Talking about cynicism almost seems like talking about air. People know what you’re talking about, but the makeup and content of cynicism is a bit elusive.
When I say “cynicism” I mean something like this: Believing that the world is fundamentally painful and disappointing is cynicism. By cynicism I mean this attitude of seeing through the happiness of the world to the underlying motivations of greed, power, lust and selfishness.
As Bing Crosby says in White Christmas, “Everybody’s got an angle”. It’s this sense of folded arms, stepping back and commenting on the world’s affairs – sitting above it all.
It strikes me that cynicism is the souring of the soul towards the goodness in the world. Maybe overstated, Woody Allen gives a good example of cynicism in action:
Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.
One of the ways cynicism plays out for us today is through humor. When there’s pain and suffering, humor is one of our great coping mechanisms. And cynicism is one of the ways we cope with pain today.
If the political world is absolutely nuts, it’s better to cynically laugh at it and resolve that it’s the way it always is – that there’s no good politicians anyways. When pastors fail, that’s the way all pastors all – they’re all hypocrites. When something good happens, it’s followed the next morning by a flinch: this can’t last forever – but maybe with a joke about “my luck”.
When we’re laughing at the pain and suffering we’re experiencing, we’re subtly buying into the reality that in the end, pain and suffering are the realities of the world.
What cynicism offers is a refuge from the world, but it’s a refuge without God.
One of the reasons I think Christians walk in cynicism so easily is because we believe in sin. The world is broken, fallen, perverted, and so are all the people in it. Nobody can trust their motives, and neither will I. But there’s a difference between making sin the ultimate reality and account for its reality.
So what do we do about it? Oscar Wilde had some helpful observations about cynicism that may give us some direction forward. But he comes it from a different angle. He says that sentimentalism and cynicism are really just the same reality from different sides.
[A cynic is a] man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. [While a sentimentalist…is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.
He elsewhere explains:
A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. We think we can have our emotions for nothing… As soon as you have to pay for an emotion you will know its quality, and be the better for such knowledge. And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.
What Wilde is saying is that cynicism (and sentimentality) are both postures towards the world that refuse to emotionally invest. They see the world, and either want to get a sugar high from an experience without having to invest in it (sentimentality) or protect themselves from the emotional investment (cynicism).
Now, with that in mind, how does that align with Jesus? If there’s ever been someone who knew the reality of the world, it was Jesus. On the one hand, we have the Apostle John telling us that, “Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to [people], because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man (John 2:24-25)”.
Seems almost cynical – Jesus knew what was in them, and did not entrust himself to them. But John’s point is that Jesus did not entrust his identity and value to men. On the other hand, we see Jesus clearly emotionally investing in people, most strikingly in the death of Lazarus where we are told “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). And this wasn’t just any teary-eyed cry. It was a visceral, deep, emotional sense that death was wrong.
And to match this, Hebrews tells us that Jesus, “…for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Which is to say, that he emotionally invested in people, embraced the pain and suffering of their sin and brokenness, while walking towards joy.
There’s nothing cynical about Jesus’s life and ministry. He never pulled back. Never stood aloof. If we are to be followers of Christ, cynicism has to go. We are to bear the fruits of the Spirit that come from Christ – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Cynicism is not a fruit of the Spirit.
How do we put off cynicism? Maybe this is simple, but I think the more we worship and pray to God, with the Psalms as our guide, we’ll put off cynicism. The psalms are full of the realities of life, but they’re shot through with faith. Even at their darkest, the posture the soul towards God (Psalm 88). They guide us into a wide-eyed, fully-invested, faith-filled life in the world.
The allure of cynicism is to see the world for “what it really is”, but it gives us death as the end. Christian, death is not the end: “And at the last, death the enemy shall be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26, Wycliffe’s translation). Cynicism believes that death wins. Faith knows that Christ has defeated death, and that His Life wins.
Look to Jesus. Though the world often seems dark, see that Christ reigns. Invest in the world, knowing that Jesus did too, even with the pain, and found the life of faith upholding him. His faith will uphold you, and protect you, from the allure of cynicism. His faith will lead you to a life full invested in love.