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Cynicism, Pessimism, & the Christian Hope – a sermon from ’02

 

Those of you who know me very well might find it funny that I’m teaching on this subject, but I always find I learn the most when I teach on a subject that I, myself, most need to learn. That way, if I begin to get preachy, I’m preaching at you AND me! Even to this day, I sometimes struggle against irritation when people seem to be just a bit too joyful – those whose lives seem without difficulty, and always have a kind word to give. My cynicism has at times in my life left me embittered and even hardened towards the work of God, quicker to criticize the faults of a fellow believer’s efforts rather than move in beside them to encourage and challenge their growth as a co-laborer. May the Lord forgive the times I could have encouraged someone first, but rather cut them down because I thought them naïve. May God forgive me for the many times I went into a situation expecting the worst, and even after a beautiful outcome, focused only upon the things that didn’t go as I’d hoped. When my first full-length c.d. came out in 1995 I couldn’t listen to it for nearly 3 months – I HATED it; all I could hear were “mistakes”, and during that time a young non-believer who used to come to all of my shows gave her life to Christ while listening to one of the songs on the very c.d. that I hated. Now I see that the weaknesses on the record made it, in a sense, approachable – believable, and intimate. I now listen with joy, and laugh at the supposed “flubs”, knowing that in spite of my imperfect performance God used it to draw that girl to himself. This is the difference between cynicism and faith.

When listening to that music I’m tempted to say, arrogantly, as though I’m much better than that now, “listen – I sang a flat note right there”, but God says, “I’ll use that note to my glory.” In fact, God sometimes says he’ll use you WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT. Today, I’d like to look at pessimism/cynicism and Biblical faith – what they are – where they come from. Rather than stopping there, however, we’re going to look at an example of both a cynic and a faithful believer from the Scriptures, and see how we might be challenged to live in hope, rather than cynicism.

Random House Dictionary defines “cynicism” as; “distrusting, disbelieving, contemptuous, and holding a low opinion of mankind”, and expands its synonym “pessimism” as “a habitual disposition to look on the dark side of things and to believe the worst will happen.” This is in opposition to faith in Christ, since faith is an active trust in God, and mankind is shown by God to be valuable because we were created in God’s image, and He saw fit to sacrifice the infinitely valuable Son, Jesus Christ, for our sins. Also, the tendency to always anticipate the worse often blinds us to the work that God is doing through what might seem to most to be a negative situation. However, we should remain to a degree cynical to the things that the world promises will fulfill. Also, we should continually recognize that, apart from the grace of God, we are all by nature sinners and separated from Him. So, immediately we see not ALL cynicism is bad. Just like skepticism. Few know this, but TRUE skepticism is merely the willingness to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize and study with great care and in minute detail. Given the nature of the Scriptures as God’s revelation of himself to us, we should be nothing short of skeptical in our studying it – in order that we might handle the Holy Scriptures with reverence for what they are; God’s word to us. But when skepticism becomes an all-encompassing world-view that keeps a person from ever committing him or her-self to truth, it has become worldly and futile. Likewise, there are things about which we should be cynical, but we must be VERY careful as to not allow cynicism to become the lense through which we view the world.

Turn with me to the book of Jonah in the Old Testament – that’s the little book between the even smaller book of Obadiah and the somewhat larger book of Micah. Let’s look at Jonah 1:1-3?

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me. But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the city, sometimes the capital of Assyria, Nineveh had warred with Israel off and on throughout history. In fact, in Nahum 3:1, Nineveh is called “…the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!” Not a nice bunch, I would say. Although Jonah was a Jewish believer, he didn’t want to go to Nineveh for he didn’t want to be the instrument God used to bring the Ninevites to repentance. In fact, later Jonah explains his reasoning for not going immediately to Nineveh; “Oh Lord, is this not what I had said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:2)

