I would say that one of my biggest struggles as a Christian is staying on the right side of the line between skepticism and cynicism. The way I see it, skepticism is a healthy and needed thing. It’s what helps us to ask questions and to see how to improve the things that we’re doing, and how to lose unnecessary things. Cynicism, on the other hand, is a more negative attitude that automatically looks for the bad stuff, ignores the good, and can never really be pleased.
To use an example based on my own experience, a skepticism might lead you to reflect on the songs that you sing in church, which for me leads to worship times where I engage more deeply and authentically with God (as I’ve spoken about elsewhere). However, a cynical attitude leads you to assuming that you’re not going to agree with the songs you’re singing, and that you’re never going to engage with sung worship.
Thus, skepticism deepens my relationship with God, whilst cynicism makes it more difficult.
The problem for me is that the line between the two is not always clearly defined, and as much as I want to be enthusiastic and supportive of the things going on in my church and faith, it can be tricky. Skepticism is a necessary aspect of my Christian life, but it’s tough when the questions that I feel I have to ask put me at greater risk of a negative outlook that I don’t want.
For some, the obvious answer might be to stop asking questions, to stop being skeptical, but that doesn’t sit well with me. The process in the brain that makes human beings want to eat is the same process that, in excess, makes some people overeat continually. But that doesn’t mean the process itself is bad, it’s the excess that’s bad.
I think it’s the same with skepticism and cynicism. It is not that being skeptical and asking questions is bad, but failing to do so in a controlled, healthy way is, and that’s how you end up with cynicism. For me, the problem worsens as I get more involved in something. The more time I spend in church, the more flaws I start to see, and the easier it is for me to slip into negative assumptions. The thing is, it would be dishonest of me to say that I agree with everything all the time.
As someone who engages with God and people in a pretty intellectual way, skepticism is natural, and it doesn’t clash with faith in the way that you think it might. I’ve heard it said that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty, and that saying keeps me grounded. I’ve written before about a closed hand and an open hand, and a key part of my walk with God is being able to question the things that I hold in an open hand.
The funny thing is, I don’t ask questions because I need answers all the time. Rather, my questions often lead me to a greater appreciation of the wondrous mystery of God. In a way, my intellectual thought process leads to a very unintellectual conclusion. But that’s okay, this way of thinking draws me into worship, and helps me to build my faith on Jesus and the core truths of Christianity, rather than the all of the stuff that’s been added over the centuries.
Thankfully, this issue is a struggle for me, not a lost cause. Several things along the way have allowed me to challenge myself head on, and catch cynicism before it can bloom into something really damaging.
The main thing for me has been to talk to people about it. I have a fiancée and close friends who know me and can talk to me about these things, and they’re people that can call me out when they see that my attitude isn’t helpful. Through talking to these people as soon as I notice the risk of skepticism into cynicism, I’m able to nip it in the bud more often than not.
The other big thing has been consciously turning my cynicism over to God. That sounds sickeningly Christian, but I mean what I say. 2 Corinthians 10:5 talks about taking every thought captive for Christ, which means that when I recognise cynicism creeping in, I force myself to remember that the point of everything that the church does, and everything that I do as a Christian, is to give Christ glory. I’m healthiest when I maintain an active prayer life, focusing on contemplative prayer and worship rather than always asking God for things. These practices keep Jesus at the centre, and remind me that my Christian life is not all about me.
If I could talk directly to other people who find themselves in a similar mindset, I would say that trying to beat cynicism by cutting out your skepticism is a losing battle. You’re most likely fighting against your personality and the way you engage with God the best. Instead of trying to change who you are, talk to people about when your attitude starts to become less healthy. The people who know you best can probably see it anyway, and bringing them into the fold will deepen your relationship with them, and help you to work through the cynicism.
The funny thing is, people who tend to be skeptical like rational things, and cynicism isn’t rational! Cynicism is a negative bias that is very difficult to change with evidence and honest questioning. When I see myself becoming cynical, I recognise that while it might be a consequence of my way of thinking, it is not something that I have to accept.
God might have given me an inquiring mind, but he did not make me for negativity, and if I believe that God is working out his salvation in me, then I believe that, through my personal prayer life and the people I trust, God will help me to be me in the healthiest way possible. And I believe he’ll do the same for others who share this struggle with me.