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Cynicism Probably Isn’t Your Spiritual Gift

About three weeks ago, my wife and I were driving down the road, and I was talking about some of my concerns with the hypocrisy that is all-too-easy to find in the church. As that part of our conversation wound down, my wife said, “Joshua, look, I know you’ve got a lot of valid points, but you really just need to guard against becoming cynical.”

I would like to have shrugged off her advice, believe me; but here’s the problem: my wife is usually right. So I acknowledged that she had a point, told her I would commit to praying about it, and then I uncomfortably changed the subject.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm about being challenged by my wife, not too long after our conversation, I stopped and really asked myself why I find it so easy to be cynical about the general state of the American church.

To be clear, it’s not my favorite hobby to pick American Churchianity apart, and, in fact, I’m actually a hopeless optimist about the ultimate fate of Christ’s bride, the universal Church. But there are many aspects of church culture that rub me the wrong way and stoke my cynicism. For example, I get annoyed by the fact that many of the church growth strategies out there sound like they were developed by M.B.A. grads from Oral Roberts University; and my brow furrows at the weird, authoritarian, church management structures that look like a blueprint for a dysfunctional, condominium association.

More than anything, though, I think my cynicism is, a lot of times, rooted in a skeptical attitude toward some of the guys who are at the helm of these church communities. They’re the kind of guys who oftentimes would make good litigating attorneys or politicians or CEOs, the kind who love a crowd (extra large, please), the kind who know how to get things done now, the kind who get very testy with those who question their decisions. But it’s not those qualities alone that scare me – in fact, I think they can be good qualities, some of which I share and believe to be valuable, if used appropriately.

I think the thing that really scares me about church leaders is, well, they remind me of myself. Like many of those guys, I like being in charge, calling the shots, and being responsible for executing the big plan. I thrive in a crowd, especially in front of a big crowd. Therefore, I’m sort of terrified of what it would do to me if I were given: (a) mostly unquestionable authority; and (b) a large, religiously captive audience on a weekly basis.

In an interview with Men’s Journal, Hollywood producer David Cronenberg said, “If you’re always being observed, and your presence changes everyone’s behavior, you lose the ability to observe things in their natural state. That’s why huge stars, surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, end up with a distorted worldview. They never see what’s real anymore.”

I fear that the same could be said of so many religious professionals. I’m even more afraid that Cronenberg’s description would be an accurate one of me if I were a preacher – that I would lose touch with reality as I became a religious celebrity to so many of those in my audience – I mean, my congregation.

Then again, if Scripture is accurate, what seems more likely to be the real issue here is that I have a distorted view of those in ministry, one that is due to a giant two-by-four protruding from my own eye (Matthew 7:4).

If that’s true, there’s a good chance that I have failed to see that most of these guys may, in fact, be like my dad and my brother Caleb: sincere ministers who, like me, are imperfectly learning how to love people and pursue God’s calling. Either way, I get the feeling that going on a witch hunt for the fakes and phonies is a trap I need to avoid for three, very good reasons:

  1. As I’ve already noted, so much of the criticism and skepticism I have about religious leaders is more of a reflection of my own weaknesses, not necessarily theirs. Scripture makes clear that, more important than ferreting out people’s motives for preaching the Gospel, is to simply be thankful that they’re preaching it at all (Philippians 1:15-18).
  2. Being a religious critic is not a spiritual gift, and in my life, the fruit of it has usually been to leave me feeling smug, hopeless, or frustrated.
  3. As I let God be the judge, and I choose to see the best in those who, like me, are feeling their way around in the foggy areas of the Christian faith, I feel myself lightening up a little bit. I find that it’s freeing to give others the same grace that I need as I grow in Christ. Even though we’re called to point out biblically errant teaching or ministry (2 Tim. 3:16), life is too short for me to assume it’s my job to clear up the remaining, iffy areas for everyone.

Now, this is an ongoing work in progress for me. Quite frankly, I’m probably still going to roll my eyes at book jackets that look like advertisements for how to be the most glossy and successful evangelical you can be; and I think it’s okay to tip over the sacred cows of Churchianity and its sometimes-bizarre subculture.

However, as a believer, when it comes to the vast, gray area of figuring out how to reach believers and non-believers with the unvarnished love of Christ, I think it’s probably high time for me to cool my jets, stop trying to become an expert speck plucker, and get my eyes back on Jesus (Matthew 7:5, 14:25-31).

8 Comments
  1. Good Job – Expert Speck Plucker!!!!! LOL!

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    May 2, 2010
  2. Thanks! I think I've really perfected the art, sis!

