Cynicism is a dangerous trap.
It can make us give up on causes we believe in, disengage from communities and church, and isolate us from people trying to make a difference.
It’s also an easy trap to fall into, especially when we’re not seeing the changes we want to see or have witnessed failures at the hands of people we trusted.
However, identifying the reasons not to be cynical, can be the first step in avoiding its pitfalls entirely.
Because Things Aren’t Changing Fast Enough
In his speech “The Future of Integration,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that single quote, but a key idea is that progress—and instituting real, lasting change—only happens because there are people willing not to give up on fighting for it. He was a speaker who chose his words carefully, and knew the implications of “tireless.”
Fighting for change or a cause we’re passionate about takes time, patience and persistence. Even when it doesn’t happen as quickly as we want, our response to adversity shouldn’t be cynicism; it should be a renewed passion to overcome the things that are preventing it.
Because You’ve Been Hurt By Something Trivial
Churches, non-profit organizations, activist groups and businesses all have one thing in common: They are comprised of people. And the thing about humans, is that no matter how well intentioned they may be, they still deal with flaws.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, people have a tendency to do things that hurt others. But just because you’ve been burned by an individual (or a of group individuals), doesn’t mean you should automatically give up on an institution or a cause.
Obviously, there’s a major difference between someone who’s been the victim of abuse or an injustice than someone who got their feelings hurt over not being selected for leadership position or another, relatively trivial transgression. Some actions, words and behavior can not be tolerated. But we have to know the difference between unintentional words that we found hurtful, and actions that put people at risk.
There are things that warrant disengagement, accountability and justice, but just because you’ve had your personal feelings hurt by less egregious (unintentional) acts, doesn’t mean you should be cynical. For small issues, address the problem and move on.
People make mistakes, but it’s our job to know how to demonstrate grace.
Because You’re Burned Out
The down side of being so passionate about something that you dedicate all of your energy to is that sometimes, you simply run out of energy.
Getting burned out at church or work happens not because we are striving too hard for something, but because we’ve forgotten how to maintain a healthy balance in our lives.
Instead of getting cynical, know when to step back. Take a vacation or go on sabbatical. Or, at the very least, don’t eat lunch at your desk every day while still checking email.
Cynicism doesn’t always happen overnight. It can creep in when we’re most vulnerable, tired or overworked. Know when to step back. Sometimes, that’s the best way to gain a new perspective.
Because You’ve ‘Seen It All Before’
There’s a subtle difference between being jaded by past experiences and being cynical about future ones. But, if you want to prevent the latter, you have to curb the former.
In Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus responded, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times,”
Yes, Jesus is literally talking about the importance of forgiveness, but he’s also referencing patience and the power of giving people the benefit of the doubt. Just because people have failed in the past, it doesn’t mean we should give up on them and stop trying to make situations better.
Ultimately, like a lot of things, intentionally remaining unjaded—even after witnessing multiple failures—shows that our faith isn’t in temporal circumstances, but an unchanging God who promises that He is good, and He has the power to restore all things.
Because You’ve Been Offended
The problem with being too easily offended is that when things happen that warrant righteous anger, our outrage can lose its poignancy .
In James 1, we are told to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Anger and cynicism shouldn’t be default reactions—wisdom, that comes from listening, should. Sometimes, the thing we found offensive calls for correction. Sometimes it calls for legitimate outrage. But many times, it calls for us to examine why we were offended in the first place.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.