Cynicism among Christians appears as a collection of negative attitudes and expectations. Those attitudes may be directed toward ourselves or others, the church, conversions, gospel progress, growth in sanctification, and even toward God himself. A clear biblical example appears in Malachi: “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” (Malachi 3:14). But cynicism may be a deep attitude of heart or mind, even if it is not spoken out loud.
“The quest to find meaning in a meaningless universe is sure to fail.”
Cynicism today, as at any time, contradicts the three vital signs of Christianity according to Paul: faith in Jesus Christ, love for all the saints, and hope as we await the return of Christ (1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:2–3; Colossians 1:3–6). The general cure for cynicism is to cultivate and increase our faith in Christ, our love for God’s people, and our firm hope in the return of Christ. Alongside that general cure, however, God has given us many specific cures.
Causes and Cures
There are many causes of contemporary Christian cynicism: it is a common symptom of many diseases. We need to find the particular cause of someone’s cynicism before the underlying disease can be treated. We must identify and treat the cause, not just the symptom.
So, what are some common causes of cynicism — and their cures?
Cynicism can be caused by adopting contemporary hopeless worldviews. Those who dispose of God because they don’t like his authority, or believe that faith is unscientific, or want to be free to do what they want, not only dispose of God, but also the hope that only he can provide. The quest to find meaning in a meaningless universe is sure to fail. The quest to find hope in a hopeless universe is sure to fail. The task is beyond us. Cynicism can be a way of life inherited from others. The cure?
You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers . . . with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:18–19)
With each cause of cynicism, we apply the cure through focused, continued meditation on particular passages of Scripture, words to us from God himself: read them aloud; write them down; remember them; talk about them; turn them into prayers of repentance, trust, thanksgiving, and praise.
The church also produces homegrown cynicism. One example is when we emphasize the good purposes of God, and ignore the Bible’s teaching on sin, judgment, and the wrath of God. We skim the Bible for encouragement, and find the great promises of God’s provision of forgiveness and new life in his Son, his salvation of his people, his gracious work in them by his Spirit, and the transformation of all things. We need the complementary biblical revelation of the constancy and ubiquity and subtlety of sin, of God’s present and future judgments, and of his wrath. Otherwise, our unbiblical optimism will result in cynicism.
“Cynicism is contagious. One cynic can easily influence others.”
Similarly, if we skim the Bible to read of gospel successes and progress, and fail to read of the sin, failure, suffering, persecution, and heresy that are characteristic of the last days, and of the need for patient endurance, we may well become cynics.
The cure for these? Read the whole Bible, not just the bits you like. And meditate on the words and works of God and the love of God.
Blessed is the man . . . [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1–2)
I meditate on all that you have done. (Psalm 143:5)
We have thought on your steadfast love. (Psalm 48:9)
We are vulnerable to cynicism when we overestimate our gifts; when we aim to be celebrities; when we underestimate the patient prayer, slog, and suffering that is required for gospel growth; and when we lack the ability to know what steps to take to grow a big church or ministry. An unrealistic estimate of ourselves can cause cynicism. The cure?
I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)
We are liable to cynicism if we have secret unconfessed sins in our life, if we have stopped putting sin to death by the power of Jesus’s death and living a new life by the power of his resurrection and his Spirit. Cynicism is the cost of long-term unconfessed sin. The cure?
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
We are likely to become cynical if we are responsible for a Christian ministry, and so have to deal with the foibles, forgetfulness, and failures of those who serve in the ministry. These discouragements breed cynicism. The cure? Trust Christ and forgive others.
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . that he might present the church to himself in splendor. (Ephesians 5:25–27)
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Of course, people who have been abused — physically, psychologically, or sexually — can easily become cynical about themselves and others, especially if their abuser was a Christian or a Christian leader. Healing can take years or decades. The (very long-term) cure?
[Bear] with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, [forgive] each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:13)
We are also likely to become cynical if we expect all our rewards in this life, and want to find complete happiness in this age. We are likely to become cynical if we have adopted any version of the gospel that promises what it cannot deliver: complete happiness, healing, freedom from stress, conflict, or disappointment, or prosperity. The cure?
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James 1:2–3)
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
Christians who are functional deists (who believe that God created the world as a machine that functions without his constant help), and not theists (who believe in God’s constant providential and sovereign sustaining and rule of the universe, and that all things hold together in Christ), are liable to be cynics. The cure? Praise God and Christ with these words:
[The Son] is the image of the invisible God. . . . For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth . . . all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . . For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things . . . making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15–17, 19–20)
We become cynical if we do not put all our hope in “the new world” (Matthew 19:28), “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4); if we do not heed the instruction to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13), or if we do not say, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . . My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:21, 23), or pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). If this is true of us, then we are too attached to this world. We are disoriented believers. The cure?
Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:20–21)
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
Faith, Hope, Love
Cynicism is contagious. One cynic can easily influence others, making cynicism the habit of an individual, a church, a community, or a ministry. We need the help of others, and they need our help, to avoid the cynicism epidemic.
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. . . . See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. (Hebrews 3:12; 12:15)
Let’s work to increase our faith in Jesus Christ, love for all the saints, and hope in Christ’s return. Let’s resolve to rid ourselves and others of destructive cynicism, for the glory of God.