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    May 2, 2010
  3. Are you sure cynicism isn't a spiritual gift? Because I really thought I had found one for me, finally. I think the cynicism is part (there are certainly other factors) of what has kept kate and I from finding a church home this last year. So, it certainly isn't a good thing. But just in way of argument, or perhaps to demonstrate that my cynicism knows no bounds, I sincerely question if the message preached by some churches is even the gospel. Just because you use the words "saved" and "Jesus" doesn't mean it is a true and accurate reflection of His Kingdom. In fact I think it can be the exact opposite and end up becoming a message of implied legalism and judgement rather than a message of outrageous scandalous love. The Bible warns of false prophets/teachings.But, here is the really funny irony though. I believe with all my heart that God's Kingdom is populated with brused and broken people. That the lowly, ugly, humble, awkward, disfigured, disabled and rejected misfits of this world will be "first" in the Kingdom (whatever that looks like…). The Kingdom (and the gospel) is particularly "for" people such as this. So I get self-righteous about churches with a polished christian culture that implicitly values put-togetherness and smiles and want to keep the dirty, complicated, poverty stricken lives "out there", somewhere they can send money to so that they can appease their conscience. The problem is that as soon as I label this whole MO as hopelessly broken, it gets brought under the umbrella of the Kingdom I described. Just because it irritates me to no end, it doesn't mean that God doesn't use those churches and work through those christians. But here is where cynicism gets dangerous. When i end up making these analyses about churches or the christians that attend them I am the one that is judging. It isn't like my own current situation is so much better or I am living a life that purely reflects Christ's Kingdom to those around me every day. I chalk it up to my inadequate understanding of God's love. I understand it just enough to see a slight glimmer of its beauty, but it is an incomplete understanding that doesn't fully see the radical scandalous nature of that love. To put it plainly, if my love of God moves me to judge others or hold them in contempt, then it isn't the love for God that is really moving me.Your Judgmental Friend,Nick

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    May 2, 2010
  4. I think you picked the right profession Joshua and ultimately you may sit as a "judge" on the bench one day. Maybe you can use all that energy there.lol I think you speak for many of us because it's our human nature that wants to "weigh" motives, measures and decisions and form an opinion of whether it was right or wrong according to our way of thinking. Seldom do we ever get to hear what brings leaders to conclusions and choices, etc., but we began to "assume" their motives, their measures and their decisions based on our own personal perspectives and then we begin to "judge" and then we "cool our jets" of loving those we have begun to judge. I believe this is the real danger. This is where we have to guard against "the love of many waxing cold". That scares me to death. I remember having so much love when I first got born again and now after 28 years, I am continually asking God to renew a right spirit within me, restore to me the joy of His salvation, create in me a clean heart. I am growing to dislike myself more and more. I have to remind myself that I can't earn my salvation and that I am complete because of what Jesus did. I am hearing you, I identify with you and I am thankful that we can find help in His presence, in His power & in HIS love. Your sister in Christ, Gale

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    May 2, 2010
  5. Nick and Gale, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I think that comments like yours can really help people who are struggling with the tough balance of grace and truth. Either way, it helped me. Thank you.

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    May 4, 2010
  6. This time I hesitate to heap praises on your probably already swelled head about your ability to write outstanding articles about church where others fear to tread. So, what's a mother to do? I'll just say: "Continue to examine yourself, but continue to write." There is an audience of needy people just waiting to hear the gospel in a not too common way. When we look up to Jesus (Hebrews 12:2), we see the author and finisher of our faith. When we look to the right and to the left, we see all the imperfect strugglers — just like me. Certainly, we don't want to look back, "forgetting those thngs which are behind." And I don't want to become a modern day Lot's wife. Continue to let God use you in this not too common way, read the Word, listen to your wife and Mother, and stay accountable to the brethren.

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    May 4, 2010
  7. "Being a religious critic is not a spiritual gift, and in my life, the fruit of it has usually been to leave me feeling smug, hopeless, or frustrated."I'm a paramedic in Detroit. We see the worst in people day in and day out. Recently, several people for whom I had huge amounts of respect showed their true colors, their true beliefs, and their core selfishness. I have moved a lot in my life and have found very few people I would desire to be a friend, because moral standards are lacking, peoples' hearts are selfish, and intelligence and common sense aren't so. . .well, common.I guess what I mean is that it's not so much religious criticism as it is a general hopelessness for the world around me. That's how I found your post. I don't want to be hopeless and cynical for the world, and I try to see the best in people, but I constantly feel alone in my morals and standards.Thanks for the post; I really needed the reminder to pray about it, and the kick in the butt that if I start looking maybe a bit harder for the good in people, I'll find it. The problem is, my standards are maybe just a bit too high. . .

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    August 10, 2010
  8. Thanks for your honest comment. I would encourage you to rigorously and mercilessly apply your high standards to yourself if you want to get really hopeless. That always works for me.

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    August 10, 2010

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