Cynicism Is Not Wisdom
“Cynicism is the air we breath, and it is suffocating our hearts.” That’s true on cable news shows, that’s true even in many church leadership meetings, and sadly, that’s often been true of my own heart. Paul Miller wrote it on page 82 of his book, A Praying Life, which I said I would read, so I am. I started a month or so ago and, even though I haven’t loved every turn, there are occasional, exceptional views that keep me from jumping out of the car.
In chapter 10, “Following Jesus out of Cynicism,” Miller opens a window to dispel the smoke of skepticism and suspicion in order to give our prayers fresh air.
Cynicism kills hope. The world of the cynic is fixed and immovable; the cynic believes we are swept along by forces greater than we are. Dreaming feels like so much foolishness. Risk becomes intolerable. Prayer feels pointless, as if we are talking to the wind. Why set ourselves and God up for failure? (85)
Negativity triggers like a safety mechanism of the flesh. But cynicism is not protective or effective, not in the supernatural life. “You don’t have to distance yourself with an ironic, critical stance” (83). The cynic withdraws from people who might possibly disappoint or hurt him (some day), but Solomon says that the man who isolates himself is selfish and rages against all sound wisdom (Proverbs 18:1). A shot of cynicism immunizes us from what makes us most healthy. Iron sharpens iron in contact. Hiding in the sheath all day makes our hearts dull.
Cynicism is not realism. Doubt redefined as wisdom doesn’t fly any higher than my house does after affixing wing stickers on the outside.
Cynicism looks reality in the face, calls it phony, and prides itself on its insight as it pulls back. Thanksgiving looks reality in the face and rejoices at God’s care. (90)
The cynic grumbles about all the bad; “Oh, the depravity!” His policy is to see the nightmare in every situation. But, according to God’s Word, God is still on the throne, God’s will is not thwarted, God is still working each and every thing for believers’ good and His glory. Not only does cynicism snuff out trust in God, it is also disobedient to the degree that it delays or distracts us from thanking God. The wise are thankful, not cynical. We must watch out for “bitterness, the stepchild of cynicism” (89), and spend more time with the daughters of gratitude.
With our pride well wounded halfway through the chapter, Miller then stabs deeper with C.S. Lewis’ finger. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man:
You cannot go on “explaining away” for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it….If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is not the same as not to see. (quoted in A Praying Life, 91)
“[Cynics] assume they are humble because they offer nothing. In fact, they feel deeply superior because they think they see through everything” (91). The Pharisees thought they saw best only because they were blind (cf. John 9:39-41).
Everyone fears something, and the object of fear separates wise men from fools. The cynic fears exposure of his own weaknesses, attacks from the small-minded, redirected or unsuccessful endeavors, all leading to loss of influence or esteem. That means he isn’t fearing the LORD, and that means cynicism isn’t wisdom (cf. Proverbs 1:7).
Maybe worst of all, cynics wear clothes from the hypocrite’s closet.
A significant source of cynicism is the fracture between my heart and my behavior. It goes something like this: My heart gets out of tune with God, but life goes on. So I continue to perform and say Christian things, but they are just words. I talk about Jesus without the presence of Jesus. There is a disconnect between what I present and who I am. My words sound phony, so other’s words sound phony too. In short, my empty religious performance leads me to think that everyone is phony. (91-92)
That’s a worldly wardrobe, and certainly no outfit for a pastor like myself. So, “While attempting to unmask evil, the cynic creates it” (93). Claiming to be wise, the cynic exchanges the glory of gospel power for the water pistol of pessimism. Cynicism keeps us from fear of the LORD, faith, joy, sacrifice, friendships, accountability, prayer, and love. That’s not smart.
Lord, help me to have serpent insight and dove innocence. Give me hopeful wisdom grounded in gospel promises and guard me from proud cynicism. Help me trust that You see what I see, that You see beyond what I see.