Gen 9:8–17 (Covenant with Noah); Ps 25:1–9 (In you, Lord my God, I put my trust); 1 Peter 3:18–22 (Christ brings us to God); Mk 4:35-41 (Jesus calms the storm)
Dick Keyes, in his book Seeing Through Cynicism, illustrates cynicism by way of the “Sick Day.” Have you every called in to request a sick day? If you did, was it… legitimate? Have you ever just wanted to take a sick day just because? Or, have you ever been the supervisor or manager to receive the call? And if so, did you feel a little awkward? I mean, the person could be entirely sick. But the “sick day” is one of those things you really can’t call out. You can’t just say, “I don’t believe you, you were feeling fine just yesterday.” Sick days are just one of those things you can receive with lots of grace… or lots of suspicion.
Several years ago, working in France, I became aware that cynicism was a great challenge to the Faith, perhaps one of the greatest. I recognized it all around me in the attitudes of people, but I also recognized in me. I fell into a pattern that was particularly negative—void of humility, void of responsibility, and void of grace towards others.
Cynicism and how it harms us
Lilian Helman – “Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth.”
Oscar Wilde – “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing!”
Thomas Carlyle – “If Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, hear what he had to say and make fun of him.”
So, how would you describe cynicism? A general distrust in human nature or motives? An outlook of suspicion or skepticism? I have a friend who tells me that he tries to set low expectations so he can protect himself from disappointment. Does that sound like you? We’ve all experienced enough of life to recognize that it is not without difficulty, disappointment, and at times despair. But is cynicism bad for us? Or is it a protector? Is hoping as equally dangerous?
A School for Cynics
Cynicism is not a new thing. In fact, in the ancient Greek world it was an entire philosophical school of thought. Diogenes of Sinope is known as the founder. He chose asceticism, or self-denial to reject the values of his day. He is known to have lived in a barrel on the street and acted like a dog. One of his antics was to walk around in the middle of the day with a lamp. He would walk up to people and say, “excuse me, I’m looking for someone honest.”
Diogenes was the sort of comedian people loved. There is the legend that Alexander the Great came to Corinth came to speak to him. When he found Diogenes reposing in the sun, he greeted him, “I am Alexander the Great,” to which Diogenes replied, “I’m Diogenes the dog.” Appreciating his boldness, Alexander asked him if there was anything he could do for the great thinker. Diogenes coolly replied, “Maybe you could get out of my sunlight?”
Cynicism takes many forms today like satire, sarcasm, dark comedy, or the modern, “mockumentary.” Perhaps the most contemporary version is Cable News. But there is one good thing to say about cynicism… it is often potently honest. It can be useful for critical thinking and prudent reflection. We can even appreciate its ability to rebel against the world and ignoble values. At its worst however, Cynicism can be very toxic. It attacks the good as well as the bad. Cynicism often acts in abandonment and rejects hope. So Cynicism’s weaknesses are:
- It is Elitist – We can better throw stones if we stand on higher ground.
- It is Apathetic – We don’t really want to improve anything; because there’s nothing noble enough for us to engage in.
- It is self-centered – As a bi-product of Socratic thought, self-sufficiency is our aim… depending on others or even worse, trusting God is a naïve and dangerous thought. This is often masked by prudence.
A Gospel narrative
Today’s Gospel reading describes a dramatic scene. At the end of a long day, Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee in several small fishing boats. Jesus falls asleep, probably worn out from preaching to a very large crowd and then a training session with his disciples (Parables for Dummies). A violent windstorm started filling the boat with water faster than they could empty it out and the disciples woke Jesus up, crying out, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
What emotions do we hear in that? Fear. Helplessness. Desperation. Terror. Death. We probably can relate. In our own moments of despair, we call out to God, “Lord, Don’t you care that I can’t find a job… that my marriage is failing… that my kids are drifting off in a dangerous direction… that the WORLD is falling apart in murder and war!”
At these moments we are experiencing and expressing our very real and very human doubt and cynicism. We don’t need to drastically turn away, ignoring our troubles. But we do need to do the one thing that the Cynic cannot do—we need to HOPE. Hope has to be rallied from within us, but also from beyond us. In those moments we can look in four critical directions… We look down. We look up. We look behind. And, we look ahead.
We look down to see where our feet are planted.
We see that we are standing on this thing we call Planet Earth. This world isn’t so reliable. Diogenese had reason to suspect the virtues of wealth, status, and power. He was only wrong about the remedy. He tried to rid himself of those things to prove his power over them. Jesus, on the other hand, calls us to adopt new Kingdom values and virtues, trusting in God for deliverance and our restoration.
