Confessions of a Jaded Negativist - #2

Being cynical and being a cynic are two very different things. The former is an attitude or opinion, the latter is a condition. Of course, all cynics are cynical. But being cynical does not necessarily make one a cynic.

Because we live in a fallen world, populated by sinners and charlatains, a certain degree of cynicism, skepticism and distrust is healthy, even necessary. Scripture speaks often about discernment -- the ability to see below the surface, uncover agendas, perceive motives. In this sense, cynicism plays a part in discernment and is an important component in a wise, balanced life.

Of course, someone with a propensity toward melancholy (or paranoia, or pessimism), will laud this suggestion. (Cynics love having their naysaying, nitpicky observations confirmed. Public scandal, divorce, fraud and debauchery ensconce the resident cynic further in his smug appraisals.) Perhaps that's why, after I left the ministry, I plunged headlong into the role of full-blown cynic.

It came as a revelation of sorts. I'd been meeting with the associate pastor of a large local church. They were in the thousands and offered to bring me on staff to oversee small groups and train leaders. Yet the conversations with my pastor friend only confirmed growing suspicions about church life. Even in a large, established church, there were concerns about the pastor, questions about methodology and structure, grinding pockets of disunity and discontent, theological differences and listless support. To add to my burdgeoning disillusionment, several weeks later, that associate pastor tendered his resignation.

Maybe my departure from the ministry wasn't that unusual after all. Maybe there WAS a problem with the Church...and those who govern it.

As I mentioned in my intro, there's a difference between being cynical and being a cynic. Scripture seems to imply as much. Perhaps the closest Bible verse -- one that nails it remarkably well -- is Psalm One:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. (Ps. 1:1 KJV)

The Bible often describes this "blessed" state, what it looks like and how to get there. This verse says we're blessed by not doing something -- specifically, three things. Blessed is the man that doesn't...

WALK in the counsel of the ungodly

STAND in the path of sinners

SIT in the seat of the scornful

The downward progression appears intentional. From walking, to standing to sitting. Bible.org provides a wonderful intro to the Psalms and exposition of these verses.

“Sit” is the Hebrew word y`sh~B meaning “to sit, dwell, remain, abide.” It emphasizes a thoroughly settled state or condition—settled down, comfortable, content with the world with its patterns entrenched in our lives...

“In the seat.” “Seat” is the Hebrew word mosh`B. It means: (a) a seat, a place of sitting, or (b) an assembly where many are gathered together to sit and make deals or have close associations. The point is, when you sit in someone’s seat, according to the idiom, you act like or become what they are. You are viewed as in a confederacy with them.

“Of scoffers.” “Scoffers” is the Hebrew word l’s. It means “to mock, deride, ridicule, scoff.” Grammatically, it is a participle of habitual action. It refers to one who is actively engaged in putting down the things of God and His Word. But please note that scoffing can occur by declaration of words or by declaration of a way of life that scorns the moral absolutes of Scripture and its way of life.

Scoffing and cynicism are cousins. The definition, “to mock, deride, ridicule, scoff,” could be interchangeable. However, the Psalmist is not describing an occasional opinion or attitude, but a manner of being, "a thoroughly settled state or condition."

In this sense, people are not born cynics -- they get there by process. The process is different for everyone. In many cases, temperament and predisposition are the springboard of cynicism. Those who naturally possess a sullen, introspective angle on life are, potentially, consumed much easier. Furthermore, our experiences tend to confirm and reinforce the lathering negativity.

Both these factors were at work in me. Not only do I tend to overthink everything and succumb to flights of melancholy, but my experiences in the ministry built a scaffold of bitterness, hostility and scorn.

I was no longer cynical; I had officially become a cynic.


Janet Rubin said...

I've been there. Wonderful article, Mike. Great truth from the Bible. I'm thinking the more we keep our eyes on people, the more cynical we'll be. The path from cynicism to hope is found when we set our eyes on God, the ONE who will never dissapoint.

Ame said...

Well written, Mike. I think God is very specific here because it's so subtle ... we have these open, unhealing wounds ... we walk around with this unending pain ... we are drawn to others who share our pain ... we stand with those whom we feel understand us and we draw strength from one another ... and we linger, stay awhile, sit down to rest, and before long we find we have our own "place" or "seat" in this group.

This "path" always encourages The Path; it never questions, never discerns, never holds one accountable for one's thoughts or words or behavior. It's a growing microcosm that feeds on itself.

Choosing to ask God to draw you toward Him and away from anything that is not Him is difficult. It draws us to His Word and our knees. It causes us to seek others who will guide us toward God's Word and to our knees ... and who will go to their knees on our behalf - driving us to humility knowing our need for them to stand in the gap for us. It allows God to bring people into our lives who will hold us accountable and ask us the tough questions in love, in our best interest, that we want to pretend don't exist.

Thing is ... The Path of this downward spiral is so easy and temporarily soothing and such a smooth, slippery slide. But The Way out is HARD and impossible without God.

Good for you, Mike ... for getting out and for being willing to share about it.

Michelle Pendergrass said...

I knew it would be a gut-punch.

I've walked a similar path. I wasn't a pastor, but I did lead Women's Ministry for a time. It was a short time, but God certainly packed it full of powerful lessons.

One of which I try to remind myself up when the cynic starts boiling. (And sometimes I wonder, no I'm sure, God allows the cynic to boil so he can skim off that dross.) I remind myself that God never, anywhere asked me to trust a man. He says "trust in ME with all your heart."

Most often, my cynical attitude and the cynic that comes to the surface are only there because I've allowed myself to start to raise either myself or another to a higher level.

There are only two levels. The God level and the human level. Anyone (including myself) that I raise to a higher level becomes an idol set between God and I by my hand.

I went to church for the first time in about 6 weeks this past Sunday. I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't want to go because I was hurt by a church we just got called away from and I just didn't go because I didn't have to. I've had a talk with God about it and he graciously forgave me. But I have to constantly be aware of my negitivity toward church.

Thank you for your honesty.

Vicki said...

Appreciate the way you're sharing your heart here...waiting for part 3. I've had some issues myself.