Image by Violeta Dabija
It’s a big bad world out there for defenseless sheep. There are wolves in the woods. (There are even wolves in the sheep pen, posing as sheep!) Bad things happen without explanation or ‘just’ cause. Good people become jaded and use positions of influence to serve their own ends…
If you look closely enough, everyone’s got a dark side, a hidden agenda, a selfish intent. They’re all out to make a buck, manipulate you, sell you something, or gain a following…At least that’s how it seems…
How do you safely keep a soft heart in such a place? It’s so tempting to become a cynic. You’re bound to be taken advantage of, have the wool pulled over your eyes, be found following a charlatan or be crushingly disappointed at some point, if you’re going to continue being just a helpless, hapless sheep, or so it seems…
Cynicism is a natural enough reaction. Of course it’s not seen as a reaction at all. We’d say we are discerning, smart, ‘in the know’, informed. We’re just being critical thinkers, right? Cynicism has the draw of gossip: “Did you hear…” It numbers us with those who are aware of what’s really going on. We become the elite--those honest and authentic souls always cued for a rant to set the record straight, especially at another’s expense. Tearing down, exposing, critiquing…to what end? It justifies our suspicions that noone is to be trusted. And it hardens our hearts.
That’s what’s wrong with cynicism. While it may keep you from being taken advantage of (you’ll have seen it coming), from being disappointed (you weren’t expecting much), and from being mistaken for a naïve optimist (no chance) cynicism has fierce side-effects. The first hint of these is in the word’s derivation. The Greek means: “having the qualities of a surly dog; snarling; currish; austere.” Our modern definition seems more noble: believing that people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.
This doesn’t sound like such a bad idea; after all, man is basically sinful by nature. But the problem with a cynical heart is that it doesn’t stop at being doubtful of human goodness. It doubts God’s goodness, His active presence in the world, and His ability to transform evil into good. Evil looms larger than God.
We may safely doubt the motives of a man or a movement, but when we doubt God’s good purposes and His power to achieve them, we strike at the foundations of our faith. God is still looking for child-like faith. Not ignorance or gullibility. Not belief in everything and everyone. But a faith that is ready to believe HIM. This is what pleases Him. Trusting in God’s goodness is at the heart of a child-like faith that looks to its loving Father to do what is best, in every circumstance, for all eternity. This is the essence of a soft heart.
The trade-off for averting nasty surprises by fixating on what’s wrong in the world, is the loss of wonder and of joy. The cynic, claiming to live realistically, sees evil behind every bush (and pulpit) while being blinded to the goodness of God.
Trust and hope become luxuries he cannot afford, so why pray?
Without prayer, God seems distant, making evil appear even more prominent and powerful.
How do we escape the spiraling whirlpool of cynicism and maintain a soft and trusting heart?
“Men ought always to pray and not to faint” Lk.18:1 I know this, but when I’m fainting, what then? How do you keep praying when evil seems stifling, when your prayers seem to go unheard, and when life drags on in a ‘same old’ way with so little encouragement, so little evidence of God’s loving hand…What then?
How do I keep a soft and trusting heart and keep cynicism at bay when it slinks in and tempts me not to bother with praying?
I ask these questions not from mere theoretical curiosity. I’ve seen the inroads of cynicism, the damage it can do. And I’ve felt its pull on my own heart lately. It’s a temptation that grows with age and life experience. I have the one, my children are gaining the other. But I’m convinced this temptation to doubt and cynicism is one we’ve got to fight at any age.
“Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
I’ve given this so much thought lately that I will have to save some fodder for next time. But for now some basic starting points that have helped me keep my footing, so far…
A critical starting point in our fight against the lure of cynicism is to remember who we are, where we live and why!
Who we are…
Ultimately, (assuming we belong to Jesus), we are sheep, absolutely dependent on the Shepherd to direct and protect our paths, and to provide for us all that we will need to live for Him in a wolf-infested world among whom we appear as bait! (read Paul on this point! and see the Hebrews 11 crowd trotting about in sheepskins…Rom.8:36; Ps.44:22; Heb.11:38)We are the sheep of God’s pasture; it’s not all up to us to protect ourselves from hurt.
Where we live…
We live in enemy territory, in a region influenced heavily by the Evil One. (That explains a lot!) “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” I Jn.5:19
Just look around. Life gets very very messy lived outside of God’s design. When man does what seems right in his own eyes, we’ve all seen (or lived out) the results. The brokenness that results in people’s lives is overwhelming to contemplate. It can drag us down just looking on. It can make our hearts grow cold and hard. It all seems so hopeless. This was the way that seemed right short years ago. Now behold the mess.
What to expect—Why are we here?
