Cynicism: a healthy option?
Cynicism comes from a good place: high standards. High standards are a gift of God, calling us to be our best and do our best for him. And high standards are a gift of God, as we want and work what is best in ourselves, our families, our societies, our schools, universities, homes, and work-places. How wonderful to see beyond the second-rate, and third-rate, and the squalid.
But cynicism is a dangerous way to express those standards. It gives us the luxury of being right without the responsibility of working for change. It gives us the pleasure of effortless superiority. It gives us the joy of being firmly at home with our fellow cynics, without the responsibility of employing those high standards positively. And it leads us to arrogance, as we forget that any insight, any ability, any wisdom we have is a gift of God, and not a sign of our superiority. Cynicism is the worst response to high standards. For it is entirely pessimistic, and uses that pessimism to condemn others and to opt out of personal responsibility. As Oscar Wilde said, a cynic knows ‘the cost of everything and the value of nothing.’ High standards which are unproductive are destructive, both of the cynic and those she or he despises, and so destructive of community and positive change..
Cynicism gives us the luxury of being right without the responsibility of working for change. It gives us the pleasure of effortless superiority. High standards which are unproductive are destructive, both of the cynic and those she or he despises
Those of us engaged in Christian ministry are especially prone to cynicism or despair: we have such high expectations—and such wonderful goals because of God’s gospel promises. Sometimes, too, we have delusions about our own gifts and abilities! But ministry is hard work, and we often do not see the results we expect.
But this is, of course, just what we should expect according to the Bible. It assures us that God’s gospel is powerful, but it also tells us that we will not see the results of our ministry until Christ returns. It warns us that we cannot guarantee or achieve those results ourselves; that only God gets to decide how he will use us; and that our own sin and the sin of others will hamper our ministry. The Christian life is a test of faith, love and hope: any ministry we do for others is a greater test of faith, love, and hope.
The Ugliness of Cynicism
I am a natural cynic, and so have to work hard to fight against it. I remember meeting a Christian minister in Oxford who was a complete cynic. He was cynical about himself, his ministry, his fellow-workers, the people he ministered to, the ministry he worked for, and other Christian ministries and churches in Oxford. It was not a pretty sight—and a great warning to me to work hard lest I end up in the same condition!
By way of contrast, the man who converted, discipled and mentored me (and many others) had an extraordinary combination of high standards for us; and also absolute compassion and understanding and support when we failed. He was a wonderful model of ministry.
Paths to Cynicism
The anger that results in cynicism usually come from discouragement and disillusionment. As this anger spreads from the original cause it becomes universal: we may have become disillusioned in a particular situation but soon find that disillusionment elsewhere as well, because we experience what we expect.
When people are angry and so cynical, I explain to them that at the heart of anger lies hurt. Anger is a generally unhealthy response to being hurt. Instead we should bear it gladly, take it to God, or talk about it with the person who has hurt us and try to resolve the matter. So too, we should bring our discouragement and disillusionment to God, who is the Father of mercy and the God of all comfort/consolation (2 Cor 1:3). He is the source and giver of every kind of comfort/consolation, and also the source and giver of as much as we need!
We should bring our discouragement and disillusionment to God. He is the source and giver of every kind of comfort/consolation, and also the source and giver of as much as we need!
(n.b. Of course there is positive anger on behalf of others, and positive anger which leads to bringing about change. And sometimes when people are abused, they need to become angry in order to escape their abuser. In this case anger is a healthy escape from victimhood).
Here are some other signs that your high standards are producing toxic responses:
- You feel Increasing depression, as you realise that you yourself do not reach the high standards you set for others, and that no one else will either.
- You find yourself increasingly isolated, or seeking continued reinforcement from fellow-cynics.
- You have reacted to your disappointment by settling for low or no standards altogether.
- You conceal a defiant pride and sense of superiority.
- You are persistently angry with others, yourself, and God.
Cynicism: the long-term cure
Reflect on the significance of Jesus’ words from the Beatitudes (Matt 5-7):
- ‘Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment … whoever says “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire.’
- ‘Love your enemies …’
- ‘if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses’
- ‘Judge not that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged…’
- ‘whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…’
- ‘first take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’
- it is easier to see how a job should be done well when you are not doing it yourself;
- having high standards is one thing, but implementing them in every part of your life is a bit more challenging;
- it is always easier to see the sins of others than your own sins. And remember that you cannot use the sins of others to excuse your own sin;
- having high standards for others and being intolerant of them may lead you to intolerance with yourself, and so to despair;
- your high standards may be even higher than God’s standards, and that he is patient, compassionate, accepting, and loving, even when people don’t deserve it;
- low standards in an institution become part of the culture of that institution, and that even well-meaning and good-intentioned individuals can be caught up in that culture without realising it;
- God is the judge, and you are not. Don’t do his job;
- God loves people of low standards, and even of no standards!
Remember that God loves people of low standards, and even of no standards!
- praying everyday for the people you condemn;
- trusting that God is capable of sorting out his world, and of keeping it going with flawed people in charge;
- asking God to give you wisdom to know what are his standards for these people in this situation;
- praying for personal cultural and systemic change in the institution you are concerned about;
- forgiving others as you have been forgiven by God in Christ;
- praying that you would put to death the works of the flesh in your life, and bring forth the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-26);
- loving others as you have been loved by God;
- working and praying to effect some changes where you yourself have responsibility, which would improve the situation. This can either be setting up new structures which reflect those high standards, or working to transform present structures, with new people, systems, and cultures.
Some other things to consider:
- Remember CS Lewis’ words: ‘To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you’.
- Accept that personal change and transformation takes a long time!, and so, be patient with yourself and with others.
- Remember that: ‘love is patient and kind … it is not arrogant or rude …it is not irritable or resentful… it does not rejoice at wrongdoing … bears all things …’ (1 Cor 13).
- Remember that:
- If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
- If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:6-9).
- And cynicism is one aspect of sin and unrighteousness.
- Know God’s gracious forgiveness and cleansing of your sin, even your habitual sins. God is never tired of forgiving us our sins!
- Love God, and love your neighbour!
Remember CS Lewis’ words: ‘To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you’.
Here are some Bible verses to meditate on, and turn into prayers:
‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 15:13]).
‘We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1:2,3).
‘We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel’ (Colossians 1:3-5).
Here are two prayers I use regularly to protect myself against cynicism:
Praise and worship: I praise and worship you gracious God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for you are full of glory, holiness, power, justice, beauty, love, mercy, grace, compassion, and faithfulness. I praise you gracious Father, for your creation and preservation of the world, for your mercy to us in the atoning death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, for your truth revealed by your Holy Spirit in the Bible, for your church, for your gospel plan for the nations, for the hope of Christ’s return, and for the glory of your coming kingdom. I praise you for your great and precious gospel promises in the Lord Jesus Christ, for the gift of forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life, for adoption into your family, for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and for fellowship among your people.
Trust: Heavenly Father, I trust your love, grace and acceptance, and that you created and saved me to live for your glory. I trust in your Son Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world, and your gospel as your power for salvation for all who believe. I trust in your Son Jesus Christ as the holy, loving, powerful and generous saviour, head, lord, and judge of his church. I trust you as the just judge of all people, and that you will bring glory to yourself in the church and in Christ Jesus.
 Lewis, CS, Fern-seed and Elephants, London, Fontana Collins, 1975, p. 43