Sunday, March 30, 2008

The sin of cynicism

We live in a world fraught with examples of dishonesty, ill-intentions and hopeless attempts at self-definition. All you need to do is visit the front page of any newspaper to re-enforce your distrust of fellow human beings. The war in Iraq, AIDS in Africa, Global Warming, Russian cave cults, violence in Somalia, serial-killers, mines collapsing, North Korean missile tests...the list goes on and on.

Discouragement doesn't only exist in lands across an ocean or in cities far away; we experience it personally in every aspect of our days. Try to maintain any sense of innocence or optimism if you live in a city with traffic. And if you actually get to your office without losing your faith in humanity, it will probably not be more than a half an hour until a coworker has squashed all of your hope of human kindness. Let's not even start discussing calling a customer service hotline (can we just say Suncom doesn't 'get it') or visiting the DMV!

I wish that I could blame all of my lack of faith in humanity on the news or on driving in Charlotte. I am sure we all wish we could point to things too distant and separate from our hearts, but the things that really discourage us tend to be alot closer to home. Friendships that have been ruined because of misunderstandings, betrayals by those we trusted with the secrets of our hearts, peers who have waged war against our well being instead of guarding our souls against the deceits of the devil. Rejection, alienation, criticisms, withholding of forgiveness, gossip, slander and self-righteousness all separate us from each other. There is not one of us who hasn't experienced this side of human nature and not one of us who hasn't suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The question is, how do we respond?

I am so tired of the pithy cliches about human suffering. It is not that 'turning the other cheek' or 'give them your tunic too' isn't great advice, or that I question the rightness of such a response, but honestly, how often are our disappointments as clear-cut as a slap on the cheek or the stealing of your cloak? Most of the time our wounds are inflicted much more subtly. It is not that we are not able to turn the other cheek when we are slapped, it is just that after being slapped around so many times it is hard not to flinch every time someone raises their hand (even if it is just to high-five us.)

We are cynical. Jaded. Cynicism is defined as:
An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others. A scornfully or jadedly negative comment or act: "She arrived at a philosophy of her own, all made up of her private notations and cynicisms" (Henry James).

After being smacked around so many times it is hard not to have an attitude of morbid expectation. When you feel you have constantly received the worst from people it is hard not to prepare for it. Through a series of events recently I have really come to ponder the sadness of self-fulfilled prophecy; when you expect people to disappoint you and to treat you poorly they usually do. How much of this is just a result of living in a sinful world and how much of it is predicated by our expectations? Where is God in the midst of our experiences of the world, and what is the response we should have toward these constant reminders of the failings of sinful humans?

Worldy wisdom says that understanding the pitfalls of the world you live in should help you avoid being hurt. I looked up quotes about cynicism and found the following:
The cynics are right nine times out of ten. or
Idealism is what precedes experience, cynicism is what follows. or
It's hard to argue against cynics - they always sound smarter than optimists because they have so much evidence on their side.
Cynics regarded everybody as equally corrupt... Idealists regarded everybody as equally corrupt, except themselves. or
Cynic, n: a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

Against such overwhelming experiential truths how do we respond with anything other than satisfaction when we have learned that life really is as bad as everyone else says? But the Bible warns us against worldly wisdom and sets it up as the opposite of God's grace, and warns us that God makes foolish the wisdom of this world. What then should our response be? How then do we live with wisdom in a world that repeatedly displays its unholiness; when even believers (and sometimes especially believers) seek to justify their own wrong doing by the sins of others?

I am far from being resolved in this issue and have a multitude of questions about how to address the deeply imbedded impulse to be cynical (particularly regarding the integrity of motives of my fellow Christians.) But, I have a few ideas that I am pondering:

1.) Recognize that cynicism is a sin. All of my intellectual training rebels against this conviction. Cynicism is my hiding place; it is my ability to keep the world at arms length and to stand back and laugh at the jerks that hurt me. Admitting that my cynicism is a sin means that I cannot justify myself in believing the worst of others (even perhaps when that worst is true).

There are several verses that have backed me into this corner. The first is the obvious 1 Corinthians passage (which I have visited and revisited so often this year.) Love believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things and it never fails. "always hopes" is the opposite of expecting disappointment. Biblical hope is not the crossing of fingers behind one's back while asking santa for a pony. Faith and hope are tied inextricably together throughout the New Testament, and faith is not 'wishful thinking' but certainty. Additionally, Hebrews 6 says that the promise of God's blessing is the hope that anchors our soul. I cannot (though I wish I could) see anyway that cynicism can co-exist with such a great and powerful hope.

2. Recognizing our own sins. Christ warns us about trying to remove the splinter from someone else's eye while ignoring the plank in our own. Personally, I know that it is easiest for me to point out the sins in another's life if they are the same ones that I struggle with myself. (Perhaps an intimate knowledge of those sins makes it so easy to recognize them in others, but also somehow seeing it in others makes it so much easier to justify it in myself.) I do not believe that one can deal with the sin of cynicism without addressing the sin of pride that assumes that while I believe the worst in others I am somehow spiritually evolved enough not to fall into the same traps myself. Clearly that justification is rubbish. We see in others what we are most afraid of addressing in ourselves. (ie: My certainty of the unteachableness (the intractableness) in others is almost always a sure sign that I am currently being stubborn and unyielding myself.)

3. Cynicism thrives on deception. Without the existence of deceit there would be no need for cynicism. While I can do nothing about the state of the world around me, I can most certainly pray for wisdom in recognizing the deceit in my own life. James 3 defines wisdom:
17But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
To eliminate deception (and we know that Satan is the father of lies) we have to make sure that we are not holding on to the very lack of integrity we expect to see in others. 1 Peter 2:1 says, "1Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. 2Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation." I cannot remain hopeful in a world fraught with dishonesty if I continue to harbor malice, hypocrisy and slander in my heart (especially towards those who have wronged me.)

I am still working through and thinking through these things, and I am struggling in a very tangible way with how to apply these thoughts to the broken life I lead. The selfish and insecure part of me wants to stand back triumphantly everytime the world disappoints me, wagging my finger and saying, "I told you so." But the part of me that cries out to praise God for my redemption cannot worship him euphorically while I continually doubt his ability to redeem others. This is no small platitude. Learning to address this sin that runs to the very core of my identity and taints everything I put my hand to is not simply a case of wearing a WWJD wristband. This sin is so huge and so pervasive that I feel hopelss in ever rooting it all out, but I have to believe in my new found commitment to hope that God is just as capable of cleaning the garbage out of my soul as He is in saving me from the pit of hell. I have to believe it, because otherwise I have no anchor.

I don't know what I will think tomorrow when I check the news, or when I walk into staff meeting, or watch my students in their struggle to become young adults. I do know that tomorrow I will wake up in the same broken and twisted world that I fell asleep in tonight, but I pray with the deepest gut-wrenching, bowel-aching soul-pain I have felt in a long time that I will choose not to shield myself from the perils of life with my sinful cynicism, but that I will embrace this broken world with the confidence that God is not finished with His work of redemption and that the blessings He has promised are true and imminent, and that I will (and am) see(ing) the
goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.