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.
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?”
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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.
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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.
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Have you grown cynical about Christianity?
Where can you still find hope and life?