It was the same story every night. At the end of another long day at the Christian conference that I was helping to organise, I'd gather with the rest of the team in the bar of our block-booked hotel, where we'd share an orange juice and a few highs and lows from the past 12 hours. For the most part the conversation focused on positive news; things God had done in the lives of our delegates, seminars that had gone particularly well. Most of us were caught up in the excitement of leading something that genuinely seemed to be helping people.
But then there was Dave. He was a bit of an outsider, and he loved to play that part with a bit of self-proclaimed 'edginess'. Dave wasn't interested in talking about transcendent moments in worship, or sharing the joy of first-time speakers who'd overcome their nerves and seen people respond to the talk they'd prepared. Dave always steered the conversation to more negative subjects: judging the motivations of other members of the team, pointing out the moments where our attempts at authenticity had slid into the realm of Christian Cheese. He was the organising team's official cynic, and he worked tirelessly to live up to that billing.
We were all a bit surprised by Dave's behaviour, but in honesty, we didn't challenge it nearly enough. We mistook his rather dim view of our conference and delegates for helpful challenge; a bit of balance in the midst of all our overwhelming positivity. His critical comments were often legitimised by a few nervous laughs because – let's be honest – hearing other people being put down can naturally make us feel better about ourselves. But this whole setup was dysfunctional: I and the rest of the leadership team should have had the maturity to call this behaviour for what it was – unhelpful cynicism – and tried the biblical approach of gentle restoration, rather that quiet complicity.
Dave wasn't a happy man. He put other people down because of his own insecurities; he criticised organisations and initiatives because his sense of being an outsider wasn't entirely self-imposed. Really, that's what lies behind almost every instance of cynicism isn't it? Dogged by our own sense of inferiority, we're negative about others to make ourselves feel positive... but of course, it doesn't really work. Ultimately the words of a cynic leave a bitter taste in his or her own mouth.
Having worked in the Christian media for over 15 years, cynicism is a challenge I struggle with on a daily basis. Knowing the subculture from the inside allows the bittersweet privilege of seeing that leaders and organisations are by no means perfect, and often behave exactly like the worst aspects of the world that we want to be set apart from. The truth is that if you want to look for it, there's plenty wrong with every church, every charity, and every Christian, and when we choose to adopt a cynical position it becomes easy to self-righteously feel like we're the only people who've got it together. Jesus has some wise words on this though: acknowledge the plank in your own eye before going after other people's sawdust and all that.
Surprise: Jesus is right. Cynicism is all about deflection; it's a character dysfunction that allows us not to focus on our own dysfunctional characters. Making other people and the things they do the problem stops us from having to deal with our own weaknesses and failings. We judge others so that we don't have to judge ourselves.
The answer then is a simple choice, every time the urge to feel or express cynicism arises. We have to choose – in the full knowledge that no-one is perfect and that many people have mixed motivations or poor judgment – not to automatically see the bad in others. Instead, we must choose to recognise our own frailty, and the insecurities that drive us to pull down and judge others. And at that moment, we turn to Jesus in our weakness and ask him for help.
A decade or so on from our first meeting, I met Dave again. His cynicism had shown no sign of abating, but now it had taken its toll. His gifting had exceeded his character, and happiness and contentment had at that point still eluded him. Ultimately a commitment to cynicism brings some long-term punishments: a bitterness about the successes of others, and a deep sense of disappointment about ourselves. That's why Jesus warns us so seriously to avoid it; if you can't choose not to be cynical, you might never truly be happy.