I admit to being a child of the 60’s (which means I was born in the early 50’s). I have lived through a period in American history marked by assasinations, abuse of power, incompetence and unrelenting and outrageous pieties from the lips of the impious. As such, like many in my generation, I am tempted by cynicism – an assurance that things are never as they seem but that things seem mainly because someone wants them to seem that way. Of course, cynics rarely have to repent because history frequently supports their suspicions.
The difficulty comes, however, when cynicism becomes rooted in our hearts. It’s cold distance from the world can also dampen the warmth of love – it’s constant position of suspicion robbing us of the joy of simple wonder.
On a theological level, cynicism is largely irreconcilable to a belief in the goodness of God. It is true that the world is filled with sin, and that other people and our institutions fail us. The Scriptures tell us to “put not your trust in princes nor in the sons of men.” However, the same Psalm that warns us about such false hopes, is an exceedingly hopeful Psalm:
Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! While I live I will praise the LORD; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Do not put your trust in princes, Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; In that very day his plans perish. Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the LORD his God, Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that is in them; Who keeps truth forever, Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; The LORD raises those who are bowed down; The LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked He turns upside down. The LORD shall reign forever — Your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 146/145)
Like so many other aspects of our spiritual life, emptiness cannot replace fullness. To trust in God and to rejoice in His goodness is an act of fullness, an act that fills the heart with good things. However, to refuse to put our trust in things human is not a command to cynicism. It is, instead, a commandment to center our hearts and lives on the goodness of God rather than placing our hope in the works of man.
The difference is not simply a matter of emphasis, but goes to the very heart of the spiritual life. It is easy to view many practices of devotion in a negative manner – to see fasting simply as abstinence from food, chastity as abstinence from sex, and so on. Such an attitude towards the disciplines of the spiritual life yields the opposite of its intent. We abstain from certain foods when we fast (and eat less as well), in order to give ourselves more fully to God. Fasting without prayer is known in Orthodoxy as “the fast of demons,” for though the demons never eat, neither do they pray. Chastity is not simply a resistance against the temptations of our flesh, but, again, and effort to give ourselves to God.
The statement of St. John the Baptist when comparing his ministry with that of Christ’s, placed things in their proper order: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:22). Cynicism with regard to the things of the world is not the same thing as trust in the goodness of God. Indeed, cynicism need have no God at all.
In C.S. Lewis’ classic The Last Battle (part of the Narnia series), cynicism plays a large role in the lives of a small band of dwarves. Having been fooled by a false pretender to the throne of Aslan (the lion who allegorizes Christ), they refuse to be “fooled” again, and in so doing refuse to recognize the true Aslan when he comes. Sitting in the new Narnia, paradise itself, they think they are in a dirty barn. However, until the end they comfort themselves with the false claim that “they are not fooled.”
Cynicism may refuse to believe what is false, but it does not possess the virtue of seeing what is good. Such virtue only comes because we rejoice in the good and set our hearts on God. Though we put not our trust in princes nor in the sons of men, we nevertheless recognize the goodness of God, Who keeps truth forever; Who executes justice for the oppressed; Who gives food to the hungry; Who sets the prisoners free; Who opens the eyes of the blind; Who raises those who are bowed down; Who loves the righteous; Who watches over the strangers and relieves the widow and the fatherless.
Such hope does not disappoint nor does it poison our heart with the cold wisdom of those who cannot be fooled. The wisdom of the world is never the same thing as the wisdom of God – one offers only an emptiness while the other is the very fullness of God’s own goodness.
Thank you for challenging this vast emptiness I’ve allowed to fill my heart in the past week. I will continue to pray that I can again experience God’s joy and goodness. You are correct, this withdrawal from the world in pain brings its own form of misery. I’m not yet at a place of spiritual balance, but I do appreciate your reminder of the final goal. Blessings.
A wise lady once told me “fasting without prayer is simply a diet”.
Thank you Father Stephen! I’m struggling with the same feeling as Kate. It’s been very, very hard…as it’s easy to see how the next moves coming from the Left in the US after this election will target the Church, and a pretty much religion in general. Help!
We should not fear for the Church. We pray for all, Church, presidents, etc. Trust in God.
Absolutely true….cynicism has inflitrated the church. Some one told me that a good christian is one who works hard and obeys the law, and go to church only during the christmas and easter. So secularism is filtered through this un-renewed mind and people just don´t care anymore.
Lord, have mercy upon us!
Lord have mercy on us all and may He protect us from our own instinct of self preservation which gives birth to our cynic views about everything including God. Somewhere in the New Testament Jesus says “…..Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God….” —this verse comes to my mind when I read about your blog “Cynicism And The Goodness of God” , for children at a very young age are trusting and accepting of what adults tell them until they learn
that adults are not truthful at all times. I think in this verse Jesus is telling us to come out of our cynic selves and trust Him completely, for this is the only way we can begin to know Him as He is. Thank you Fr. Stephen and God Bless
Thank you so much for that post!! Cynicism is a BIG temptation of mine–always has been. And you are right–it is all around us, especially those of us who lived through the 60’s.
There is so much wisdom in this post. Thank you SO much!!
Since my husband and I have always loved the Chronicles of Narnia, we have adopted the ‘dwarfs are for the dwarfs’ as a saying whenever we talk between ourselves about events in the news, whether having to do with politics, church or anything else. (We also try to encourage or discourage one another from certain opinions with this example!) Recently we have been listening to “The Last Battle” in the car with our children when we go to and from church, which is usually at least 30 minutes one way. I encourage people to check out the various recordings from their library.
C.S. Lewis had a gift for pointing out what “virtues” might look like when lived out to their full extent without Christ. You have also beautifully pointed out here how cynicism translates into spiritual life, thanks for this posting!