My church has been studying John’s Gospel together for more than a year now. And in that time, I’ve seen several reoccurring themes throughout its pages. And not just Jesus’ repeated declarations that he is, in fact, God. One of those is a repeated caution against cynicism.
What is cynicism?
To be cynical is to see people as being motivated primarily (or entirely) by self-interest. To be looking out for themselves ahead of all others. One of the many quotable lines in The Princess Bride that speaks to this: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” That is cynicism.
Cynicism is dangerous because, like fear, it is rooted in a distorted view of God’s rule over the universe. However, cynicism is less concerned with whether or not God is in control, and more over whether it even matters. It tempts us to take matters into our own hands.
The hard reality and the temptation it brings
By nature, I struggle to think the best of people. (My scam detector is perhaps overly sensitive.) But when I look at the mess of the world—and especially within segments of the American Evangelical church—it’s hard not to be cynical. Denominational leaders cover up horrific abuse. Pedophilic predators are venerated as stalwart defenders of the faith. Pastors advocate the election of a man who faces 90+ criminal charges for his alleged role in a seditious conspiracy and fraudulent claims of a stolen election. A man that more closely resembles the beast Revelation 13 warns about.
I’m an ex-Southern Baptist entity employee. I have many friends who exited around the same time I did. I have some who are still in various organizations connected to the convention. Few of us who were there were unaware of the rot within the convention. Many of us were doing what we could from our positions to make things better. Most of us were unprepared for how deep it actually goes.
A lesson from Annas
Which brings me back to John’s Gospel. More specifically, to my background study on Annas. Annas was the former high priest of the Jewish people. His family members—his sons and sons-in-law—held the role after him. One of those sons-in-law, Caiaphas, was the ruling high priest at the time of Jesus’ ministry.
When I think about Annas, the word that comes to mind is cynic. He didn’t seem to care about the truth of God’s Word or the responsibility bestowed upon him to be the mediator between God and his people. He cared about himself. About power. And despite not having any official role, Annas continued to exert real power over the people. He seemed to act as the authority behind the authority of his successors—in a way that more closely resembles a mob boss than a mediator. He had real power—real authority. Jesus was a threat to that power and one he had to eliminate. Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah, the king of the Jewish people, because if he were, all of Annas’ power would be gone.
It wouldn’t matter anymore. He wouldn’t matter anymore. So he had to get rid of Jesus.
Protect yourself from cynicism
And that’s the real danger of cynicism. Regardless of where we’re at, we wind up in this place where we can be tempted to get rid of Jesus. For some of us, that might be abandoning the faith altogether as some have.
For others, it might mean becoming something more akin to a fraud. We might use the right language, and maintain the faithful outward appearance, but inside, we’ve given up on Jesus. Instead, we cut corners for the sake of expediency. We justify any means as long as those means lead to the end we desire. When given the choice between two evils, we stop believing that we can—and must—choose neither.
So how do we protect ourselves from cynicism?
1. Examine ourselves.
This matters at all times, but especially when we’re considering or actively pursuing positions of influence or authority. We want to pray that the Lord would purify our motives as much as possible and that he would redirect us if we are not pursuing either from the right spirit. We need him to help us to be appropriately self-aware, to know the sins we are tempted toward, and to surround us with people who can keep us pointed in the right direction.
2. Be discerning.
We need to pay special attention to every message we hear, especially those with promises attached. We should have a sort of sanctified skepticism, not expecting perfection from anyone, but seeking the Lord’s help to us have tempered expectations of any human solution. Jesus is in control of this world. No human plan is ever going to bring about what only he can.
3. Keep turning to Jesus.
The greatest protection from cynicism is hope. We have to trust that Jesus is in control of the way he says he is. To work for change in the ways that honor him, including speaking up against the evils of those who take his name in vain. To correct those who see God’s judgment upon them as persecution. And to lead the way in repentance for where we’ve fallen short of our ideals or perpetuated the sins that drive people deeper into cynicism.
This is the hard road that we’re all called to. It is costly. And it will seem to lead to failure, at least in the eyes of the cynical. Sometimes even to us. But it’s the road we need to take because though it is hard, it is the road that keeps us turning to Jesus.
Because if Jesus is who he said he is, he will not be thwarted. He is in control of all things. His kingdom will not be overcome. And so we can can continue to hope and work for change, in ways that honor him. And we can keep doing so until the day we stand before him, or his purposes are accomplished.