Christianity: Not for Pollyanna People
Paul CoughlinPaul Coughlin's Weblog
- 2010 Feb 22
That Christian faith embraces a suspicion toward the human condition is a fact we can't ignore. Christianity promotes blind trust in no one, maintaining that there's something profoundly wrong, spoiled, or stained in our nature and that there's no lasting way to crawl away from this mess on our own. We need help. Everyone must be rescued or else they're doomed.
Though we're imbued with tremendous worth, we also are mortally wounded. We're like those mirrors in a funhouse, so distorted that our image is both comical and frightening. Unlike cynicism, though, Christianity provides the way out, retaining a vital skepticism while also providing redemption, hope, and the courage and faith required to persevere. We are like the cracked Liberty Bell: The fault would have consumed the entire bell if someone hadn't drilled a hole just above it, drawing the fissure to the hole so it would stop. The crack has been halted and consumed; Jesus' atoning work on the cross is the hole. That event was God's drilling into time so that the destruction of our sin would be drawn to and consumed by him; we can be rescued as soon as we will humbly accept rescue.
The believer's suspicion toward humans and human motives isn't infinite. Jesus at times saw qualities in people that were good, and he praised them.
Cynicism leads to bitterness; bitterness fuels shadow thumos, and frankly, bitterness makes us stupid. Asaph saw this in himself, as he described in Psalm 73, a powerful confession of anger, bitterness, envy, cynicism, and remarkably, resolve. He awakened from the self-soothing, self-congratulatory effects of soul-numbing cynicism when he better understood the real reality of "wicked prosperity." Asaph saw that "cynicism was not the result of honest insight but of the clouded misunderstandings that had come with being deeply embittered."
Without actual suspicion, however, we will misemploy and misapply our courageous faith. We will rush into conflicts where we don't belong (that's part of the definition of rashness). Some battles aren't worthy of us; some are worthy and yet we don't (or don't yet) possess the power, weaponry, or wisdom for them. It's best not to enter such battles, or at least not to enter them very deeply. We need a healthy level of suspicion to ensure that we aren't sucked into someone else's self-interest cloaked in "the good fight." This takes maturity and usually a few rounds with b-level deception to figure out. Life provides plenty of opportunities to experience such deception and practice discernment, but there are few guides to help us learn well from them.
Suspicion does not turn away from life's dark side—naivete does. Suspicion sees it and learns from it. At its best, too, suspicion provides tremendous clarity during times of confusion: "Suspicion itself should not be seen as some sort of moral failing but as an honest and realistic precaution for broken people functioning in a broken world." All the same, realize that although suspicion is necessary, it's also dangerous. Overly suspicious people do not extend love. They are closed systems—transmitters, not receivers—and their transmission of courage is might low.
The biblical terms most closely corresponding to cynic usually are translated "mocker," "scoffer," or "scorner." As Keyes points out, we hear the final word to the scorner by referring directly to God's response to the cynic.
Here is the ultimate sting for the cynic. God sees through, unmasks, and scorns the cynic's cynicism. This is the greatest irony of all—and so something that is rarely imagined—that the transcendent God laughs at cynicism, not with the laughter of glee but of pity and sadness at its grandiose pretentions. When he who knows everything is not cynical, and we who know so little claim cynical insight, we appear ridiculous in his eyes.
In order to stem the influence of cynicism that hampers us—generally, more so with men than with women—we need to accept and understand the paradoxes that surround us and to live within the tension they create. Additionally, we need to learn how to best bridge what appear to us as gaps. We do this in part by realizing that we live simultaneously in disparate worlds. One does not value what should be valued, a fact that's abundantly clear to most cynics. By and large we humans value power, influence, and control. That's the world of man. The world God made us for, the kingdom of heaven, the eternal reality, values love in every one of its facets and dimensions. The two worlds don't mix well.
Most of us have been trained to believe we must completely shun the world of man, the world of power. I disagree. We need to understand this world—how it functions and what it represents—and then, rather than emulating it, we are to bring redemption to it. Otherwise we become like the well-intentioned but innocuous Christians that Theodore Roosevelt denounced.
