“Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are not as they ought to be.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary
“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”
– George Carlin
“Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes’.”
– Stephen Colbert, Knox College Commencement Address
“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
– Oscar Wilde
“Cynicism and anger have nothing to do with satire or humor, at least good satire and humor.”
– Joel Kilpatrick, God, That’s Funny
– Carl Trueman, The Price of Everything
“Cynicism is the attitude that encapsulates the ethos of twenty-somethings par excellence. It is, I think, the most covert negative emotion. We harbor it in Christian garb: cynicism toward immature men (“man-boys”), hipsters, a denomination or movement, clichés, and a thousand other things.
Cynicism is so undetectable because it is so justifiable. It wears a mask of insight and godliness, but it conceals festering wounds of harbored bitterness against God and neighbor. We need to understand cynicism, because the masks we wear tell us about the wounds we hide, and point us to the Savior who yearns to mend them.
Aspects of Cynicism
As with any concept, it is best to begin with a clear definition. For our purposes, we will define cynicism this way:
The emotional disposition of distrust or rejection toward a particular idea, person, or group as a result of negative experiences (either directly or indirectly).
Cynicism has five basic components.
At the root of cynicism is a lack of joy, combined with a desire for pleasure. Cynicism is the concoction of indifference and discontentment. It is teenage apathy turned sour through the hardships of life as a twenty-something (the quarter-life crisis being the expiration date). Cynicism is pointed apathy. It is an emotional rocket launcher mounted on a La-Z-Boy. The cynic is the guy who finds a reason to leave a church that he doesn’t care about in order to cover a reputation that he does care about.
At the root of cynicism is a lack of love. The cynic places the highest premium on their own analysis of the world. Cynicism is Descartes’ principle of doubt in the hands of self-protective fear—transformed from “I think, therefore I am” to “I think you’re dumb.” From ergo sum to “Eh, forget you…” It is easier for a woman to explain her singleness in terms of male immaturity than it is to face the possibility of being unwanted.
At the root of cynicism is misdirected devotion. Cynicism is an inverted emotional liturgy. It is a dull, stubborn fixation on something or someone. It is not a fit or fury, nor is it brash. It is slight and subtle—rolled eyes, raised eyebrows, curled lips, and, beneath it all, it is a low-lit anxiety burning deep in the chest. Cynicism is an enunciated rarefaction in affection; a doxological dark matter.
At the root of cynicism is isolation. The presumption of cynicism is not that it condescends from “up there,” but that it disapproves from nowhere. It scorns from a safe and comfortable nothingness which is so empty and contentless that it cannot be retaliated against. A healthy response to suffering builds something new when the old is taken away. Cynicism thinks building is for losers because Johnny likes building and Johnny is a jerk. End of story.
At the root of cynicism is a host of bad experiences. Cynicism, despite its very active nature, is usually a result of truly bad experiences of suffering, resulting in legitimate concerns. It is never instantaneously spawned — it is always the result of time. Cynicism is longsuffering, because with every mistake, with every stupid thing said, with every hurtful thing done, it seeks to mount enough evidence to launch an everlasting, irrevocable counter-offense of justified negative emotion. Cynics are cornered sufferers who have turned their shields into blunt swords.
Redeeming the Cynic
Because the heart is so multifaceted, and thusly cynicism also, Christ’s redemption arrives in a multiform fashion. So, unlike love, which has a clear opposite (selfishness), cynicism is much more complex (it is not simply the opposite of hope, or idealism).
Here are a few things that Christ can provide to help the cynic.
Cynicism is not merely disapproval—it is the need to continually disapprove of “them.” And this incessant desire to reject “them” can come from a lack of processing pain that was experienced. In the case of suffering, the imprecatory prayers are a huge help. The cynic can pray, “They did this to me, and it was wrong. I hate them for it, I hand over my curses, my ill-wishes, and my disapproval to your omnipotence to curse, to ill-wish, and to disapprove, O God. I stand with you in your disapproval of that evil. Thank you for standing with me” (Psalm 5; 69; 109; Matthew 26:23–24; 2 Timothy 4:14). The imprecatory prayer relinquishes the power to punish over to the Righteous Judge. In a sense, in this case, Christ not only redeems the cynic, but affirms the validity of the original cynicism as well.
Essential to cynicism is an emptiness—a position that is empty enough to avoid criticism altogether. And yet, Christ provides resources to positively construct alternatives to wrongs that were done. Scripture provides a beginning point for “every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). If an idea is harmful, or a person is manipulative, or a group is destructive, a proper response is not to launch an emotional counterattack, but to construct a positive counteragent.
Proverbs 9:7 rightly says of the cynic, “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury” (see also Proverbs 18:9). In suffering, a scoffer finds an opportunity to retaliate—against the universe, neighbor, or God. Conversely, a wise man seeks satisfaction in rebuilding unto the Lord (Proverbs 12:14; 16:3), because his identity is in Christ (Ephesians 4:28–29).
Forgiveness is not always an option, but if it is, it is a worthy enterprise to undertake. In fact, forgiveness is such a divine act that it thwarts the plans of Satan himself (2 Corinthians 5:11). So, since it accomplishes such things, if there is a legitimate grievance underlying a cynic’s past experience, forgiveness can be a step towards fixing the root problem for the sake of the wrongdoer (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Forgiveness can initiate the backward inertia with which the love of the gospel propels healing (2 Corinthians 5:5–7). Paul rightly says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
The cynic is jaded and skeptical about certain people (maybe even all people) based on their participation in foolishness and evil. And yet, Christ offers a different meaning for those phenomena—a new interpretation. Folly and wickedness in this world are not impersonal forces, but take place on the playground of the human heart, in which God delights to work more than any other place (Psalm 141:4; Proverbs 24:12; Ezekiel 36:26). Thus, over against the cynic’s interpretation, depravity in others is not necessarily indicative of man’s inevitable degeneration, but a voice in the chorus of creation’s cry for redemption (Romans 8:22).
