Watch out for Cynicism

By Pastor Bob Myers

There is a lot of emphasis on not looking old, on not looking your age even as your body racks up laps around the sun. But who is talking about not allowing age to ravage and diminish our personalities?! Who is writing to warn us of how the gravity of time will, without some supernatural intervention, cause our character to have sags and wrinkles and sunspots and blemishes.

I recently challenged us to think of the kind of 80-year-old we wanted to be. Not many eighty-somethings live in the mushy middle.  By the time you’re eighty, your habits, experiences and disposition can become pretty well set on being a curmudgeon or being cynical

Recently I read Carey Nieuwhof’s worthwhile and insightful book, “Didn’t See It Coming”. He has a chapter on getting trapped in cynicism. I found his statement on how we become vulnerable to cynicism very insightful:  “Cynicism begins not because you don’t care but because you do care.”

I can identify with that statement very much.  Cynicism takes hold through disappointments.

He explains the progression of cynicism:  “It starts because you poured your heart into something and got little in return. Or maybe you got something in return, but it was the opposite of what you desired. You fell in love, only to have that relationship dissolve. You threw your heart into your job, only to be told you were being let go. You were completely there for your mom, only to have her tell you you’re such a disappointment.”

Experience in life allows us to be able to detect patterns. It’s part of the upside of aging, you learn how to anticipate things. You realize you’ve seen certain things before, either in yourself or in others.   But the downside is when that moves you in a sour and sulky direction.

Nieuwhof warns,“You start to do what cynics do by instinct: you project past failures onto new situations.” This then leads to becoming suspicious. Suspicion is the opposite of love, because love trusts. Love hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13). 

Nieuwhof writes a powerful warning:  “Eventually, the wariness makes you weary. Your guardedness and suspicion evolve into anger and bitterness.”

The problem with generalizing—applying one particular situation to all situations—is that the death of trust, hope, and belief is like a virus, infecting everything. You think you’re protecting yourself from the future when, in reality, your new stance infects your present.

And what becomes true of us in terms of how we relate to people begins to infect our relationship with God.  I had not actually thought hard about how we can become cynical about our relationship with God.  

Again, Nieuwhof explains, “Perhaps most disturbingly, cynicism begins to infect your relationship with God. When you close your heart to people, you close your heart to God. That shouldn’t surprise us, but it does. It only makes sense that the very act of hardening your heart to people simply hardens your heart.  Life doesn’t make you a cynic; you make you a cynic. Cynics never change the world. They just tell you why the world can’t change.”

He advocates taking our cynicism to the Cross. It was the cynics who crucified Jesus, who failed to believe the good news of the Messiah, who failed to believe redemption was dawning.

But he also writes of a “life hack” he discovered when he was seeking to kill cynicism in his own life. That life hack is to become curious. Curiosity is incompatible with cynicism. 

Nieuwhof writes, “To foster curiosity, also ask, “Why not?” Why not do it differently? Why not say yes? Why not try it? Why not try a new way? Widen your universe when other people seem to be narrowing theirs.”

The Message renders Proverbs 1:22-24 this way:  “Simpletons! How long will you wallow in ignorance? Cynics! How long will you feed your cynicism? Idiots! How long will you refuse to learn? About face! I can revise your life. Look, I’m ready to pour out my spirit on you; I’m ready to tell you all I know. As it is, I’ve called, but you’ve turned a deaf ear; I’ve reached out to you, but you’ve ignored me.”

Cynicism is incompatible with expectancy that comes from faith. Faith in the One who has promised to make all things, including us, new.  

Be alert for signs of cynicism in yourself. It’s something that tends to be a blind spot that we won’t see coming unless we’re forewarned and forearmed.