How to Avoid Cynicism

"Justice" was done, and the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess.

This is how Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'urbervilles ends. Tess is a victim who is used by people her entire life. Hardy's words reveal his theology. Though he was raised Anglican and considered converting to the Baptists, his religious views were more akin to deism. For Hardy, God was impersonal and "his" acts were capricious. In Hardy's mind, there was no way to reconcile human suffering with the God of Christianity.

How do you reconcile your own suffering with the God of Scripture? Have you possibly reached a point of giving up? Amidst all the human suffering that exists, it is quite tempting to grow cynical in the same way that Thomas Hardy had. I share common sympathies with those who question God's existence due to the intolerable suffering and injustice in the world. No Christian should ever easily dismiss this most challenging objection to the Christian faith. To do so would minimize suffering.

Thankfully, Scripture is not silent. The entire narrative of the Bible is aimed at dealing with this very issue. One key place is found in the book of James. James was the lead pastor in Jerusalem. He was pastoring a church enduring significant persecution. In the midst of this persecution he wrote a letter to encourage his people to stand their ground in the face of suffering. Chapter 1: 1-15 of James is full of helpful counsel for anyone who is suffering in any way. He encourages them to see that God is a work, to ask for wisdom when suffering and to avoid falling into sin in the face of trials and temptations.

Towards the end of this initial section, in verses 16-18, he says this,

Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

It is as if James anticipated his flock's honest doubts and questions. Rather than chastise them, he speaks into their confusion and questions with words of compassion. James' perspective stands in stark contrast to the ending of Tess of the D'urbervilles. But can it be believed? For James, these words of wisdom and pastoral guidance must have been critical, or he would have stopped at verse 15. But he doesn't. He concludes the section of sin, suffering, trials and temptations on a positive note.

While cynicism is a highly probable outcome for someone who is suffering, James says it does not have to be. James ends this section by turning his readers eyes to the goodness and love of God for his children. James talks about good gifts coming down from the Father; a Father who is not capricious like shifting shadows.

Don't be deceived in the midst of your sorrows and miss this, James encourages. The most obvious good gift that has come down from above is none other than James' brother, Jesus, who came to suffer and die so that we might experience new birth. While James, nor the rest of Scripture, provide a comprehensive rebuttal to the problem of evil, neither do they avoid the problem. In Jesus, you have what no other historical religion or philosophy has; a God who suffers for sinners and sufferers. He atones for our sin and understands our plight because he has been where we have been and then some.

Avoiding cynicism is not the natural bent of the human heart. Only a suffering God can move you away from despair. It will not be easy. It will not happen automatically. Yet at the center of the Christian faith is a personal God who enters our experience and says, "I understand and I am here to make all things new." You won't find that anywhere else.

Copyright © 2014 Timothy S. Lane. All rights reserved.

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.