Why Christians Need to Be Cynical Sometimes

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I used to work at this nonprofit that had some pretty difficult leadership. I don’t mean the leaders made it hard to take a vacation. They did that, but they also, for example, hatched elaborate plans to create conflict between the staff and the board… crazy, soap opera stuff like that.

I became cynical (too cynical at times), doubting anything potentially good that came from them.

church-blue-sky

Having gone through my own “breaking in” period, I watched many new employees pass through the same process. They’d arrive feeling elated to have a job at this great nonprofit. They had plans. They had dreams. They saw so many possibilities.

I knew what was coming, even if a small part of me hoped it wouldn’t happen.

And about two or three weeks in, they’d get the first inkling that something isn’t right. I’d watch their eyes grow wide at a staff meeting while the rest of us resorted to our learned reflex—stone silence.

A week or two later they’d go from office to office asking their fellow employees, “Has something like this happened to you?”

* * *

When you’ve seen people make selfish or destructive decisions that are smoke screened as being best for a group or an organization, a little bit of cynicism is warranted.

I’ve seen too many self-aggrandizing Christian leaders who claim their work is all about building up God and others, when, in reality, they are deeply concerned with their own image.

I’ve seen far too many Christians who claim they care about the Kingdom, when what they really mean is who you vote for.

I myself have played the part of the all-knowing critic, when all I knew was what didn’t work, failing to provide anything constructive.

And gosh, don’t we all need a friendly cynic to slap us sometimes?

Cynicism has a place in Christianity.

Yes, we should hope, love, and pray without ceasing. Yes, we should imagine a better future and join God’s Kingdom work of healing and restoring lives.

However, sometimes we need to see things as they truly are before we can hope for, imagine, and live in God’s Kingdom.

Cynicism has a very small and limited place in the church, but I’d like to suggest that it can help us move from unrealistic expectations and into the reality of loving imperfect people.

Much like our wide-eyed new employees at that nonprofit, Christians tend to enter a church with high hopes and dreams for what their community could be. I’ve been there.

When I’ve started attending churches, I imagined that I would NEVER get angry at a leader or be disappointed by a teacher. I thought we would always get along, banding together for the common cause of the Gospel, carrying the weak and supporting the struggling along the way.

While we never want to assume the worst of people, a little cynicism can help deflate our overinflated expectations. Cynicism can be like a little pressure gauge that tells you a tire is a over-inflated. If you don’t let out a little air, it could pop at the first sign of trouble.

If I could belabor another analogy, a small dose of cynicism can act like a vaccine. A little bit of cynicism in a controlled dose can help us see ourselves and the people around us for who we are.

 

* * *

I wasn’t always a “limited” cynic. I was optimistic and hopeful to a fault.

Do you know what happens to us when we aren’t prepared for Christians to let us down?

We’ll be betrayed by friends and leaders. We’ll be disappointed by decisions. We’ll feel left out. We’ll start to despair.

Wasn’t this supposed to be a safe and holy place? Aren’t we all part of one body?

You take the pain and disappointments, and then you start to overthink a lot of stuff.

You toss out both the good and the bad. You ask all of the hard questions you’ve been dreading. You piss off a bunch of people. You can’t sit through a church service because it’s all too much to process. Well-meaning people bring back bad memories of past hurts and failures in the church. You become a bit ashamed that you couldn’t make church work. You feel silly for believing certain things. You’re angry that your church couldn’t have been a better place for you. You envy the people who can make church work, and you start to hate them for it.

I kept rethinking my choices, wondering what I could have changed. If only this or that could have been different… If only we were more like the early church, like Paul, like Jesus, like James, like John, or like our favorite theologian!

Our regrets taint our aspirations, making it impossible to hope.

I had to face what was flawed all along. I had to see people for who they are. I had to rethink what theology could do.

I felt trapped by my disappointments, but once I faced the issues we’ll always find among Christians, I was able to break free from what felt hopeless. I felt like I could start over again once I’d faced the worst of the Christian faith and church experience.

That’s the thing about cynicism. It can really help for a season. Sometimes we need to ask hard questions and to dismantle the false expectations that get in the way of loving God and other people.

Cynicism is not a long term strategy for Christians. It won’t serve us well in the long run.

Living with our pain and disappointments will just force us to relive our pain over and over again.

Sometimes you need to get the toxic parts of your faith out of your system. We need to recognize what has and will fail us and call it out. We need to recognize where we’ve come from and what we have become if we want to become someone different.

I will never criticize someone who needs to be cynical, step out of church, or wrestle with doubts for a season. While we should always move toward redemption, part of that movement is honesty. In fact, honesty is the essential first step.

Those living in a cynical season would certainly do well to avoid making sweeping statements or picking lots of fights. I know that I regret pontificating when I lacked few answers and only had questions and critiques.

Some have passed through a cynical season and returned to the faith. Others have found cynicism to be a door on the way out of the faith. Either way, I don’t see cynicism as the problem at that point. Cynicism becomes a problem when it becomes a lifestyle, a default way of engaging our world.

The moment we realize something about Christianity isn’t working for us, we’ll only move toward freedom if we can confront it honestly. There are some Christians today who are afraid to ask those hard questions, to confront what hasn’t worked in their faith, and to step away from it for a season, and I’ve watched some of them grow frustrated and resentful toward the church. Something is already broken. If being a good Christian means stuffing away their misgivings, disappointments, and doubts, they’ll just drift further away from God any way.

Once I faced the parts of the Christian faith that are flawed and broken, I was finally able to look for life elsewhere. That’s when I finally found the freedom that I didn’t even realized I craved.

Of course people are selfish.

Of course church leaders will make mistakes.

Of course our theology will hit dead ends.

These things shouldn’t surprise us.

