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The Dangers of Cynicism

a man, wearing glasses, looking at the camera with cynicism
Cynicism may not destroy you in a few hours or days, but if it goes unaddressed, it will wreck your life.

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As a leadership coach, I have the privilege of working with leaders from many different industries, backgrounds, and experiences. These individuals share deeply and honestly with me about their inner world.

There’s one ministry leader who for years has battled cynicism in his own life. There was a two-year stretch where he fought certain internal soundtracks daily: Nobody will change. What you’re doing won’t make any difference. You’re wasting your time because ultimately it doesn’t matter.

Nobody knew this leader was struggling. Externally, everything seemed fine. But no one knew the truth: that he was weighed down by a cynical spirit — and it was suffocating.

That leader was me.

What does “cynical” mean?

Cynicism is everywhere; our culture is saturated with it. It is the spirit of our age. It sounds like: “Ah, that’s cute.” “Like that will make a difference.” “Oh, really? We’ll see how that turns out.” “Hmmm, must be nice…”

But what is cynicism, really? It’s when we mistrust or distrust the intentions of other people. It’s the belief that everyone is in it for their own self-interest, there’s always an ulterior motive, and therefore no one can be trusted. It says: I know best. I am knowledgeable enough to know what’s really going on, and you do not.

Ultimately, cynicism is an unhealthy response to disappointed expectations. The late comedian George Carlin quipped, “Inside every cynical person there is a disappointed idealist.” Cynicism usually involves three feelings: hopelessness, helplessness and bitterness (often expressed as smugness). In it, we have a general sense that “this is how it’s going to be from now on.”

Some equate cynicism with skepticism, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that cynicism and skepticism are not the same thing. Skepticism isn’t so sure; there is an uncertainty, but also an open-mindedness. Cynicism assumes a posture of closed-mindedness. It hardens and distances us — and attempts to elevate ourselves above others.

The origin of cynicism

It’s no secret that we live in an age of distrust. Scandals and corrupt institutions. Misinformation, disinformation, AI-generated images and intentionally false messages created by endless bots. Social media influencers who are just a little too polished and perfect on their feeds. A trust-starved culture is a Petri dish where cynicism grows rapidly. So how did we get here?

Cynicism means something different today than it originally did. The School of Cynicism began in Greece in the 4th century B.C. by a student of Aristotle. This school of philosophy explored important questions around human nature, customs and shame. In fact, Cynics believed the highest form of wisdom was to live according to nature and not man-made customs or social constructs — even laws. Self-sufficiency and shamelessness were key virtues.

The goal was to shock others by questioning the unspoken societal rules that existed. Adherents lived radically ascetic lives, often living in the streets and engaging in public defecation.

In fact, the word cynic means “dog-like” in Greek — a nod to the animal’s scrappiness and lack of inhibition.

The most famous Cynic was Diogenes of Sinope, and he was one eccentric dude. Plato once referred to him as “Socrates gone mad.” He found a large clay water jar and lived in it. He would urinate on people he didn’t like and defecate in public, often outside and sometimes inside of theaters, ostensibly to communicate the triviality of most everyday activities. Nicknamed Diogenes the Dog, he considered the moniker a compliment.

Why are we so cynical?

There are countless Diogeneses today. They may not live in clay pots, but they’re there. If I can be a bit direct: Aren’t today’s cynics those who think they have it right when everyone else has it wrong? Who metaphorically urinate and defecate on others and their ideas by assuming the worst in them? Aren’t cynics brutishly dog-like in their mentality and behavior?

Sadly, this attitude of jaded negativity has infiltrated even Christian circles. It is important to remind ourselves that sarcasm (a sneaky sister to cynicism) is not a fruit of the Spirit. In fact, it runs counter to it. I think it’s fair to say that most if not all of us have struggled with being cynical at some point in our lives. But most of us are not aware of just how pernicious it can be to our souls and our relationships.

What makes cynicism dangerous is it doesn’t pounce or whack you over the head. Instead, it grows slowly and creeps. If gone unchecked, it can overtake us entirely, like kudzu. It’s like a leaky roof; if we ignore it, it will only get worse. Or like a boa constrictor, which almost imperceptibly squeezes you down every time you exhale.

