Confessions of a Recovering Cynic
Birth of a Cynical Worldview
I am currently undergoing a pretty unpleasant phase in the journey of my faith. Although I had seen many people go through it before, and I swore up and down I’d never be one of those people, for reasons I don’t quite grasp myself, I fell into a trap of cynicism without much of a struggle. I discovered that many of the cynics whose ranks I thought I’d never join probably didn’t become cynics overnight; my own experience navigating through these waters were a gradual and subtle process that began with sincere intentions. That being said, if I had to pick a moment when it all “began”, I would say it was the Summer of 2014 after coming back from a mission trip to East Asia. While I spent time sharing the Gospel in the other side of the world, I was exposed to a culture almost completely lacking in any of our American presuppositions and biases. Most of these people were, by their own moral standards, good people, hardworking people, and for the most part, sincere people. The majority of them had also never even heard of Jesus, or they had some twisted ideas that were more related to American politics than to the actual content of the Bible.
Here marks the birth of a cynical worldview. I met a young man at McDonald’s while waiting in a particularly long line. He was a college student, so he spoke some English and I was able to start a conversation. After some small talk and the usual interchange about where I’m from and why I’m visiting his country, I asked him if he had ever heard of Christ. His answer was: “those are the people who hate gays right?” I chuckled and clarified that was not the case, but he remained insistent that this was a defining characteristic of Christians, because he had seen the people with the “GOD HATES FAGS” signs on TV. After we got our food and sat down to eat, I continued to explain that some people used God’s name as an excuse for hatred, but that most of us really just wanted to love people and tell them how much God loves them too. He seemed convinced enough, and he allowed me to pray for him and his family, but I honestly didn’t feel like much had been accomplished (God only knows how that seed has grown or not after this time, but that’s another topic for another day).
There were a few more encounters where people of a completely different culture had grown to associate Christ with America in ways that were not representative: one guy told me Jesus was the guy who made good people rich; another told me that Christians were the people who didn’t believe in science; yet another was convinced that Jesus was actually an American God. I think at the time I was so enamored with the sincerity of these people to really be frustrated at their misconceptions; I found these to be prime opportunities to represent the real picture of Jesus of Nazareth. However upon coming back to America, I began to notice that these misconceptions about God were deeply ingrained in the fabric of most Christians at home. Most of them would scoff at these beliefs if said out loud, but deep inside, these assumptions about Jesus and the Church colored most of their actions and attitudes.
And then there was Hamas and the Palestinian conflict. Most of my Christian friends rallied against the “liberal” media for daring to suggest that Israel’s response to the attacks by Hamas were disproportionately violent and were causing too many civilian casualties. I was torn from within, because my logical side wanted to agree with the news, but I knew part of being a good Christian is supposed to include an unconditional support of Israel. “Israel is the only country the Bible commands us to pray for,” I often heard from the pulpit. But was it God’s will that a nation of His chosen people defend itself without regard for the lives of the innocent? When I brought up this concern, people usually responded to me one of two ways: some actually reasoned that Israel was justified in their actions because of the Old Testament texts where God seemingly commands annihilation of their enemies; others jumped straight to questioning my commitment to Israel’s well-being. “But Luis,” they would say, “don’t you think that Israel is the original branch and that we should show support?” These conversations usually ended in my quietly nodding while inwardly feeling uncomfortable and unconvinced. I read the Bible and listened to teachings that eventually lead me to conclude that God’s election of Israel as a light to the Gentiles was fulfilled in Jesus and carried on to the Church as a whole, with the only special regard to Israel being one of faith in YHWH and not on ethnic descent (again, this is another topic for another day). In short, God did not require us to blindly support the state of Israel in order to be faithful Christians, but rather as a faithful Christian I felt the conviction to denounce violence and racial hatred regardless of the source.
Already I was beginning to feel alienated from what I perceived to be the mainstream position of most of the church. Many accused me of not believing the Bible because of my interpretation of Israel’s role. But instead of being intimidated, I dug deeper: I realized that the Bible wasn’t an instruction manual or a dictated speech from God (that’s more like the Quran really), but it was a collection of writings by men of faith with a specific context and message that one had to learn to apply in order to understand what it was saying. During this time I began to distance myself from the idea of America as a Christian nation and the Republican Party as God’s designated prophets (those two always made me uneasy anyway). My understanding of Scripture, politics, and culture began to shift away from the Southern conservative sphere and into a new sphere with Jesus, and only Jesus, at its center; and despite the overlap that existed between these two spheres, I realized that even if I had the right belief, it was wrong if it wasn’t anchored in Jesus.
