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Cynics in the Hand of a Living God: How to Shake a Cynicism Habit

I struggle with cynicism. For as long as I can remember, I’ve battled against the fear that failure (my own and others’) is probable—if not inevitable.

Cynicism is tempting when Christians around me fall into serious sin. I still remember when I learned about Ravi Zacharias. My stomach sank. I remember thinking, If Ravi couldn’t stand against the Tempter’s arrows, how can I?

By God’s grace, I haven’t engaged in any disqualifying sin. But I thought, How can I be sure I won’t disqualify myself in the future? Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it in my bones.

Listening to the first few episodes of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill didn’t help with this temptation toward fear and cynicism about church leaders (myself included) maintaining integrity over the long haul. As sorrowful stories of failure abounded, so did my cynical introspection. I wanted more than anything to make it to the finish line of the Christian life. But as I looked around at the myriad failures of other Christian leaders and considered the wander-proneness of my own heart, I was tempted to despair. Sometimes I’m still tempted to despair.

Yet I’ve experienced great freedom. There’s hope for the despairing cynic.

How? I recognized that, for the Christian, cynicism (and the hopelessness it breeds) is a form of drunkenness.

Real Sobriety

Sober-mindedness is essential for the Christian. This term means to be free of any illusion—to see things as they truly are. The New Testament contains numerous commands to be sober-minded, including this from 1 Peter: “Preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13).

Peter tells us sober-mindedness is a prerequisite to hope. We can set our hope fully on Christ only if we’re free of illusions and the drunken confusion they create. If we’re mired in cynical hopelessness, we need to take a spiritual breathalyzer.

If we’re mired in cynical hopelessness, we need to take a spiritual breathalyzer.

This reality shook my sensibilities. In the depths of my drunken cynicism, I thought myself sober. But this is the pernicious lie at the heart of cynicism.

False Sobriety

Cynicism often masquerades as godly sobriety. Many of us think ourselves to be sober when we’re actually drunk.

The cynic rightly diagnoses the prevalence and folly of sin. This isn’t a bad thing. Recognizing the depth of human depravity is essential to faith in Christ. However, the cynic doesn’t stop with a sober assessment of human depravity; he often spirals into a God-less view of the world.

Yet a God-less world isn’t the real world—hence the drunkenness of cynicism. It clouds our minds with the lie of a resurrection-less future and a Spirit-less present.

Whereas the worldly hedonist gets drunk on the sweet rum of illicit pleasure in the present, the worldly cynic gets drunk on the lying, bitter bourbon of a future vacant of God’s redemptive goodness. If the worldly hedonist denies the reality of eternal danger, the cynic denies the reality of eternal rescue and safety.

This was the problem with my outlook. I claimed to be a realist about sin yet I denied a greater reality: God himself.

Ironically, I believed what God said about my depravity but not about his transcendent ability to keep and sanctify me. I had the wrong sort of desperation.

In his book Deeper, Dane Ortlund writes,

There is nothing noble about staying in that pit of despair. . . . Healthy desperation is an intersection, not a highway; gateway, not pathway. We must go there. But we dare not stay there.

He continues, “Like jumping on a trampoline, we are to go down into freshly felt emptiness but then let that spring us high into fresh heights with Jesus.”

In our cynicism, we think ourselves noble. When, in reality, we are drunk in the ditch of unbelief. Fearing disappointment, the cynic consigns himself to this pit of fear.

Get Sober

We don’t overcome the fear of spiritual failure by overlooking real danger. We don’t avoid the drunkenness of cynicism by closing our eyes to our Enemy and his schemes (1 Pet. 5:8).

Instead, amid intoxicating danger, we sober up by looking up. We kill cynicism by embracing as real not only what’s immanent and observable but also what’s transcendent and invisible. Paul writes that Christians “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

This doesn’t mean that we Christians ignore our desperate state or go through life with blissful naivety. Far from it! Instead, we acknowledge reality in the same way the psalmist does:

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you. (Ps. 91:7)

Christian hope isn’t an optimistic playing of the odds. It isn’t responding to “You have a ten-thousand-in-one chance of surviving the arrows of war” with “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance!” Christian hope is believing that, regardless of the apparent odds, God will keep those who hide under his wings and cry out, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (v. 2). It’s believing the resurrected dead will live forever.

Amid intoxicating danger, we sober up by looking up.

Remember your state when he first saved you. Christ is no Miracle Max. He doesn’t raise those who are “mostly dead.” Cold corpses are his purview. He’s the sovereign, saving, resurrecting, transcendent King. He’s the preserving and keeping King. If he raised you, he will certainly keep you.

Cynicism dies when we see God as truly bigger and better. Depravity and death are big and bad. God’s sanctifying and resurrecting promises are bigger and better.

This is why there is so much hope for the desperate cynic. God only ever saves those who sense the bigness of their problems. So, instead of turning inward in cynicism, bring your wander-prone desperation to him. Let it be overwhelmed by his surpassing goodness and grace.


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