When others ask me about my story of returning to the Catholic Church, I typically tell a story about a night that I experienced in college when I was getting ready to meet some friends at a local bar. After putting my hair in a ponytail and throwing on a cute blue dress, I took one last look in the mirror. It was what I saw in the mirror that changed everything.
What I saw was not a fresh young woman ready for a night on the town. Instead, I saw in myself all the exhaustion of years chasing after an empty life. At this point in the story, I usually explain that I decided that I wanted to live an honest life which sparked my journey back to faith. I don’t normally talk about the other thing that I saw in the mirror. It was something that I have seen over and over again in my own heart, and lately I have been noticing it again. It’s something that has become a popular attitude in society, and it's so subtle that most of the time it goes unnoticed.
That thing that I saw looming over me in the mirror that night was an attitude of cynicism. In my sin, I had become slightly cynical. My heart had been hardened about everything. Sure, I was funny and often had a smile on my face, but my thoughts, words, and actions had become peppered with the idea that there is something bad to be discovered in everything and no one can be trusted. This is a terrible way to live; yet many of us have taken on a cynical attitude without even realizing it.
According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, a cynic is “a faultfinding captious critic.” A cynical person typically holds a fundamental disposition of distrust toward ideas, institutions, and people. Even when things are good, they will ever so slightly pick apart situations and events in order to reveal what is wrong and expose possible bad motives. The cynical person finds it very hard to hold on to joy or hope in the midst of a tragic world.
What is so wrong with being cynical? After all, we only have to look at this year to be reminded that life is tragic. All too often, people aren’t who they seem to be, institutions are corrupt, and the good guys lose. Scripture tell us repeatedly that the world is evil (Acts 2:40) and that the human heart is not to be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9), so what is it about cynicism that makes it so dangerous, and how can we trade it for something better?
To start, cynicism is a function of pride and hopelessness. Cynics typically notice extra details that the average person might not notice or pull from extra information that the other person might not have. There is almost always an air of intellectual superiority that comes from the cynic. There is never an attitude of humility or seeking to learn from others what they may be missing.
Cynicism breeds ineffectiveness. Cynics recognize all that is wrong with the Sunday Mass and can tell anyone in earshot how to fix it, but they never volunteer to lead or form a relationship with the clergy. They can tell you all that is wrong with society and what to do to create change, but they do so from a place of comfort far removed from where the problems are unfolding. The cynic observes and judges, but does not act.
Finally, cynicism leads the cynic away from love, hope, and joy because it stems from a hardened heart. It embraces Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God,” without considering Romans 3:24, “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” With no redemption, there is no real hope, joy is fleeting, and love is temporal.
Dear sister, take a moment to search your heart. Is it shadowed by a cynical attitude? Are you allowing the beauty and joy of the Christian life to be stamped out because your past tells you that nothing stays good and no one remains trustworthy? Are you stifled in your Christian walk because the events of this year have left you with a hardened heart and weary spirit? The world by itself is a tragedy. It is filled with bad news and bad players both inside and outside of our Church and institutions. If we walk through life with a cynical spirit of the world, we will miss God’s call on our lives to enter the mess and be his hands and feet. Our hurting world needs Christians to reject cynicism, repent, and live the gospel.
So what is the proper response? It can be found in one of the most famous bible verses there is: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).
The Lord knows just how deep the wound of our sin goes. He knows that there is truth to the idea that good things don’t last and no one can be trusted, and yet, He did not sit on His throne and judge from afar. He entered into the mess. He became one of us and reached out a hand with His eyes on our redemption. He did it all, the healing, the miracles, the suffering, death, and resurrection knowing that many would still reject Him. That didn’t stop Him, however, from becoming the least of us with our redemption in mind. He broke through the cynicism and hardness of our sin through His realistic, unwavering love and it changed everything.
The Lord does not call us to take on a blind attitude of idealism and walk around as if real life reflects the movies on the Hallmark Channel. He calls us to the same realistic love that He gave to us. He calls us to see our world's brokenness for what it is and then refuses to be overwhelmed by it. He calls us to serve and to love anyway. With Him at the center of our lives, He challenges us to enter into the mess knowing that we won’t change everything, but through Him, we will change something. Gospel-centered action is the antidote to cynicism.
Yes, we live in a broken world wrought with broken systems. Yes, we may not see the happy ending on this side of heaven, but God calls us to act instead of judge from afar. What is it that bothers you so much about the world? What is it that you wish was different? Let it break your heart, not harden it. Let it bring you to your knees and move your feet to service. Let go of any cynicism that lurks in your heart, and let God use you to become the type of woman whose mere presence proves that redemption exists in a world full of evil.