20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #18: Cynicism Kills

Nothing sucks the air out of the room like well-placed cynicism.

Creativity? Dead.

Insight? Gone.

Trust? Fading . . .

I’m so done with cynicism. Why?

Because cynicism kills. That’s Lesson #18 of 20 lessons gleaned from 20 years of ministry.

Oh, I know–being the “insightful” realist, cutting through all the sentimentality and mush, exposing the flaws and the motivations makes a person seem wise and discerning, that you’ve been there/done that/and won’t get fooled again. In certain circles, cynicism is applauded as the pinnacle of maturity.

Cynical CatBut cynicism signals deformation, not maturation. And a culture of cynicism cannot grow people nor inspire them to greatness. I’m not sure the Spirit can even do much where cynicism reigns.

As I’ve reflected on my 20 years in ministry, I’ve seen cynicism up close and personal, exposed in fellow leaders and battled in my own heart. Creeping cynicism is one of the vocational risks of any “people” profession, rearing its ugly head when people fail you, yet again, when exhaustion begins to set in, when you are disappointed with your own lack of growth in godliness.

But when leaders or pastors become cynical, leading people into God’s good future becomes difficult, maybe impossible. We can’t help people envision better marriages, nurture better relationships, pursue better experiences, and practice better habits if we ourselves don’t think “better” is even possible.

And pastors can become cynical about the very foundation of our life together: cynical about the power of God’s word, jaded about the greatness of God’s people, negative about the possibility of personal transformation, dismissive about the very world Jesus died to save. Why? Maybe they’ve been disappointed too many times. Maybe they’ve lost perspective. Maybe they just experienced a major set-back. Maybe they are under spiritual attack. Maybe they’ve taken their eyes off of Who really is in the middle of this mess.

As leaders, we must define reality–that’s part of a leader’s role. But we must define reality in hope, not despair. Leaders must be critical thinkers, but with open (not jaded) hearts. Pastors must be honest about the failings of others, and yet deeply passionate about the worthiness of each person in God’s eyes. We must practice hope and reject cynicism, every time we show up.

Unless we do, we won’t be able to lead or serve or help. A jaded leader is dangerous to the mission Jesus has given to us; unless they deal with their cynicism pronto, they should resign from leadership before more damage is done.

True wisdom is not found in cynicism– it is found in hope-filled realism that, though this world is a mess, though we are a mess, God is present and he is leading us into his good future. Though the days be dark, the light is dawning, and we can place our hope in the God who will never disappoint.

  • How have you seen cynicism harm ministry?

  • How do you battle cynicism in your own life?

I’ll give Stephen the last word today. It’s a good one.

Colbert on Cynicism

Catch up on the previous posts in this series of 20 lessons learned in 20 years of ministry:

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