By this point I was already beginning to show signs of a cynic. I rarely engaged in conversation with people who disagreed with me because I found it beneath me to waste my words with them (I wouldn’t ever have said that outright, but in hindsight, I realize that was my thought process). But then along came ISIS. Oh man. The response from Christians in the face of the ISIS was baffling to me. I heard Christians rallying for bombings, invasions, extermination; and they had the cojones to claim God’s approval for their words. Now, I was angry at ISIS for the destruction and suffering they were (and are still) causing in the Middle East, but I was furious with Christians who didn’t stop to give a second thought to the words of Jesus of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy before exclaiming that ISIS ought to be bombed and every last member hunted and executed. I don’t intend to explain the theology behind why wanting to bomb ISIS is not the Godly response in this post, but the lack of any hint of introspection or even hesitation was the most appalling thing to me. In the minds of many, God was commanding us to vote Republican so that a Republican president could solve the ISIS problem with violence (which is EXACTLY what caused the ISIS problem to begin with). It was at this point my façade could not hold up any longer. In a revelation as shocking to myself as to anyone around me, I had finally emerged from my cocoon as a full-grown cynic, with plenty of bones to pick with the church culture at large. I began to experience that small nauseating feeling every time I heard some Christian cliché or some unsubstantiated claim about scripture. I wanted to have nothing to do with most church people, aside from a few of my closest friends. And then, the truly dangerous part began: I began to skip out on church. To be honest, if it wasn’t because of my friend Jon and his wife Lauren, I would probably be completely disconnected from church by now.
The Road to Recovery (Is a Painful One)
Jon and Lauren invited me to their church, an imperfect little fellowship of passionate believers in Montgomery, TX. I wish I could say that I didn’t observe many things I had grown to be cynical about in their congregation, but I did. However seeing their passion for Jesus, and the abandon in their worship revived a dying spark in me and helped me realize that my own cynicism was as big of a flaw, if not a bigger flaw, than any misconception or attitude they might have had (one could almost say I was trying to pick a speck of dust from their eye while having a plank in my own). I remembered that the Church is not a gathering of perfect people, but a collection of fatally flawed people pursuing Jesus and being transformed by Him. The few times I picked up my Bible during this time seemed to be screams from God calling out for me, as one who looks for a lost sheep; I kept running into verse after verse that urged me to “not forsake the gathering of the saints,” and to love my brothers and sisters in Christ as sign of my love for God. I am now in the process of lowering my walls enough to hopefully learn to love this new family I find myself in and restore my trust in the Church. However painful this process might be, it’s an absolutely necessary one: it would be self-deception to think I can truly live in the Kingdom and yet be separated (physically or spiritually) from a fellowship of believers. 1 John 4:20 states “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” It would be impossible for me to be an effective ambassador of the Kingdom to those outside if I am not committed in love to those inside first. This is the true danger of cynicism: it furtively undermines the work of the Kingdom by disconnecting love of neighbor from love of brother and sister. It is entirely possible to live out a life of service to the world that ultimately falls short of the Kingdom because it lacks love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.
My story does not have much of a happy ending as much as a messy ending. There are many loose ends in this journey that I have yet to address, some of which I have no idea how to begin. I’ve burned so many bridges and failed so many people that I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll ever make things right. All I can do right now is trust that Jesus will complete this work He has begun in me. I am in need of being torn down and being built back up almost daily, hopefully with each time getting rid of a little bit more of my self and being filled up with more of God’s Spirit.
Luis Rivas is a contributor for JonBeadle.com. He’s an HBU graduate trying to figure out how to walk with Jesus. He enjoys hanging out with friends, spending time outdoors, and the occasional Netflix marathon. He doesn’t tweet because his thoughts don’t fit in 140 characters, and that’s why he writes blog posts; however, you can still follow him @lgrg09
Editor’s Note on the fox: It is the little foxes which spoil the vine, especially when those foxes have a cynical attitude.