It was an attitude I learned in Church, and I used to believe it was a strength.
I thought I was simply a critical thinker, full of constructive insights. My husband and I shared a “gift for reflection” and spun many conversations around what we considered to be compelling observations about what the Church and other people were doing wrong and what they could do better. Never mind the fact that our tips were not actually being presented to those we believed would benefit from them. At least we saw the problems, right?
But with time, the satisfaction of hearing ourselves talk began to fade and a nauseating feeling settled in its place. No matter how positive a light we tried to cast it in, we were filling up on bitterness and tasting the result.
Subtly, without even realizing it, we had become cynics. And the toxic effect could be felt in our marriage, our relationships and our ability to communicate Christ’s love for the world.
We tend to think of cynicism as something that’s overt. We love watching the overt cynics—Bob Kelso, Gregory House, Don Draper. We laugh at their bitter rants and quote their best one-liners. Perhaps their extreme negativity makes it easier to justify our quiet tendency to be overly critical, especially in the name of something good.
But cynicism doesn’t always present itself in the sweeping, broad negativity we see on TV. In the day-to-day, it looks more like quick, unwarranted, “constructive” criticism. I’m not talking about the critical thinking required for success as an adult. I’m referring to the way we constantly evaluate and critique people and what they do:
“Worship was great this morning! I can’t believe all those people were just standing there and not raising their hands. Some people just don’t take worship as seriously as I do.”
“Worship was great this morning! I was trying to be still and reflect, but the guy next me was moving so much and flinging his arms around. Some people just don’t take worship as seriously as I do.”
“The sermon was good. If he had just said this, it could have been better.”
“I was so annoyed by this guy at the mall. He had no common sense and was so rude. Nobody teaches people how to be polite anymore.”
“The problem with the Church today is ___________.”
Subtle cynicism, or the overly critical nature of our culture, is a toxin satan uses against the Church. And it’s all the more damaging because we often don’t even realize it’s happening.
It’s time to change our posture. I’m not suggesting an extreme alternative of falsely positive, overly peppy Church culture that says nothing is wrong. Jesus, Paul, David and every writer of scripture has shown us that this is not Biblical.
But when we recognize the dangers of subtle cynicism, we are able to engage in honest conversations that are productive, loving and full of grace.
When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he addressed a steady stream of negativity. He pleaded with the church to rally around their shared love for Christ, sacrifice for each other and “do everything without grumbling or arguing.” With this as our example, let’s remember the following when we are tempted to snap sarcastic quips or offer unsolicited insight:
The Church is the Bride of Christ and deserves our respect
It is made up of broken people. We may not agree with everything, in fact, we may be spot on in calling out behavior that opposes the Gospel, but let’s speak truth with the love and humility of Jesus. He died for this Bride that He adores, so I’d imagine how we talk about her matters to Him.
Reject anything that resembles an “us” versus “them” mentality
Jesus was honest about truth and spoke confidently to those who challenged it with their hypocrisy and legalism, yet He did so without mocking or belittling anyone. He didn’t post open letters on the town gates and He didn’t publicly ridicule those who questioned him. He met them with Scripture and self-control. Any foolishness they felt came from getting caught with their foot in their mouth, not from Jesus laughing at them with crowds behind Him.
Focus on what is good
In the four short chapters of Philippians, Paul instructs the Church to rejoice 15 times. It’s interesting to note that he appears far less concerned with why they are negative and much more concerned with their choosing to change.
Identifying problems is easy. Following Paul’s call to focus on what is good, lovely and admirable takes intentional work, and it breathes new life into our relationships. If God can choose to no longer look on our sin, we can choose to stop focusing on the things we would change in others and get busy loving them instead.
When we become subtle cynics, our ability to grow becomes stunted
Unveiling flaws outside of ourselves requires little to no personal sacrifice. Examining the depths of our own brokenness requires vulnerability and risk, both of which are essential for growth.
Life in Jesus involves the death of self (Mark 8:34-35). This is difficult to do while clinging to the belief that we know more than someone else. But as we move into a space of grace, our eyes are opened to lessons we were blinded to before, and we begin to find the places in our hearts God longs to address. If we are too busy discussing the ways everyone else needs to change, we lose the ability to see our own need for restoration and we get stuck rather than grow.
Pray first. Talk later.
Paul begins his letter to the Philippians by writing that he thanked God every time he thought of them. If we model Paul’s heart in this way, the thoughts and words that follow will reflect Jesus.
There are times when a thoughtful, loving, critical response is the most appropriate one. But before we jump in to offer it, we should examine our hearts and consider what is most beneficial, being willing to say nothing if it tears others down and hinders the Gospel of Christ. What we say matters. Choose carefully.
An earlier version of this article appeared in February 2014.