosecutors in more than 30 states went after Turner’s company. One judge said that the phrase “fake it until you make it” was “evidence of malfeasance.” In 1987, Turner was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme.
There is no “faking it” with the law.
Today, however, the “fake it” approach is found in many business ventures, especially Silicon Valley start-ups and cryptocurrency. It pops up in what economics columnist Helaine Olen calls “the scrappy, optimistic mind-set of American hustle culture.” Think of Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX. George Santos of the United States House of Representatives. Fake it till you make it. Olen says that we need to find a way to once again “prioritize and reward diligent, honest effort.” Not fake success that leads to disaster.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees for not practicing what they teach Like Glenn Turner, who sold distributorships in his Ponzi scheme for $5,000, they “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others” (23:4). Like Elizabeth Holmes, who claimed that her company had revolutionized blood testing, they “do all their deeds to be seen by others” (v. 5). Like Sam Bankman-Fried, who was said to be worth $26 billion and who made contributions to both political parties, they “love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces” (vv. 6-7).
The scribes and Pharisees say all the right things, but they do not do them. According to Jesus, they are hypocrites. Frauds. Fakes.
Call “no one your father on earth,” says Jesus, “for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (vv. 9-10). Jesus wants us to be wary of anyone who claims to be a parent or instructor to us, whether they are in the world of business, research, finance or politics. We should keep our focus on our one Father in heaven and our one instructor named Jesus. They are the ones who can show us how to make it … without faking it.
Unfortunately, we are always looking for earthly saviors. We get excited when outsiders come into politics, from the left or the right, to save us. We are suckers for business leaders who promise to make us successful, whether through mink oil makeup, biotechnology or cryptocurrency. We find it hard to resist a charismatic leader who promises that we can get rich quick, without putting in honest, diligent effort over a long period of time.
Jesus understands the attraction of false messiahs, and He knows that we are more than willing to “fake it till we make it” as we try to move up in the world. That is why He turns our expectations completely upside down by saying that the “greatest among you will be your servant. And all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (vv. 11-12).
All who exalt themselves will be humbled. That has certainly been the fate of Glenn Turner, Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried. And all who humble themselves will be exalted. That is what we see any time a person has the courage to be a servant leader, putting the needs of others ahead of their own desires. In the upside-down world of the kingdom of God, the greatest of us will move up by moving down. We do not succeed by serving ourselves. We succeed by being servants.
A life of service requires diligent, honest effort. There is no faking it with God.
The scribes and Pharisees were not evil people (nor are most leaders in business, technology and finance today). They were religious siblings of Jesus, as are we. The Pharisees, in particular, were not enemies of Jesus who can be used to justify violence against Jews. Scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine have discovered that the Pharisees were “forward-thinking innovators who helped make the Jewish tradition more adaptable to changing circumstances.”
Jesus did not hate the scribes and the Pharisees, but He held them accountable. He criticized their hypocrisy by saying, “you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (vv. 27-28). Jesus challenges people to be righteous both inside and outside, instead of clean on the outside and filthy on the inside. He wants us all to be people of integrity, not fakes.
If we want to be truly great in the eyes of Jesus, we need to find success in service. This means that we put the needs of others ahead of our own, and we see humility as the key to accomplishment. Instead of faking it until we make it, we are supposed to focus on honesty and justice.
Throughout the Bible, honesty is seen as a virtue in the community of faith and the wider world. The ninth of the Ten Commandments says that you “shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD,” says the book of Proverbs (12:22). Let “all of us speak the truth to our neighbors,” says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “for we are members of one another” (4:25). Honest speech is one of the building blocks of church and society, and it shows a desire to treat others as we would like to be treated. We serve our neighbors by being honest with them, instead of trying to deceive them.
“Lying breaks trust and ruins relationships,” says pastor Daryl Wingerd. “When you lie, you damage your relationship with the person you lied to. Even if the person is unaware, you now know there is something broken between the two of you. If your lying becomes a pattern, it will eventually be detected, and that will put that person or group in the unfortunate position of not being able to trust you.”
When we fake it with people around us, we break trust and ruin relationships.
A focus on justice is important as well. Jesus honored the prophets of the Old Testament and echoed their focus on justice and righteousness. He knew that the prophet Micah spoke against rulers “who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!” (Micah 3:9-10). These are harsh words, and they are based on the fact that the rulers of Jerusalem gave “judgment for a bribe,” while its prophets gave “oracles for money” (v. 11).
Does that sound familiar? Even today, justice in the courtroom can be perverted by people who have the money to hire the best lawyers. Some churches ask for donations with the promise that their members will be blessed with prosperity. Often, these appeals are made to people who can least afford to make big donations.
Jesus, on the other hand, always wanted people to be treated fairly, in courts of law and everywhere else. He worshiped God instead of money, and he focused his ministry on healing, helping and feeding the most vulnerable people around him. Honesty and justice mattered to Jesus, and he practiced these virtues in everything he said and did.
As Christians, our challenge is not to “fake it till we make it.” Instead, it is to speak the truth and treat others fairly. We move up by moving down, as we discover that true greatness comes from serving others.