It’s hard to get through life without becoming cynical. Without becoming distrustful and convinced that people are just out for themselves or their own ends. Without becoming hard bitten because we often see people act without integrity or concern for others. But can you be a christian and be a cynic? Cynicism and it’s half cousin apathy are rife in society and in the church, I was going to write about apathy, but I can’t be bothered, so today I want us to think through some of the outworkings of being cynical.
We need to acknowledge that there are reasons we become cynical. People do let us down, in a world marred and scarred by sin, even those closest to us don’t always have altruistic motives or act out of love. I wonder if the root of cynicism in the Christian is that we haven’t fully worked out the doctrine of sin in all humanity and of progressive sanctification in our believing brothers and sisters that doesn’t naively expect perfection but holds out grace and forgiveness. And so we live in this world blanketed in a miasma of cynicism, breathing in its fog, until eventually we inhale it and breath it out too without even realising it. But it has real and dangerous consequences for us, our church and the unreached.
God is not cynical about humanity, his creation or his purposes. God has a plan and it is unbreakable. He knows it’s timeframe, he knows the milestones, and it is on track and it ought to suffuse us with abundant hope! One of the first casualties of our cynicism is our faith in God. Cynicism makes us doubt God’s goodness – a doctrine we need to recover in its robust gloriousness. God is almost too good be to true and so because others we thought that of let us down we turn our weary cynicism on God and assume he will too – when suffering hits isn’t that part of the weariness and the worry? Cynicism warps God into less that his holy, holy, holy trustworthiness and loving kindness. Cynicism allows us to wrongly believe that Jesus didn’t face what I’m going through – he didn’t have a smart phone with all its attendant pressures and temptations, he didn’t have my working week, my family, to navigate Christian online dating, face the choice of gas for heat or hot food. Cynicism isolates us from God, robs God of his majesty, and importantly sinfully fails to believe in the hope that we have been given. Cynicism will mean we don’t pray because we’re not sure God has the will or the power to act. Cynicism separates us from God and the joy that is found in resting in him.
Secondly we become cynical about the church. If we’ve been hurt once we become more sensitive to being hurt again. And let’s be honest the church has done its fair share of making mistakes and inflicting wounds on people. There are things the church needs to repent of, abuses that need calling out and dealing with in the light because sin festers and spreads in the darkness. And there are pastoral situations mishandled which aren’t at the level of abuse but are hurtful mistakes or missteps that pastors need to repent of and ask specific individuals for forgiveness for – I know because I’ve had to do just that. And that does not please God. Cynical Christians will respond by leaving the church, withholding forgiveness, and viewing every Church and even God’s glorious picture of his people through that cynicism tainted lens. But I think in our cynical society we’re seeing cynical Christians who are becoming cynical about church because of what they hear about churches rather than what they experience. Predisposed to cynicism and isolation and fearful of community they are easily shaped by what they hear from others which knocks the church. I’m not suggesting covering up things, absolute not, the gospel means we contend for those who are oppressed and abused and harmed, we seek justice, we want to see the church changed to become a haven of hope and healing. But second hand hurt, third hand hurt, and salacious devouring of such things further shape a heart already preprogrammed towards cynicism.
As pastors and church leaders we’ve played a part in that, we set grand visions for our churches – almost but not quite sanctifying it with a ‘thus says the Lord’ that kind of align with scripture but are more prescriptive than scripture is because we buy into the corporate target driven nature of the world around us. When we fail it fuels cynicism. Wouldn’t it be better to just stick to what God calls us to do – makes disciple making disciples by teaching all of scripture applicably to all of life to everyone? Or we fuel cynicism in the idealised way we talk about church and the picture the bible paints of it which is as lopsided as Quasimodo. Rather than drawing out the beauty of the church and the reality of the fight for that to be realised which we see in the Epistles as the believers in Corinth struggle to live out their faith and throw off the cultural sins of their day, as the Galatians are in danger of becoming enmired in legalism and losing the gospel, as the Ephesians need the gospels full impact on race relations explained to them and applied in detail. The church in the New Testament is beautiful but it is beautiful because of the grace and shed blood of the one who died to redeem it, because of the work of grace that is constantly being done again and again in the church as God hangs his ‘Spirit at work’ sign over his church. It is not the beauty of finished perfection, but the certain hope of finished perfection being worked on by the God who can and will accomplish that. Pastors lets preach that far more glorious vision of God’s church so that we don’t create Christian cynics and so that weary people find rest for their souls in Jesus not just more performance management targets to hit.
Lastly, one other area I think christian cynicism injects its deadly venom is in our outreach. Cynicism makes us fearful of failure and wary of risk. We are cynical about peoples response to the gospel. Pastor be honest when did you last preach the gospel and expect (not hope) souls to be saved? Be honest with yourself. When did we last go to work or the shops, or school and expect to have a conversation with someone about our faith? We are deeply cynical about people’s response to the gospel because the world shapes us to be deeply cynical about the gospel. Even now you’re thinking – but they don’t want to hear – your cynicism at work. We hear again and again about the unchurched nature of the UK, about how hard it is to reach people with the gospel and that makes us cynical, we may have shared the gospel and been rejected, we may have faced hostility from family or friends and that makes us cynical. It’s brilliant strategy by Satan because he’s shut our mouths before we open them. But part of the problem is that we think of sharing the gospel as a one shot hail Mary not a long slow walk in the direction of Jesus. I remember someone in a previous church who’s wife and the church witnessed to him for 23 years before him came to faith, but then he found Jesus and the next day went into the yard from which he drove lorries and told everyone about Jesus. 23 years of being loved, seeing the gospel lived out, seeing church live out life together with grace, ask questions, be disinterested and even outright hostile sometimes before he came to faith. Cynicism would have written him off long before then. Have we?
The cynicism in outreach also plays out in our failing as churches to reach the unreached. We look at the council estates of the UK, we hear the stories of knife crime and chaos, and a culture we just don’t understand. We hear the prejudiced and jaundiced reports in the media about such estates and assume the gospel could never win a hearing there. That’s in part why the church has largely abandoned the deprived and working class communities of the UK. It’s why we plant churches in student areas and in University towns and among the middle classes with a regularity and ease that ought to shame us when we compare that to the number we fail to plant in areas of deprivation and working class. Our cynicism means we don’t really think the gospel is for them, or we haven’t really thought through what the gospel and discipleship will mean in those areas. As church leaders and denominations we fear the failure which is a very real possibility if we plant in such areas, especially if we plant without a long term strategy and commitment for ongoing decade by decade support of churches in such areas.
Christian cynicism? It is an oxymoron, it ought not to be. So how do we fight it. We need to call it out for what it is and the be honest about the devastating impact it is having on us, our churches and the lost in the UK. We need to repent of it – all of us if we look deeply enough or ask others to examine us will find it lurking in our hearts. And we counter it by holding a robust realistic view of sin and it’s impact in the world, and a robust and glorious view of the hope to which we are being called and kept certainly for, and an honest and awed view of the church in which God is at work by his Spirit so that we are transformed into the image of his Son and shine light into the darkness.