In chapter 3, after much deliberation and hardship, Jonah delivers God’s message to Nineveh, and they immediately repent. Now Jonah didn’t even fully enter the city – he only walked one day in when it took three days travel to get to the center of the city. What response would YOU expect to receive if entering an enemy city, a single person, to wander the streets pronouncing judgment? I’d expect I’d be tortured, then killed – and that’s giving the Ninevites credit! Given their response then, it is obvious that God was preparing the Ninevites for Jonah’s message. Did God NEED Jonah to go – could he have brought the Ninevites to repentance on his own? Of course! He could’ve miraculously changed the hearts of the entire city, but that is rarely God’s way. He might have raised up a prophet from within Ninevah, perhaps. Why did he send Jonah? Jonah was sent for Jonah’s sake, and for ours.

Let’s continue on to chapter 4;

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?” Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.” But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?

Apparently it was Jonah’s unforgiving heart towards his enemies that led him into cynicism towards the work God had for him in Nineveh. And Jonah’s response after it was all said and done? Jonah was angry towards God for forgiving his enemy. Surely God felt great pity on Jonah and his anger was justified? Well, not necessarily, but God used Jonah in spite of himself. I like to think that eventually he learned his lesson, but the book basically leaves us hanging – it doesn’t say what becomes of him.

When I look at Jonah I think of Romans 2. Paul, in Romans 1, had been elaborating on the sins of the Gentiles, or those who had only natural revelation through creation to go by, yet rejected it – you can almost see the holier-than-thou religious person, who’s over-all lived a pretty good life nodding his head and even smirking on occasion as Paul lists the sins of those gentiles. But then in Romans 2 he turns from “they”, the gentiles, to “you”, those who have the revelation of the Scriptures – the pious person who’s gone to synagogue (or church?) all of their life. To “you” Paul says; “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else…”,“…you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you towards repentance…” How does one show “contempt for the riches of [God’s] kindness”? Simply by showing a dislike for the very thing that brought you to God, His tolerance and patience, by not wanting God to be merciful to those who have sinned against you. and he continues in verse 4,

Was Jonah a sinner? Of course he was! The word “sin” in Greek is actually an archery term that simply means “to miss the mark.” Jonah was given direct revelation from God, yet fled his command. If Jonah were an archer, rather than aim at the bull’s eye and merely miss the mark, he likely would have turned and fled the target, shooting his arrow into the air as he ran. One couldn’t “miss the mark” much further than he, but rather than recognizing his own sin before God, he focused upon the sin of his enemies, and the wrath of God which they rightfully deserved. Yet Jonah forgot – he too deserved that wrath. An unwillingness to see the working of God in a given situation, especially to lack the desire to see grace displayed through a situation, is a sign of cynicism towards the work of God, and show’s contempt towards the kindness of God, and can ultimately only lead to misery. In Jonah’s case; “I am angry enough to die.”

Also notice that by the end of the story Jonah is alone in his self-pity and judgmentalism. A pessimistic attitude towards situations and cynicism towards others isolates us from the body of Christ. Do you see self-pity, anger towards God, judgmentalism, contempt, distrust, and simply the tendency to always see the bad in things – do you see these in yourself? Then, like myself, it might do you good to look closely at this next section of Scripture. Read with me Philippians 1:12-30.

“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved–and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

Let’s keep in mind, Paul wrote these words from prison, yet he maintained an attitude of joy, hope, courage – even expectation! Now if this were me it would likely read more like this; “I don’t have any clue what God is doing. I was doing this spectacular work for him, and STILL he let me get put in jail for it. Sometimes I don’t even think he really loves me.” Thankfully I don’t write scripture. Why was Paul hopeful? He recognized that God was sovereign over the events of his life and would use his situation ultimately for blessing. That doesn’t mean he was sure he’d get out alive – verses 22-24 make that abundantly clear; Paul basically says he’d really like to die to be with Jesus, but he recognizes also that God is likely not through using him here yet. Yet either way he doesn’t complain about his circumstances – he recognizes an opportunity and is encouraged by it. Christian hope sees opportunity where cynicism and pessimism see only hardship.