Ultimately, no virtue or action can stand on its own against the black hole of cynicism. Only the immensity of Christ’s joyful and benevolent personhood can stand against the void of scorn sedimented in the human heart (Romans 8:38–39). While cynicism often takes mundane and miniscule life-forms, the beauty of Christ’s person and work is that it is equally mundane and miniscule.
It is, in fact, in these small particles of life that the most besetting or redemptive realities take irrevocable root (James 3:14; Ephesians 6:6). Christ stands in these realities with deep sympathy and eager aspiration to encourage them “not to lose heart over…suffering, which is [their] glory” (Ephesians 3:13).
In the midst of apathy, a critical spirit, and a difficult personal history, Christ offers affirmation, purpose, and hope to the cynic.”
– Paul Maxwell, Putting Off Cynicism
“Trading your cynicism for hopeful realism doesn’t mean that you forget what you’ve learned, what’s been revealed to you by Christ, or the reality of the current state of affairs. It doesn’t mean that you set aside your doubts and uncertainty. It doesn’t mean you must compromise your convictions.
But it does mean that you allow the Lord to shine a light on the darkness that is overcoming the living hope of Christ within you, and that is keeping that hope from being fully expressed as resurrection life to others.
You cannot faithfully follow Christ and harbor bitterness toward any segment of the church. Imagining that certain groups or that organized Christianity is not the true church doesn’t justify this behavior.
Be loving, patient, kind, forgiving, and compassionate as Christ. There’s no room for cynicism in Christ. Give it up. It’s killing you. And it’s hurting the Body of Christ. You can’t effect change this way.
Let the Lord have your cynicism. Trade it in for hopeful realism.
What is hopeful realism? It’s Christ getting the last word on the matter. It’s reality being confronted by the Kingdom of God. It’s new life in the face of death. It allows us to see a world poised for resurrection.”
– David Flowers, On Christian Cynicism
– David Flowers, Faith Without Illusions
– David Flowers and Andrew Byers, Q&A With Andrew Byers
– Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint
– Andrew Byers, Is Christian Cynicism a Spiritual Sickness?
– Joel Willitts, Christian Cynics, The Future of the Church
“What’s particularly interesting is how cynical we’ve become about the Church itself. It’s common to see Christians roll their eyes or smirk when the topic of Church comes up in conversation. It’s as if we’ve lost confidence in the ability of human language to carry the freight of our disappointment with it. Sure, we might attend a church service now and then, but we would sooner fall out of an airplane than say something positive about it. Trawl the Christian blogosphere and you’ll see what I mean. We parody the “shoot” Christians say, produce spoofs of modern worship services, Instagram pictures of the smarmy things people post on church signs and ridicule the stuff Christian culture likes.
Don’t get me wrong; these caricatures of the Church and Christian culture are often funny. I mean, really funny. And what’s the harm? As G.K. Chesterton said, “It’s the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” But our satirization of the Church feels relentless, and the cover we take behind the “just kidding” defense only works for so long before the veil frays and the gauzy silhouette of our cynicism becomes visible.
This brings us to a dilemma: Jesus loves the Church. Scripture says He died for her. So how can we love Jesus yet feel so cynical about His Bride that we tirelessly ridicule her like she’s the subject of a Comedy Central roast?
So what can a premodern saint like St. Francis of Assisi teach postmodern Christians about how to overcome their cynicism?
First, be realists, not idealists. George Carlin once said, “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.” We need to see the Church for what it actually is, not what we thought it would be. We have to acknowledge that our disillusionment with the Church is an admission that we had illusions about it. Did we uncritically believe the Church would be a Utopian oasis? Did we lapse into cynicism when it failed to live up to our expectations?
Every community you enter into in this ruined world will eventually disappoint you, embarrass you and break your heart. This includes your marriage, your family, the company you work for and even your closest friends. What makes us think the Church won’t let us down in a similar way? A lot of what makes us cynical toward the Church goes away when we abandon our illusions about it.
Second, be critics, not cynics. The Church needs bold critics to call it out when it goes off the rails. When it’s time to criticize the Church, however, we need to do it like the Old Testament prophets who, as Walter Brueggemann observed, were careful not only to criticize, but also to energize people to work toward a hope-filled future. Cynics stand just close enough to the Church so it can hear their discouraging complaints, but not so close that they have to roll up their sleeves to inspire and help make change happen.
Third, Model it. Francis told his brothers never to carp about the Church. He believed the best way to overhaul something was to keep quiet and simply do it better. To adapt a quote from Gandhi: “Seek to be the change you wish to see in the Church.” This approach requires conscious effort while cynicism requires none at all. Let your actions speak louder than your words, and perhaps the example of your life will win over the hardened hearts of cynics and awaken the Church to its need to change.
In some ways, cynicism for us is like water for fish—we’re so used to it that it’s hard to talk about it objectively. But if we’re going to get serious about moving on from a brief but very destructive era in this generation’s attitude toward the Church, we’re going to have to do the difficult work of living radical lives. The results may take some time, but it will help usher in something we have needed for a long time. A whole new age: the era of post-cynical Christianity.”
– Ian Morgan Cron, Post-Cynical Christianity
– Fred Smith, Overcoming Cynicism
– David Burchett, Cynicism Is Not A Spiritual Gift?
– Jim Wallis, The Post-Cynical Christian
– John Sartelle, The Altar of Cynicism