It we don't comprehend how this world really works, then it's true: We can't "grapple with real men in real life." Jesus told us we are to live in the world without being of it; this includes our not succumbing to cynicism, which has its home base fully in the world's camp. This is a worldview that sees our existence only in terms of force and power—the realm of kill or be killed.
By contrast, spiritual naivete spends too much time in hyper-spiritual camps. There, "love" tends to be exceedingly saccharine, and most everything gets presented and accepted in terms of manners and moral judgment. The broad idea is that if you just embrace sweetness, niceness, and innocence, and embrace the harmlessness of a dove, then God's wellspring of goodness will pour over you in a cascade of amazing grace and favor.
There's a third way: again, we must live in both worlds (camps). If we hide from and avoid and ignore everyone and everything that isn't loving, we quickly become cloistered and irrelevant, having no clue how to overcome the obstacles to love. By understanding the nature of these two worlds, we can enter and remain in both of them with realistic expectations instead of having our hopes, ideals, and dreams dashed—the very maladies that foster cynicism in the first place.
I'm most cynical when I'm fatigued, disappointed, discouraged, and afraid. Each is kryptonite to our thumos; we need regular encouragement through god's Word and from others who care for us to combat them. When I'm experiencing an internal (philosophical) crisis, which leads to a drop in thumos, I read job, the Psalms, and the Prophets (like Jeremiah). And when I'm experiencing a more gut-level beating of my thumos, I turn to the rugged life of Christ (the gospel of Mark is a good place to start) as well as to Paul's writing—for example, his letters to the Corinthians, where he admits his drops in courage and tells of how he ministered with fear and trembling anyway.
To grow our thumos, we need to overcome both cynicism and naivete while embracing a form of suspicion that's accurate in regard to the nature and state of others and ourselves. By walking this road we avoid the deflation of our thumos and at the same time help to ensure that it's deployed at the right time and in the right venues. This keeps hope alive—hope that is not ignorant and uninformed but instead genuine, love-extending, and life-giving. In this way we will let our "light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.
Ultimately, what matters most regarding cynicism and its relationship to thumos is that in the end, cynicism blocks the animated and spirited form of love we're angling toward. This is especially sorrowful to me when I think of the most cynical people in my life. Most are well-educated. Most could help love others in tangible ways through their insights and incomes. They possess skills that could help others become freer, happier. They could, with humility, self-examination, and suspicion toward their own motives and behavior, help others find that zone between healthy suspicion and courage-crushing cynicism. But they don't. They remain on the sidelines, safe from the battle.
If you listen closely, you will hear how cynicism is the language of disguised grievances without redemptive power or a plan to facilitate something beneficial. You could say cynicism is gossip with hair on its chest. And it's also the language of resignation. In regard to thumos, a workingman's response is "Why try?"
Cynicism is more than just the language of self-preservation; it's also an undisclosed belief that one is powerless and impotent. I don't think this is the case for all cynics, but I know it is for some: Like Asaph and me, at times people feel trapped and helpless, and their panicked frustration often blasts out in the form of rage, like a wild animal caught in a snare. This too places cynicism in the category of shadow thumos—animation, will, and desire, in the wrong direction.
God warns us against swearing for similar reasons. He doesn't want us to watch what we say because he wants us to be good little boys who always please their mommas. He warns us about its corruptive nature because it sucks hope from our air. Swearing can also be an expression of powerlessness and impotency, and like an odor, it lingers.
A cynic is often a frustrated, wounded, and fearful idealist—frequently someone who tried to play by the rules they were given and then found that toeing the line did not deliver. The anger has turned into bitterness that's driven them to another camp and into the seat of the all-knowing scoffer, the one who weighs and pronounces judgment over right and wrong—all the while never moving from his comfortable perch to give to or help anyone. Seeing the horridness of this fate must remind us to turn from cynicism and instead to generate the hope-creating fuel we need to stay faithful, animated, engaged, and aware.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying.