Cynicism Is a Response of the Disappointed

An unprepared heart will not receive disappointment well. And when it comes, which it undoubtedly will, the temptation to become a cynic will be powerful. The cynic cocoons himself from hurt while distrusting the active goodness of God in his life.

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Biff became a Christian later in his life. He was 34-years old at the time. Christianity was a stark contrast to his upbringing. It was fresh, clean, loving, and hope-filled. Every time they opened the church doors, he was there. Whenever there was an event, no matter what it was, he was part of it.

He could not get enough of God, Christianity, or Christian people. When he read the Bible, it was as though it was reading him. His life began to make sense. He was soon baptized, singing in the choir, and working in the church wherever he could get plugged into a ministry. It did not matter to him. If the church needed help, he was “Johnny on the spot.”

The first couple of years of his church experience went well. He felt loved by the leadership, and he also thought he had a purpose for his life. Then one day, for some seemingly inexplicable reason, he had a misunderstanding with his pastor.

When I talked to him about this later, he said it was a trivial matter that should not have gone to where it did. Regardless, he and his pastor got into a heated argument. They spoke words that they both would regret later.

Biff was a Christian, but he was not entirely sanctified. He still had a hot temper and a hair-trigger, especially when things did not make sense or were not going his way. What he did not realize was that his pastor was similar and when they disagreed over something, things went bad quickly.

That event disillusioned Biff, and he was hurt. Though he had sinned against his pastor, his pastor sinned against him too. The problem was that they both were too proud to reconcile their differences. Because of Biff’s immaturity, he was hurt and did not know how to deal with it.

This incident was not the first hurt or disappointment in his life though it was the biggest because it was the most unexpected. Some people can think that being a Christian gives you a level of protection against disappointment. I mean, it should, right? They reason like this:

I can see how people, companies, or institutions could let you down, but how can God let you down? Religion is about love. God is love. How can a loving God make bad things happen to people? I gave my life to God. He should protect me. I’m not bargaining with Him, but I’m not expecting bad things to happen to me either. I’ve had bad things happen to me, but as I said, that’s the world. I assume that from them. That’s the way they are, but God is different. My life is going to be different now. I’m on God’s side.

Disappointment with God

Biff was on God’s side because the Lord had regenerated him legitimately. The problem was that he was not discipled well and remained immature in his faith. There was no proper preparation for disappointment–not the kind of frustration that came from his church leadership.

And when it did come, he left. He began pouring himself into his landscaping business and was quite successful at it. That is how Biff was. It did not matter what he did; he was usually a success. He was successful within his church, and he was successful as a businessman.

Biff was a gifted fellow. There seemed to be very little that he couldn’t do. But there was a flaw. When we talked, I began to notice a pattern in his life: though he was successful in whatever he did, Biff was never satisfied with anything that he did.

Biff was always a man in pursuit of something. Initially, I thought he was in a quest for God when he became a Christian, but that was not the whole truth. He was, in part, in the pursuit of filling a deep void in his life. He tried many things before he “came to God” and none of them were satisfying.

Then when he did come to God in genuine repentance, Biff thought that he had found what he had always been looking for in his life. And though he did see some fulfillment and God did regenerate him, Biff was not thinking rightly about what it meant to be a Christian.

He saw Christianity primarily as a means to satisfy his deepest longings of discontentment rather than an opportunity to glorify God. You may ask, “Can a person experience salvation for selfish reasons?” Absolutely–though not wittingly.

Honestly, I think most of us do that. Haven’t you heard of folks who became Christians because they did not want to go to hell? The number one reason that I wanted to become a Christian was that I was disillusioned. And after I became a Christian, the peace I longed did come.

But, I was not prepared (discipled) to accurately interpret disappointment after becoming a Christian, and when my time of significant disappointment came, the disillusionment of Biff was uniquely mine.

Yes, I think on some level almost all of us become Christians because we are looking for a better life. I don’t have a problem with that as long as you understand what a better life means.

Biff did not understand it. Though he would not say it this way, he was actually using religion as a vehicle to satisfy himself. Again, I don’t have a problem with that unless that is all you see religion to be.

At some point, you have to make a turn in your heart and see religion as the way to make God’s name great. We all should be thinking less and less about ourselves and more and more about God and others (Matthew 22:36-40). If you do not do this, you’ll be set-up to be crushed by disappointment.

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Cyclic Effect of Cynicism

He Became a Cynic

Biff was set-up. There was no preparation for what was to come. And when the inevitable disappointment happened, he went fishing (John 21:3). For Biff, religion was just like all the other things he had tried. Though he had a hard time saying it, he was disappointed with God.

In time, he became a critical man who decided to take his talents elsewhere. With religion in the rearview mirror, he went after the next best thing. As you should be able to predict, he never found satisfaction in anything outside of God’s favor. He slowly began to lose hope.

If your life is about filling some void in your life, you will be disappointed. After being disappointed one too many times, you will begin to lose hope. And once you lose that, the next stop for you is to become a crusty old cynic, which is what happened to Biff.

As he looked back on his life, he saw more disappointments than he could count. The worst of them all was the most unexpected: disappointment with God.

  • His parents disappointed him.
  • His siblings disappointed him.
  • His friends disappointed him.
  • His career choices disappointed him.
  • His hobbies disappointed him.
  • His things disappointed him.
  • Then his God disappointed him.

Though Biff should have been hope-filled, which is in no small measure what it means to be a Christian, he had lost hope. He joined himself to the growing number of believers who have embraced our culture’s critical spirit. Biff became a cynic.

Losing Hope in God

Cynicism is a hopeless attitude that reveals a rebellious heart. Ultimately the cynic is saying, “I am not getting what I want. Things are not going my way.” That is how rebellion works in the heart of the cynic. It is a self-justified pity party.

It can happen. It has happened to me. You have probably been tempted that way too. Because there is a sprinkling of disappointment all along the way in our lives, it is easy to become a cynic.

If you don’t have a good view of who God is and how you’re supposed to live in His world, you can quickly become a cynic. When a person begins to drift from the cross, darkness will enter his soul until he completely loses sight of Calvary.

Cynicism creates a numbness toward life, which is what happened to Biff. It began with one disappointment that he had not prepared his heart to accept. The numbness continued to grow as more and more disappointments–big and small–came into his life.

Biff had lost his childlike spirit. He embraced a cynical attitude. It is rare for a child to be a cynic. Each day is a new day for a child and with that day comes an expected hope. This type of personality should be analogous to the Christian life.

If a Christian has a right view of God and how God works in the lives of His children, he is full of hope. But if you begin to doubt God, you can become a critic (or cynic). Wasn’t this the story of Adam and Eve? Satan’s first recorded words were cynical, and they responded to his words by believing his lie.

Becoming Self-protective

A person who is hurt so many times may succumb to the temptation to withdraw from God and others, which is a means for self-protection. This reaction is normal for any of us. Biff was hurt. The first disappointment caused him to pause, but after several more hurts or frustration in his life, he began to grow spiritually distant and cold. Becoming spiritually distant is a characteristic of cynicism.

Biff began to withdraw in his heart from God. Before anyone recognized it for what it was, he had already developed a creeping bitterness that not only deadened his spirit but was destroying it too.

Rather than engaging the evil in his world, he grew tired, numb, and distant. Even at that, he was very much aware of the negative things that were going on around him. It’s kind of like the guy sitting on the back row of a church meeting with his arms crossed, criticizing all that he sees, but maintaining a safe distance.

Cynicism begins with the wry assurance that everyone has an angle. Behind every silver lining is a cloud. The cynic is always observing, critiquing, but never engaging, loving, and hoping. Cynicism is a weird kind of way of being in the world, but not really in the world. – Paul Miller

Biff would offer critique, as though he was in the world, but he was not willing to engage his world. He kept himself at arm’s distance. It’s like saying, “I will tell you what’s wrong with things, but I’m not going to do anything about it.”

Being a detached critic was Biff’s way of protecting himself from crushing disappointment. It also paralyzed him from doing anything for God. Biff was weary and afraid of being hurt again. Been there, done that. The best he would do was criticize.

Peace with God-replacements

Part of the deadening process caused Biff to become more and more weary with life, which is what fed his discontentment. He could not see it though. The more critical he became of God and His church, the more frustrated he grew in his soul.

The more frustrated he became in this soul, the more he tried to fill his life with things, events, work, and relationships. Nothing was going to satisfy him until he brought these matters before the Lord. His eyes were not going to see enough, and his ears were not going to hear enough. He would grow more and more weary and dissatisfied.

All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing – Ecclesiastes 1:8

Cynicism and defeated weariness have this in common: they both question the active goodness of God on our behalf while luring our hearts toward things that were never meant to satisfy. – Paul Miller

His low-level doubt in God’s goodness opened the door for more significant doubt until he hardly cared anymore. His thoughts used to be about what God wanted, but they turned to self-centered thinking. All that mattered was being satisfied.

He tried God and found Him lacking, so he decided to live according to the dictates of his desires while giving God a religious courtesy nod. “I’m a Christian in name and external practice, but my heart is entirely into the ways of the world. God let me down. He disappointed me. If I’m going to be disappointed, I might as well have fun in the process.”

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Active Goodness of God

Biff was misguided in his thinking. Though he was a Christian, he missed two critical points about what it meant to be a Christian:

  • The chief end of man is to glorify God–to make His name great in all the world.
  • Sometimes God uses personal suffering as a way to make His name great in our lives.

It was hard for Biff to see the active goodness of God in the disappointments that came into his life. I understand. It was when I began to understand these things that my Christian life changed. As I began to realize that God can use sin sinlessly for His glory, hope began to creep back into my soul.

This worldview is one of the most vital aspects of the gospel: personal suffering was the means by which cruel individuals put the Savior on the tree, and that was the perfect will of God. Biff needed this kind of gospel hope and realignment. He needed to see that Christians are not above suffering, but that suffering sometimes is the only way that God is going to accomplish His purposes.

A Christian who understands this will not be self-protective, but ready to engage evil even if he incurs a personal loss. Though Biff will never have this opportunity, my prayer is that others will learn from his mistakes by making a significant course correction in their lives.

(This story is true. Biff’s real name is Joey. He was my brother. He continued to drift from the Lord, and a few short years after the argument with his pastor, he got into another one with his wife. She shot him five times. He died that evening. It was April 18, 1997.)

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