What will surprise us is that Jesus still welcomes us when we’re cynical, when our arms are crossed, and our spirits weary. Yes, we may have our cynicism to deal with when it comes to our fellow Christians, but he is still calling us to trust him with faith like a child.

Perhaps that’s where this all started to fall apart for me.

I trusted people with faith like a child, when in reality, God alone is worthy of that trust.

The greatest mistake I could ever make is to transfer any of my fears or disappointments from people onto God.

* * *

Have you grown cynical about Christianity?

Where can you still find hope and life?

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8 thoughts on “Why Christians Need to Be Cynical Sometimes

  1. Jeff

    Ed, I can definitely understand where you are coming from here. I relate to entering new Christian opportunities with a bright, shiny sense of idealism that eclipses even optimism only to be let down by reality. The truth is that every institution here on earth is broken – even the church – because they are all ran by broken people with sinful natures. So, even those that are truly trying to follow Jesus fall short. Not only that, I believe we are actively opposed by the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms mentioned in Ephesians 6:12. As this verse also points out, our struggles are not against flesh and blood (i.e. people), our fight is against the darkness that they’ve succumb to. So, we have to offer grace even when we don’t feel like it to those lost souls, like the ones you mention above, that regularly squash our idealism. As you say, God alone is worthy of our trust, hope and obedience. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. KTamas

    This reminds of something that NBW wrote in Pastrix:

    “But I have learned something by belonging to two polar-opposite communities—Albion Babylon and the Church of Christ—and I wanted them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.

    Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.”

    I *loved* this part and it resonates with what you wrote. I wish every church would say a disclosure like this for new members.

    Your post also resonated with me because I did just go through the first big argument with one of our church leaders (going there for about a year now) over something that bothered me for months — it was a huge amount of miscommunication on both ends, nevertheless, it started to make me cynical and kind of angry. Now that we settled that, I (well, we both) feel much better.

    I am still somewhat cynical with certain matters but I have accepted those as me being realistic.

  3. Kelly J Youngblood

    I went through a cynical time and occasionally still have bouts of cynicism. I think it was necessary at the time and sometimes still is. But to live in cynicism with no effort or hope to get through it is dangerous. I am not sure exactly what led me out of it. I think it was a slow process, and probably being able to blog about my thoughts and questions helped. What you wrote makes me think of the verse “Be angry but do not sin”. I’m being lazy and not looking up the context to see if it actually applies but that’s what thought came to me. We can use anger and cynicism as tools, I think, but when we focus on the tools and not what they are used for, then i think we’ve got a problem.

  4. Kent Faver

    I don’t know – maybe sometimes I’m cynical about my cynicism. I just finished a year at my church as Board Chairman. In my denomination that means that, essentially, many final decisions were mine, and most complaints were forwarded to me.

    I learned a lot. Two things I did which helped were: 1) I tried to minimize or downplay any disappointment in someone else’s actions or motives. I did better than I thought, but failed many times in that endeavor. 2) I also always tried to completely empty myself of all emotion before I responded to someone. DItto on results, but in that area I did much better than I thought I would. Now, I’m just really watching my level of cynicism and am trying to keep it in check. Thanks Ed!

  5. Denise

    Ed, I appreciate this piece. I experienced a huge disappointment a year and a half ago in my Christian faith. The failing of a leader I deeply trusted and respected felt like a betrayal. Although the scandal occurred several states away and really didn’t affect me in any way, it felt personal. This event caused me to dig more deeply than I had before into the past of the organizations in which I had previously been involved, and of course I learned a few ugly things that really turned my cynicism on hard. It took me a while to step back and be able to separate myself from the attitude of distrust and skepticism that I found myself so entrenched in. I feel now that I had put too much trust in “man.” I wouldn’t have believed it before, but after experiencing such wrenching emotions because of other people’s sins, people who I revered, I know I had certain people on a pedestal that only belongs to Christ.
    The cynicism I still hang on to now helps me sort out the fluff… Things people say or teach that are just opinion, or little mistakes people make that are just part of being human. I question everything I hear from a pulpit now, and I don’t feel bad for not agreeing with everything I hear.
    Thanks for writing this. It made me feel like my experience is normal.

  6. Herm

    CYNICAL

    1. believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.

    2. concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards in order to achieve them.

    I submit that throughout the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as extremely cynical. He was clearly misunderstood by even those closest to Him who thought He was teaching only for the good of the chosen few and could not then conceive, as He did, of the good for the whole of Man. Jesus was at that Earthly time a direct living influential member of Man as are we each today.

    If we are truly learned disciples of Jesus Christ we must, by His example, be concerned and lovingly cynical of ourselves when some of our living relational techniques do not influence for the whole health of Man as one entity. Biblically one Man was created in the image of one God.

    Man survives due to the efforts of loving neighbors and the divine Parental intervention of God for the whole single self of Man: including but not limited to members Black and White, Muslim and Christian, Male and Female, Gay and Straight, etc.. Each of us is a flawed member of one Man, created in the image of one God, who will die to this Earth. It is my objective that our self as Man on Earth will live well beyond the self I first knew in the womb as me. Toward all other self interests (theirs, yours and/or mine) less than to the whole of Man as one I am cynical hopefully for the good of our whole.

  7. Anne

    I sometimes feel like I am cynical about other Christians, but not about what I think Christianity is as God meant it to be. I’m okay with that, though, because we are told to “test the spirits” in 1 John, and Jesus himself said “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). So while I don’t know if cynical is quite the right word, we are called to be shrewd and to question others who claim the name of Christian.

  8. Jenn

    I am in a season of doubt and questions right now. I really, really appreciate this post. I’ve been here before but each time it hits like a ton of bricks and the road feels empty and endless. Thank you for some space to breathe.

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