Cynicism is the attitude that encapsulates the ethos of twentysomethings par excellence. It is, I think, the most covert negative emotion. We harbor it in Christian garb: cynicism toward immature men (“man-boys”), hipsters, a denomination or movement, clichés, and a thousand other things.
Cynicism is so undetectable because it is so justifiable. It wears a mask of insight and godliness, but it conceals festering wounds of harbored bitterness against God and neighbor. We need to understand cynicism, because the masks we wear tell us about the wounds we hide, and point us to the Savior who yearns to mend them.
Aspects of Cynicism
As with any concept, it is best to begin with a clear definition. For our purposes, we will define cynicism this way:
The emotional disposition of distrust or rejection toward a particular idea, person, or group as a result of negative experiences (either directly or indirectly).
Cynicism has five basic components.
At the root of cynicism is a lack of joy, combined with a desire for pleasure. Cynicism is the concoction of indifference and discontentment. It is teenage apathy turned sour through the hardships of life as a twentysomething (the quarterlife crisis being the expiration date). Cynicism is pointed apathy. It is an emotional rocket launcher mounted on a La-Z-Boy. The cynic is the guy who finds a reason to leave a church that he doesn’t care about in order to cover a reputation that he does care about.
At the root of cynicism is a lack of love. The cynic places the highest premium on their own analysis of the world. Cynicism is Descartes’ principle of doubt in the hands of self-protective fear — transformed from “I think, therefore I am” to “I think you’re dumb.” From ergo sum to “Eh, forget you . . .” It is easier for a woman to explain her singleness in terms of male immaturity than it is to face the possibility of being unwanted.
At the root of cynicism is misdirected devotion. Cynicism is an inverted emotional liturgy. It is a dull, stubborn fixation on something or someone. It is not a fit or fury, nor is it brash. It is slight and subtle — rolled eyes, raised eyebrows, curled lips, and, beneath it all, it is a low-lit anxiety burning deep in the chest. Cynicism is an enunciated rarefaction in affection; a doxological dark matter.
At the root of cynicism is isolation. The presumption of cynicism is not that it condescends from “up there,” but that it disapproves from nowhere. It scorns from a safe and comfortable nothingness which is so empty and contentless that it cannot be retaliated against. A healthy response to suffering builds something new when the old is taken away. Cynicism thinks building is for losers because Johnny likes building and Johnny is a jerk. End of story.
At the root of cynicism is a host of bad experiences. Cynicism, despite its very active nature, is usually a result of truly bad experiences of suffering, resulting in legitimate concerns. It is never instantaneously spawned — it is always the result of time. Cynicism is longsuffering, because with every mistake, with every stupid thing said, with every hurtful thing done, it seeks to mount enough evidence to launch an everlasting, irrevocable counter-offense of justified negative emotion. Cynics are cornered sufferers who have turned their shields into blunt swords.
Redeeming the Cynic
Because the heart is so multifaceted, and thusly cynicism also, Christ’s redemption arrives in a multiform fashion. So, unlike love, which has a clear opposite (selfishness), cynicism is much more complex (it is not simply the opposite of hope, or idealism).
Here are a few things that Christ can provide to help the cynic.
Cynicism is not merely disapproval — it is the need to continually disapprove of “them.” And this incessant desire to reject “them” can come from a lack of processing pain that was experienced. In the case of suffering, the imprecatory prayers are a huge help. The cynic can pray, “They did this to me, and it was wrong. I hate them for it, I hand over my curses, my ill-wishes, and my disapproval to your omnipotence to curse, to ill-wish, and to disapprove, O God. I stand with you in your disapproval of that evil. Thank you for standing with me” (Psalm 5; 69; 109; Matthew 26:23–24; 2 Timothy 4:14). The imprecatory prayer relinquishes the power to punish over to the Righteous Judge. In a sense, in this case, Christ not only redeems the cynic, but affirms the validity of the original cynicism as well.
Essential to cynicism is an emptiness — a position that is empty enough to avoid criticism altogether. And yet, Christ provides resources to positively construct alternatives to wrongs that were done. Scripture provides a beginning point for “every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). If an idea is harmful, or a person is manipulative, or a group is destructive, a proper response is not to launch an emotional counterattack, but to construct a positive counteragent.
Proverbs 9:7 rightly says of the cynic, “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury” (see also Proverbs 18:9). In suffering, a scoffer finds an opportunity to retaliate — against the universe, neighbor, or God. Conversely, a wise man seeks satisfaction in rebuilding unto the Lord (Proverbs 12:14; 16:3), because his identity is in Christ (Ephesians 4:28–29).
Forgiveness is not always an option, but if it is, it is a worthy enterprise to undertake. In fact, forgiveness is such a divine act that it thwarts the plans of Satan himself (2 Corinthians 5:11). So, since it accomplishes such things, if there is a legitimate grievance underlying a cynic’s past experience, forgiveness can be a step towards fixing the root problem for the sake of the wrongdoer (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Forgiveness can initiate the backward inertia with which the love of the gospel propels healing (2 Corinthians 5:5–7). Paul rightly says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
The cynic is jaded and skeptical about certain people (maybe even all people) based on their participation in foolishness and evil. And yet, Christ offers a different meaning for those phenomena — a new interpretation. Folly and wickedness in this world are not impersonal forces, but take place on the playground of the human heart, in which God delights to work more than any other place (Psalm 141:4; Proverbs 24:12; Ezekiel 36:26). Thus, over against the cynic’s interpretation, depravity in others is not necessarily indicative of man’s inevitable degeneration, but a voice in the chorus of creation’s cry for redemption (Romans 8:22).
Ultimately, no virtue or action can stand on its own against the black hole of cynicism. Only the immensity of Christ’s joyful and benevolent personhood can stand against the void of scorn sedimented in the human heart (Romans 8:38–39). While cynicism often takes mundane and miniscule life-forms, the beauty of Christ’s person and work is that it is equally mundane and miniscule.
It is, in fact, in these small particles of life that the most besetting or redemptive realities take irrevocable root (James 3:14; Ephesians 6:6). Christ stands in these realities with deep sympathy and eager aspiration to encourage them “not to lose heart over . . . suffering, which is [their] glory” (Ephesians 3:13).
In the midst of apathy, a critical spirit, and a difficult personal history, Christ offers affirmation, purpose, and hope to the cynic.