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What’s So Bad About Cynicism and Doubt?

Mar 20, 2018

Here’s a question I’ve been chewing on…

What if we’ve written off certain attitudes as if they’re all bad when they really have something to offer us?

Take doubt for example. Doubt can be a sign of genuine, robust faith.

“Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts… It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them.” -Tim Keller, The Reason for God

Cynicism, sarcasm, and even doubt are enjoying resurgent popularity in recent days.

 

Their resurgence makes sense. My generation entered adulthood amidst a diminished job market, with suffocating student loans and numerous reasons to distrust institutions like government and the Church.  In the midst of these circumstances, it has become more acceptable to reject certain perspectives, including faith.

Being a person of faith seems to be increasingly counter-cultural today. It is far more fashionable and practical to trust in ourselves. After all, many feel like others, including God, have let us down.

Despite the resurgence, I think these attitudes are more of a mixed bag than we realize.

As I look ahead, I believe cynicism and sarcasm will ultimately backfire. While initially satisfying, these paths ultimately prove unsatisfying. I speak from personal experience as a recovering cynic!

Side note: I’m a pastor and a writer. One impacts the other and vice versa. And if I’m honest, at times, I’ve struggled with an expectation from some that my writing here is “just” for Christians, as I know some of my readers are not. I try to make my content here as accessible as I can.

While you may not be a person of faith, the writing on this site is impossible to separate from my faith worldview. The articles I’m sharing this month (read my earlier articles here and here) are especially inseparable. I’m going to be sharing about how I’ve navigated some challenging topics.

 

7 New Takes on Cynicism and Doubt

Today’s topics are doubt, cynicism, and hope. As I think about my life, these seven realizations have marked my journey from idealism to cynicism to hope.

1. Cynicism is hip but can be harmful

Cynicism is hip today. But, one of my friends once described cynicism as the “head table” in the high school cafeteria. He said, “Everyone wants to be cool enough to sit there, but once you get there, you can never leave. You’re stuck there, pointing out what others do wrong. Take steps to sit with the visionary weirdos and you get a bean burrito thrown at your back.”

I believed behind every cynic is a disappointed idealist. If that’s true, then cynicism as self-protection for a season makes sense. But weaponized cynicism is far more harmful than a burrito in a back. It can destroy people. Creativity, not cynicism, is the real life-giving force. It is those who have faith, not those who mock it, who we find taking the biggest risks, showing leadership, and creating something new.

 

2. Cynics do provide an important contribution.

Another friend recently reminded me that cynics offer a key contribution – they notice what’s broken and have the courage to point it out. They often remain locked in on what is not as it should be until everyone else turns their focus in that direction. If a room is full of idealists, you need a cynic to come back to reality. If you’ve been wounded, cynicism can provide a temporary bandage, which creates space in order to heal your wound and keep you from being violated in the same way again.

However, I still think cynicism is more bad than good long-term. If you’ve been wounded, I think cynicism is an inevitable stop on your life’s journey. But instead of buying a house and getting a “mortgage in Cynicville”, I’d encourage you to consider renting and begin saving for a new place in the land of hope.

 

3. Doubt can co-exist with faith.

Sometimes, the source of our lingering cynicism is our battle with doubt. Doubt doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though.

I shared a quote from Tim Keller on doubt earlier in this article. In his book, The Reason for God, Keller writes,

A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

Doubt can be a catalyst for needed reflection and the re-emerging of vibrant, thriving faith.

Unfortunately, Keller’s views on doubts are not reflective of many corners of the Christian Church. As a result, many of us grew up viewing doubt as incompatible with faith. When those with that heritage inevitably encounter doubts, our faith crashes down like a Jenga Tower of blocks. Doubt has its place in even the most robust faith. In fact, all genuine faith includes doubt.

 

4. Faith is about trusting God, not controlling life.

During Lent this year (as I have done for the last few years), I’ve been reading through the Gospels (biographies of Jesus’ life and teaching). As I read about the betrayal of Jesus by His disciples and His arrest and unjust trial by the Sanhedrin, I realized that both groups lost their faith in Jesus because He was not going to be the Messiah they wanted. They were not able to control Him to accomplish their dreams.

As I reflected on this passage,  I noticed words I had written three years ago. “The Jesus they created in their minds was incapable of being worshiped, only controlled.” Faith is about worshiping a God who is bigger than our dreams and beyond our control. We need that kind of faith as life experience continually reminds us that control is a myth.

If we seek to live a life where we’re always in control, we’ll play it safe, be driven by fear, and ensure a future filled with regrets.

 

5. Idealism is only possible in denial.

As a follower of Jesus, I have a high view of humanity. Genesis 1:27-28 describes how we’ve been created in the image and likeness of God. The fact Jesus came to earth and took on human flesh gives high value to our humanity. In Ephesians 2:10, the Apostle Paul describes each person as God’s poiema, which literally means “masterpiece” – a word describing an artist’s highest achievement.

However, we know the depravity humanity is capable of expressing. We’ve seen genocide in Rwanda, The Balkans, Syria and Iraq, mass killings over religion in Nigeria, Sudan, and China. In America, we continue to struggle with race and equality. When it comes to the brokenness of our world, we must admit that we are carriers of the problem. We’ve all been wounded and wounded others. In our hearts, we carry anger, bitterness, lust, and hate.

If humanity could fix the fundamental problems of our world on our own, wouldn’t we have done so by now? We‘ve put a man on the moon, cracked the human genetic code, and put a computer in our pockets. But we haven’t been able to fix the depravity within us. We cannot trust ourselves completely with any kind of intellectual honesty.

Idealism is a dangerous thing because it requires ignoring the truth about ourselves and our experience with others.

 

6. Faith is an honest, living thing.

The motto of the college I attended was taken from the words of Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century theologian, and philosopher. His life motto, “fides quaerens intellectum,” means “faith seeking understanding.” When I first heard his motto, I was reminded of the man Jesus met in Mark 9, who said, “I believe, help my unbelief.”

My generation (and I believe many others) longs for a faith with room for honesty, mystery, and searching. When faith is an honest, living thing, those who possess it live with a humility and openness that drives them to seek to understand.

hope grass cracks concrete cement cynicism sarcasm doubt

7. Hope marries the honesty of cynicism with the positive outlook of idealism.

When I was living in idealism, I had a mental image which didn’t match reality. My mental image was based on very limited experience, youth, and naïveté.

Hope is very different from an unrealistic view of reality. Hope stares reality in the face and chooses to believe something is happening (or can happen) which is different than what is visible today. I’ve often noted that hope doesn’t deny reality; hope defies reality

As I transitioned from idealism to cynicism to hope, I could no longer ignore the brokenness around me. But I realized that the negative hyper-focus on what was wrong would damn me to a path of bitterness and anger. I’d always complain and criticize if I remained in a cynical mindset.

Many of us live between the death of our idealism and the resurrection of something new in its place. Cynicism is super attractive, but it is hope which really moves us forward.

 

This is not one of those articles you tie a nice bow on at the end with a few quick steps. But I hope it’s been helpful and empowered you with a new perspective, where you can see the good and bad of the attitudes you possess.

I’ve written more on this subject in a resource called The Hope Manifesto. This visual e-book (a 15-minute read) is an inspiring call, intended to challenge you to abandon fear and cynicism. If you haven’t read it, sign up to get your copy below!

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