We’re not guaranteed a carefree passage through this world, unscathed by sin and suffering. Though our aim is to live a life worthy of our Shepherd, reflecting His goodness as we traipse down the trail, we will sometimes fail. So will those around us. Offenses will come. Expect it. But don’t let them take your eyes off the Shepherd.
Sin and evil are no match for His goodness and grace. They only serve to magnify it!
Consider this.. Does all the wreckage in our lives not prove that only God’s ways are perfect? God is always right. He can and should be trusted with our life plan.
When we’re done staring numbly at the mess, God is there, a strong Redeemer, ready and willing to pick up pieces, restore wasted years, and turn all for good. He waits only for us to turn to Him conceding ‘You are right. I was wrong. I want to do it your way’. This is repentance. This is the way to life. This is the way of the soft heart. We can be more than conquerors because He has loved us (Rom.8:37) Sin need not have the final word. It’s real. Evil’s rampant. Yet we can walk in this world, neither oblivious to it nor consumed by it--‘Wise as serpents, but innocent as doves’. Mt.10:16 And in so doing we begin to overcome it by reflecting how Good is our God’s design.
Another essential in the fight
To keep our hearts soft and believing beyond what we see, we must hold on to an absolute standard of truth. Perhaps it goes without saying that we’ve got to hang onto God’s Word as our Guide in everything. But the world has long since jettisoned this anchor and the church is increasingly doubting its relevance for our times. Human judgment inevitably takes its place and even writes out church policy that seems right for our times but will not take us where we mean to go.
“It seems to me” is not enough!
We must do war on “It seems to me”. Even our best judgments can be wrong. Without God’s authoritative Word we are little lost sheep following our noses. We do not see the cliff’s edge hidden in the hedge of hay.
People who’ve become disillusioned with evangelicalism, for instance, will tend to write off Scripture as an authoritative guide to right and wrong. It is nonsense to hold to The Bible as an inerrant and absolute standard, they protest. We cannot know with certainty what God wants of us (or anything else!). Black and white are read as gray. And all that’s left is to resort to their own best judgment—“It seems to me”. This is a slippery slope to endless deception. It is the cynic’s playground. Not only are things not always as they seem, but most of life is actually unseen. Only God sees the end from the beginning, transcending all cultures and all times. And He’s written the play book. We must trust His Word. It’s the only reliable guide to live by. “It seems to me” is not enough.
What does this look like in practical terms?
For me it means steeping my heart in the Bible from front to back, daily. I’m still thriving on this year’s new reading plan of six or seven chapters a day, not as a rigid rule but as an incredible opportunity to see God’s heart from Genesis to Revelation, every day.
Some days I don’t read. I begin to lose perspective. Then I come back to the Word and continue with David’s story of waiting on God to fulfill His good promises and crown him as king. Running through years of fear and trouble in the mean time, but learning to encourage himself in the Lord. (I Sam.30:6)
I read the psalmists floundering in hope: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God” (Ps.42:5)
I see the prophets pleading with people to turn back and experience God’s goodness or follow their hearts to death’s door.
I listen to Jesus—Come to me that you may have life. I see his disciples sticking with their master when everyone is offended at his teaching. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn.6:68)
And I’m admonished by Paul to hold fast to the word of life; it makes us stand out in a crooked and twisted generation. (Phil. 2:15)
All this scope of God’s Words I see in a day, while I’m washing the dishes, or brushing my teeth, or catching some still moments, and I’m encouraged. It doesn’t take long, maybe half an hour. It’s as easy as tapping a smart phone and pressing play. Or finding my reading glasses and sitting down for a minute!
If you haven’t got a plan to read, start now. My own plan is here; or scroll to the top of this post up and check out the Just Read It tab for other ideas. It’s always the right time to begin. And do check out the audio bible option at esvbible.org. [It couldn’t be simpler. Tap the Bible icon. Choose your chapter. Tap the play button. And voila, it’s read to you, on your computer, your phone or your pad!]
The Word is our life line to hope and perspective. It will grow your faith and shield you from the cynic’s mindset. It is life! My heart may be quavering, things may look bad, but God is good, no matter what the cynics say, and His Word will stand.
When we live in it and walk in its truth we need not fear the Big Bad Wolf. Like the one wise pig in the tale of the three-some, we are secure in this house. The Big Bad Wolf can huff and he can puff but he shan’t blow our house down. We have run to the right place!
‘Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone in whom all the building fitly framed together grows into a holy temple in the Lord: in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God through the Spirit.’ Eph.2:19-22
In all circumstances take up the shield of faith…Eph.6:16
“For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called…For the Lord has called you…'with great compassion I will gather you…with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer.” Is.54:5-8