If you had asked me 3 years ago if I struggled with cynicism, I would have said no. Not at all.
But that was then, and this is now. And the truth is, I’ve found myself having cynical thoughts very often over the past year and a half.
I can’t share on the internet all the ins and outs of my struggle with cynicism because there are other people involved, and some of the circumstances surrounding this struggle are not my story to tell.
But I can tell you cynicism comes with a narrative:
“You can’t trust people, you can’t really expect them to change, this is who they are. Maybe you need to move on, give up. Focus on something else, on someone else.”
This narrative has tried really hard to plant its seed in my heart living here.
It is not only in my own heart, but I have heard it too from expats around me, especially about a particular ministry. It can be really discouraging and leaves me wondering if there is hope for the dreams the Lord has given us.
When cynicism talks to me that way about God’s people and those Christ shed his blood for, it is missing a reality that is more real than any reality I can see with my physical eyes.
This bigger reality is the story that swallows up all stories and that helps me face my struggle. So consider this article a long note to self where I rehearse the truths I need over and over again.
There is a bigger story that determines and defines your reality in the country you live in and the ministry you have dreams for.
Keeping this in mind is the only way you won’t lose heart. This is true for anyone in ministry, but it is especially important for an expat doing ministry overseas.
It is so easy for you to come into another culture as a cultural critic. When that happens, you think about others only in external categories: according to nationality, personality, past experiences, family name, evangelical denomination. When cynicism rules you, it breeds moral superiority, bitterness and despair because you think those categories define them, tie them down, enslave them.
But when this happens you are actually regarding people “according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5: 16), according to what is seen.
Self, when you let what is seen define your reality, there is not much there to fuel your hope for change. You find yourself losing hope quickly and not able to sustain the heart that you need to continue to serve and pour and dream.
And yet believers – mature and immature alike – live in an unseen reality: they are new creations in Christ. Paul tells us that the new self has already been created in the image of its creator (Ephesians pi). The unseen new self in me and in those around me (expats and local believers) looks like Christ. Believers are new, the old is gone. Whether or not you know it or remember it, the real, lasting self of believers around you is 100% holy and 100% light because that is who Christ is, and they, dear self, live inside Him and He lives in them.
It is true that what you see often shows that who you all are in time and space hasn’t caught up with who you really are in heavenly places. But one day we will no longer be those who are already sanctified (in the unseen realms) and being sanctified (in the seem realms). The seen and the unseen will one day merge completely and fully, as soon as we all see Jesus Christ (1 John 3:2).
Self, the life of Christ in you enables you to face yourself and others honestly and still hope. You can see deficiencies, slow change, patterns that seem to repeat themselves from one generation to the next and still not give up.
Because you are new in Christ always, the paradox is real: you don’t entrust yourself to other people and yet you fiercely hope in the Father for change in them (and in you). That is how Christ lived (John 2:24). He knew all people. Really and completely knew them. He knew their motives, their family history, past trauma, bad theology, and conflicts. And yet He loved them. He labored for them. He eventually gave his own life for them because He knew his Father had given them to him (John 17:24). He trusted his Father’s faithfulness, that he would surely keep his word.
What fuels you and your ministry, beloved self, is knowing your Father: what He is able to do and what He loves to do. Like Abraham, without weakening in his faith, you can acknowledge that some things are as good as dead, and still not waver in disbelief in the promise of God. Knowing your Father strengthens your faith and gives glory to God, being fully persuaded that God is able to do what He has promised (Rom. 4: 20-21). His specialty is to call into being what does not yet exist (Rom. 4: 17). That is how you can hope against hope and maintain what may seem like naïve hopefulness. This is how you don’t lose heart.
Cynicism is not the result of maturity. It is actually the product of the life of the old you because you still have muscle memory of that life. But dear self, the old you was crucified and left at the grave.
You are new now, with faith eyes that can see the unseen. Use them next time something happens and you are tempted to focus on the seen. When you get a text and you try to discern if change is really happening, when you are tempted to give up and move on to another ministry with more apparent fruitfulness, and when apathy wants to fill your heart when it is time for the next ministry meeting – in all those moments, reorient your gaze to your Father and His promise to the Son to bring all things under his feet. The Lamb of God will receive the reward of his suffering…including the sufferings you are completing now in your own body (Col. 1: 24). So keep toiling and laboring, dear self, with all his energy that he powerfully works within you. Bless his name.
What would you write in your note to self on cynicism?