Here’s an important thing that I learned a few years back – Faith is not trusting THAT God will do this thing or that thing, but Faith is trusting IN God, that he is good, and that in spite of the circumstances as they presently stand, the God we worship “works all things for the good of those who love him and are the called according to HIS purposes.” Notice – we are called according to HIS purposes, not our own. Our purposes are often temporary, and short-sited; superficial happiness, a nice job, a good car, and attractive mate. God’s purposes are much more long-term, and infinitely more important; God seeks to instill in you Christ-like-ness – to return you to your created glory. And recognizing that we do not seek after God to bless our plans, but rather, seek to involve ourselves in HIS plans, and that those plans REALLY ARE GOOD. This perspective makes all the difference in a life. Sometimes learning that lesson can be FRUSTRATING; there have been times in my life where God has had to strip me of nearly EVERYTHING I depended upon to get me to recognize this – but God does not want us to be comfortable as much as he wants us to be like Christ. Christ-like-ness is God’s first priority.

So, some of you might be saying, “I know that’s me, but what can I do?” Of course, the TRUE pessimists and cynics among us are simply going to remain quiet and think to themselves, “Shannon, you are full of it – that’s not true. P.S. – I hate you.” But seriously, what can we do if we struggle with cynicism? I’ve found that a few things are helpful, and are merely things that balance out what is normally an imbalanced Christian walk.

1. Quit naval-gazing. Quit thinking about yourself all of the time. When I think about myself and my own needs for too long it’s hard not to begin feeling sorry for yourself – it becomes easy to overlook our own sin, and justify it as simply a “psychological” reaction to these things which were done to me. I’ve done this – I do this. It’s good to occasionally take a look at yourself – to see what might contribute to one’s tendency to act this way or that in response to certain things that others do to us. BUT, this does not relieve me of my guilt! My sin in not someone else’s fault! I own my sin! Naval-gazing ultimately can lead to nothing but self-pity, and a judgmental attitude towards others, quite the opposite of Philippians 2:3-4, which says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” If you truly struggle with navel-gazing, maybe you might try doing an act of service – WDA occasionally involves itself in service projects. Find a local homeless shelter, volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center, work with habitat for humanity. Just do something that isn’t for YOU, and if it doesn’t bring you joy and gratification. The first part of James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”

2. Remember the sovereignty of God. Throughout the scriptures it is clear that all things are ultimately under God’s lordship, even the free decisions of man. Remembering that God TRULY is good, and has our best interests in mind, even when circumstances seem to the contrary. God can even use your own sin to ultimately work for your own good. Now, that’s not a call to sin, but isn’t that amazing. Can you believe that? Have you taken that to heart? Paul did – he followed God joyfully even in his darkest moments. Even Jesus; the Bible says Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him.” This means that pain is not meaningless. Read Romans 5:3-5; “…we rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

3. Don’t show contempt for God’s kindness! Be reminded of your own sinfulness and your own need for grace. If you find yourself dealing with others in a way that seems pessimistic or cynical, remember that you too are human – you, too, have sin. So, they might have hurt you – have you hurt someone? Ultimately, we all have in a sense “hurt” God by breaking covenant with Him. You are no better or worse than any of those of whom you are cynical. “As God has forgiven you, so you ought to forgive one another.”

May this be so in all our lives.

 

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Filed under: Bible, Doctrine, Sermon, Theology

2 Responses

  1. Great blog! I’m not sure if you’ve been back, but I replied to your comment at Resurgence. I appreciate the link. Also, I don’t know if you’ve seen the newly formed league of charismatic bloggers (http://charismaticbloggers.blogspot.com), but this is the type of site we’re looking for. Check it out. Also, feel free to delete this comment.

    So, where are you from? How did you find my blog? Feel free to email me sometime me@jessephillips.net

  2. […] the revival, don’t go to one (on revivals in Florida & elsewhere)… I do hate to be the skeptic.  Sometimes I think having discernment is more a curse than a gift.  It might be fun to be able […]

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