I almost started this post by saying “Few would call me an optimist.” After further consideration, I realize that’s not entirely accurate. The reality is closer to “No one would call me an optimist.” Coming from my background in the arts side of academia, my grey-tinted glasses are something that I’ve been encouraged to hold forth as a badge of honor. Corrosive cynicism is a sign of wisdom in that world. That’s how I’ve been trained, though I’m not blameless there. My melancholy-leaning personality really jives with the figure of the bitter old cynic.
Amidst the wonderful things to cling to in academia, there are certain parts I need to leave behind. My cynicism about people is one of them. Biblically speaking, there are really only two ways to look at the people: regarding them according to the flesh or regarding them according to the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5). An automatic cynicism regards people in the flesh only.
Paul tells us that this isn’t a correct way to regard all people since all who are in Christ should be considered dead to the flesh and alive to God in Christ — in other words, as a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:16,17). For such people, the old self no longer exists and the new self, the spirit, is now what eternally is. My flesh naturally grinds against that kind of optimism. And, yes, thinking of someone spiritually is optimistic, but it’s not just another brand of annoyingly blind optimism. A spiritual optimism is based on the reality of God’s transformative, miraculous work in the heart of a believer.
The goal in discipleship is to be neither a cynic nor an optimist, per se, but to be a realist looking through the lens of the Spirit’s power. What I mean is this: our attitude toward someone’s growth must be dependent on God’s promise to will and to work, as well as on His testimony to what He has already done, and not on the immediate results we currently see. This isn’t a terribly profound insight, but it’s one I continually struggle to get right. When I don’t see the level of growth I was hoping for in a ministry or person, my natural response is to explain it through the flesh (read: cynicism). What I must train myself to do is to rest on God’s promise that He is working. It doesn’t mean that I don’t evaluate the value or effectiveness of current ministry strategies. Rather, it means I rest in the fact that the ultimate source of growth is not me (John 15:1–11).
If you’re discouraged and cynical about future growth, you might need to change the lens you’re looking through. To view a fellow believer according to the Spirit is to have faith in God’s promises and power. And that’s the big “E” on the eye chart that I keep missing: faith is the answer to the world’s corrosive cynicism.
“How could there be redemption
From this that any would believe?
We’re stripped by cliché, hedged in
By a distant, seemingly
Respectable cynic. If
Education is a shield
And if towers of iv’ry
Scoff at each other and scoff
At the public, then who
Scoffs at them? Whoever could
Question the square-blackened head?”
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