The Fragile Shield of Cynicism

We’ve all been disappointed by someone. We’ve all known what it feels like to be let down. The bitter taste, the sharp sting, the nagging sense of betrayal — it hurts when people fail us. It hurts even more when the people who fail us are our friends. The deeper the relationship, the deeper the potential wounds from disappointment. David knew that deeper pain:

For it is not an enemy who taunts me — then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me — then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. (Psalm 55:12–13)

In another psalm, he says, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9).

As Christians, our deepest relationships are often those found and cultivated within the local church. And rightfully so, for, as the church, we are “members one of another” (Romans 12:5). Unlike all our other relationships, we are called to “love one another with brotherly affection (and) outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). This makes church relationships uniquely deep and glorious. That means they can also be uniquely, deeply disappointing.

Do you know this by experience? If so, how have you sought to handle it?

The Way of the Cynic

One way to handle this potential for disappointment is cynicism. As a defense mechanism, cynicism markets itself as a way to avoid future disappointment by assuming everyone’s an imposter. The cynic leans on his familiar formula: “You only do (action), because you want (result).” He can attribute impure motives to just about anyone, even those in the local church.

  • The young man volunteering in childcare is only trying to impress his girlfriend.
  • The older woman attending multiple Bible studies is only trying to earn the respect and admiration of her peers.
  • The pastor preaching God’s word is only trying to grow his church (and his salary).

No one in our churches, whether in the pulpit, or on the platform, or in the pews, can evade the cynic’s accusations.

Sadly, cynicism often seems to work, at least for the moment. The one who views the whole world as a fraud is very rarely disappointed. Instead, he appears to have exchanged his potential of future disappointment for the present impression of power (“Now I’m the one who gets to criticize”), and control (“I decide if and when to trust them”), and courage (“I don’t need anyone but me”). And yet, those impressions of power, control, and courage, are only just that: counterfeits of the real things. And as counterfeits, they take more than they give.

Consider, after all, the glorious works of God that any cynic must disregard. When face-to-face with a man who has been radically transformed by God, or a woman who has found her happiness in Jesus despite all the suffering she’s endured, or a whole host of elderly believers who have held on faithfully to God since childhood — what can the cynic do but scoff? A God of miracles and love can’t exist if every saint’s a fraud. We might take up cynicism as a shield against disappointment, but it ends up functioning as a shield against the living God. It keeps us from seeing the wonders of all he’s done.

How ironically disappointing is the world of the cynic?

Disappointment from friends can hurt. Disappointment from brothers and sisters in the church can hurt more still. For those who know this all too well and have found themselves growing cynical as a result, I invite you to lay down your shield and take your disappointment somewhere else.

What Would Jesus Say?

Jesus is the thoroughly genuine man. He says what he means and he means what he says — before every audience, in every context, at all times. He cannot be charged with guile. Insincerity hides from his presence. He is true. He is pure. He is peerless. He is the cynic’s kryptonite. Because of who he is, we can go to him with our church-inflicted hurts, disappointments, and fears, and we can ask him, “Jesus, what do you have to say about these people?” What do you think he would say to us?

“I have called them.”

Faults, blemishes, sins, and all, Jesus has been at work in the lives of those around you. He’s known their names since “before the foundation of the world,” and from eternity he has set his love upon them (Revelation 13:8). At the right time, he came and laid his life down for these sheep, weak, sinful, and ungodly as they were (and weak, sinful, and ungodly as they still are at times) (Romans 5:6–8). Knowing all this beforehand, he still called them (Romans 8:30). Many of them, long before you ever knew them, and long before they ever joined your church.

Yes, they may have disappointed you. Yes, they may have hurt you. But Jesus has been at work in them all the same — calling them out of death, into life, and, in this season, into the membership of your church. Will you choose to love the brothers and sisters whom Jesus has already chosen to love?

“I am still calling them.”

Jesus never calls people partway home. When he calls, he calls all the way: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). And all along the way, he himself is working in them for his own good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Although they, like you, might go through seasons of spiritual drought or despair, he will yet sustain them and make them blameless (1 Corinthians 1:8).

They are, right now, members of the church — his very body of which he is the head. And one day, they will be presented as a bride before him in splendor without spot, wrinkle, or blemish (Ephesians 5:27). He has begun a great work in them, and he promises to finish that work (Philippians 1:6). So will you choose to love this great work even when, at times, it results in great disappointment? He has not grown cynical about them. Should you?

The Hope in Excommunication

But what if some members of your church aren’t actually believers? What if they really are hypocrites? What if they are “lovers of self, lovers of money,” . . . “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:2–5)? Or, what if they are genuine lovers of God but seriously and actively walking out of step with their faith?

Either way, the church responds with action, not inaction. Where cynicism would only sit on its hands and sneer, Christian courage, fueled by love and oiled by grace, gets up on its feet in pursuit of the one who is living out of step with godliness. We don’t say, “I told you so,” but, “Brother, come back.” And should our efforts fail, and the time comes to remove them from fellowship, even then, things would not be done as the cynic would have it, but in hope — hoping for miraculous repentance and restoration (1 Corinthians 5:5).

God’s people, with all our faults and immaturities, are God’s glorious works in progress. Though our hearts are often fickle, they are also cleansed. Therefore, we don’t write one another off, but commit to one another, rejoice with one another, give grace to one another. In the process, we will certainly be disappointed, but Jesus will even more certainly be a sufficient salve for our wounds. So, we renounce the way of the cynic and lay our disappointments and fear with Jesus, listening to what he says about his people, and then believing he’s at work in them, even when we don’t see it.