We do not expect this world to treat us well. Even Jesus promises that in this world we will have troubles. But he calls us to engage this world with him. We are not withdrawing to rid ourselves of this world, nor to attain nirvana outside of this world. Jesus is calling us to “scoot in” closer to broken people, move in to broken places, name the despair, and invoke his restoration!
Someone said, “the realism of the Bible surpasses the worst cynic because it knows what man has done with God. At the same time, its hope surpasses the most optimistic utopian because it knows what God will do for man!”
We also look up
When the Christian looks to the sky, we see not only space beyond our comprehension, we see a God who hasn’t lost control of the universe (this is contrary to the modern notion of purposeless randomness).
A profound belief in the providence of God is about the only thing that we can put hope in when the worst of life happens, including death. Romans 8:28 is a hard pill to swallow, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord.” I want to doubt that by in the end I find I must trust it. I would prefer to trust that God did not intend my harm and that there is hope beyond my harm.
It is interesting that God’s covenant with Noah (from our OT reading) was a Covenant of hope… and that it pertained to all living things on earth. It was as if God was saying, “look around at how life is sustained on earth and then trust in me.” We may need to take a walk or eat and drink from this beautiful earth to see it—there is something that goes on despite me. There is something that doesn’t work to get paid and doesn’t spend money to survive. Nature is our rainbow of hope!
We look in our rearview mirror
Objects in our rearview should be larger than they appear!” God’s faithfulness in our past is the best basis for our hope in the future. Faith by nature is not scientific or proven to certainty… but it is not entirely blind either. In Scripture, God often calls folks to obedient living by reminding them of what he has faithfully done in their past.
This is how God called the people through Moses to faith and obedience, “You saw how I delivered your from the hands of the Egyptians, how I carried you on eagles wings…” He says to me too, “Do you remember how I brought you out of slavery to that sin, or lifted you up out of your depression and put you on solid ground.” We Do have something to be confident in… it is how God has worked in our past. Has he changed? Is Christ not the same yesterday, today, and forever? God’s grace from yesterday is our hope for today.
Finally, we look forward
Moving forward is a bit trickier than just looking down, up or behind. It requires active faith. It takes digging deep into our experience. It takes facing the worst realism.
Life requires that we be Optimistic Cynics.
I use the words, Optimistic Cynic in honor of an uncle. He is a bit of a character and very frank. He’s also a deeply hopeful person, although most people might not know that when they meet him. He discovered he had cancer a few years ago and wrote something that I saved.
He said, “I’m waiting for a healing, but to be healed from what? The greatest miracle God could ever do is to save me from my own sins. Maybe I will be healed of this cancer, and many people are praying for that exact thing. But, what is going to bring glory to God, my life, or my patience and faith during this cancer. My prayer has always been, ‘God use me,’ and it still is.”
I was touched by this expression of hope. He was honest with the world he lived in, even the sickness and suffering. He looked to God for his help. He took into account God’s faithfulness in his past, and he looked forward with optimism and courage.
Three specific attitudes
So How can we bend cynicism into hope today? Humility, Responsibility, and Compassion. Humility is suspicion turned against it. Do a good self-critique. Ask—what are the soapboxes that I use to get above others to criticize them? Responsibility is sharing ownership of problems and solutions. Find something that needs done. Ask—what is one thing I can take responsibility for, not out of self-interest, but out of active hope and commitment to others. Graciousness is participating in God’s nature to give people beyond what they have earned and according to their intrinsic value as a person. It is the ultimate antidote to cynicism, counteracting the toxicity of cynicism.
One of Jesus’ disciples was drenching wet and cold. He clung to the side of a boat as it was tossed around by the angry sea. As the wind howled he began to fear the worst.
We too are “All at Sea.”
There are three questions with rhetorical answers in this text:
- Does Jesus care that we are perishing? Yes, he does care.
- Why are we afraid? We are afraid because the reality.
- What are we supposed to do? Flourish anyway.
Last summer our family visited Montreal before moving to the area. I was walking on Sherbrooke one day and was surprised by a raised vegetable garden in the middle of the sidewalk. Someone had planted and cultivated vegetables and herbs for anyone to pick right there on the street. There was even a little sign that said, “free for those in need.” This little community garden was flourishing right there on the cold lifeless sidewalk of a busy street.
Many people today feel they are perishing. Most of them do not look to the church for hope. If we want them to have hope rather than cynicism, we will have to surprise them in the middle of the sidewalk, with flourishing and beauty: humility, responsibility, and grace. We will FLOURISH among the perishing in our world. We have an unending source of human and spiritual capital to reinvest EVERY day as believers. At least that was 2 Cor. 4:16 says, “Therefore we do not become discouraged (utterly spiritless, exhausted, and wearied out through fear). Though our outer man is [progressively] perishing or wasting away, yet our inner self is being [progressively] renewed day after day.