Cynicism may not destroy you in a few hours or days, but if it goes unaddressed, it will wreck your life. Cynicism kills joy, erodes hope, and robs us of the privilege of giving others the benefit of the doubt. To be cynical is to choose to be distant.

We see examples of cynicism in Scripture. Satan’s first interaction with humans implanted their minds and hearts with cynical questions about God: “Did God really say that?” (Gen. 3:5). The Israelites grew cynical toward God while wandering in the wilderness. Jonah’s temper tantrum was laced with cynicism.

Is cynicism sin? Well, what’s behind cynicism is pride — and pride is the very thing driving all sin to begin with. It’s that ultimate sense that, “I know better than God, and I will live my own way.”

So, yes, if cynicism is pride and pride is sin, it must be addressed, fought, and rooted out. If not, the toxicity will kill our relationships, our churches, and even our experience of God’s love. Paul Miller in his book “The Praying Life” writes,

“Unless we become disciples of Jesus, this present evil age will first deaden and then destroy our prayer lives, not to mention our souls. Our only hope is to follow Jesus as he leads us out of cynicism.”

How to stop being cynical

How do we let Jesus break our cynical spirits? We choose to live differently, which takes intention on our part. We fight diligently and constantly against apathy, smugness and pride, and instead root our hearts in love, joy and hope.

But what does this look like practically? There are two concepts Jesus taught that must be held in tension. First, we are to be as innocent as doves and as wise as snakes. Hopelessly naïve people who are out of touch are all dove and no serpent. Cynical people are all serpent and no dove. Jesus says we must be both, holding reality and hope together in healthy tension.

The second is to be child-like, but not childish. One of the most practical ways to overcome cynicism is to think like a child. Jesus said, “…unless you become like a little child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:2-4). Interestingly, I’ve never met a little child who was cynical — have you? Jesus wants us to grow up into maturity, but He also wants us to have the heart of a child: to wonder, to ask for help, to hope and dream, to experience joy easily and publicly. He wants us to live like children who see the world with fresh eyes, who don’t take ourselves too seriously — who laugh and cry and have no problem admitting our weaknesses.

More specifically and practically, I’ve tried to purposefully address the cynicism that remains in me. As such, I’ve entered into some creative spiritual practices. Here are a few I’ve tried and found helpful:

  • Noticing my cynical remarks and sarcastic comments and naming them. Naming things has a way of taming things. And when I notice a cynical statement or sarcastic quip, I must be quick to confess it.
  • Inviting other trusted friends to call out cynicism in me and pray with and for me in this area
  • Keeping a daily gratitude journal that I write in first thing in the morning
  • Engaging in the spiritual practice of giving people the benefit of the doubt. At first it was hard to do, but I’ve found there are many surprising benefits.
  • Watching children play and at times getting down on all fours with them at church in order to play with them
  • Purposefully surrounding myself with tender-hearted, hope-filled, joy-saturated people. While cynics are fault-finders, the Apostle Paul wrote that “[love] always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:7). I find I need to be around these kinds of people who serve as models for a different way of living.

In a world saturated with cynicism, the most revolutionary thing we can do is embrace and articulate hope. It is our responsibility and joy as followers of Jesus to not succumb to cynicism’s alluring force. Instead, we are empowered to live a life of hope and joy and compassion that looks beyond ourselves to a different way — the way of Jesus.

Copyright 2024 J.R. Briggs. All rights reserved. 

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About the Author

J.R. Briggs
J.R. Briggs

J.R. Briggs is the founder of Kairos Partnerships, an organization committed to investing in kingdom leaders by growing fruit on other people’s trees and creating good kingdom mischief. A pastor for 15 years, he now serves churches, ministries and organizations through leadership coaching, consulting, speaking and writing. He has written and co-written eight books, including “Fail” and “Ministry Mantras.” He and his wife, Megan, have two sons, Carter and Bennett, and live in the greater Philadelphia area.

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