Distinguishing Features of Christian Cynicism

Many Christians stand at the edge of cynicism, struggling with a defeated weariness. Their spirits have begun to deaden, but unlike the cynic, they’ve not lost hope. My friend Bryan summarized it this way: “I think we have built up a scar tissue from our frustrations, and we don’t want to expose ourselves anymore. Fear constrains us.”

Cynicism and defeated weariness have this in common: They both question the active goodness of God on our behalf. . . .   If Satan can’t stop you from praying , then he will try to rob the fruit of praying by dulling your soul. . . .  Because cynicism sees what is “really going on,” it feels real, authentic. That gives cynicism as elite status since authenticity is one of the last remaining public virtues in our culture….Cynicism begins with the wry assurance that everyone has an angle. Behind every silver lining is a cloud. The cynic is always observing, critiquing, but never engaged, loving, and hoping. . . .

To be cynical is to be distant. While offering a false intimacy of being “in the know,” cynicism actually destroys intimacy. It leads to a creeping bitterness that can deaden and even destroy the spirit.

Cynics imagine that they are disinterested observers on a quest for authenticity. They assume that they are humble because they offer nothing. In fact, they feel deeply superior because they think that they see through everything.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that if you see through everything, you eventually see nothing.

. . . you cannot go on “explaining away” for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? . . . If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.

Lewis said that what was required was a restoration of the innocent eye, an eye that can see with wonder. That is the eye of a child.

While purporting to “see through” others facades, cynics lack purity of heart. A significant source of cynicism is the fracture between my heart and my behavior. It goes something like this: My heart gets out of tune with God, but life goes on. So I continue to perform and say Christian things, but they are just words. I talk about Jesus without the presence of Jesus. There is a disconnect between what I present and who I am. My words sound phony, so other’s words sound phony too. In short, my empty religious performance leads me to think that everyone is phony. The very thing I am doing, I accuse others of doing. Adding judgment to hypocrisy breeds cynicism.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, (IVP 2009) 77-92.

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What is “Intimacy”?

“Intimacy can be defined as a deep and profound friendship; a close familiarity that affects one’s innermost being, rooted in a sense of belonging which results in confidence.”

Michael D. Fiorello, “Aspects of Intimacy with God in the Book of Job,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 4:2 (2011), 157.

Artwork Courtesy of Joel Klepac

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Preaching Without Preparation?

On January 24, 1885, the front page of The New York Times carried an unlikely story about a little-known evangelist who held sway in a relatively unknown town situated in the red-barn farmland, roughly midway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Born in 1844 as the fourth daughter in a family of eight children in rural Ohio, Maria Woodworth-Etter entered the fray of evangelism at the age of thirty-five. What drew crowds–and reporters–to Hartford City, Indiana, was the mystery and magic of trances. Over the years, the number of people at her evangelistic meetings swelled, and she even outgrew her grand tent, which accommodated a stunning crowd of eight thousand people.

Woodworth-Etter refused to prepare her sermons in advance. She determined rather to “take a text and trust God to lead me in his own way.” Sometimes she stood to preach without even having a biblical text in mind, but just in time, she recalled, God revealed a text to her, as well as the place to find it. “I opened the meeting and repeated the text. As I did so the power came, and it seemed that all I had to do was to open my mouth.” On one occasion, she preached in this way for seventy-five minutes.

No doubt many a preacher over the years would join Maria Woodworth-Etter in her desire to have the spirit speak through him or her for a week of inspired preaching. An inspired sermon without the drudgery of exegesis crammed into the fray of pastoral responsibilities, even for a week, or a week of Sundays, would be welcome, I imagine, to the men and women who occupy the pulpit week after week.

Underneath the natural desire to be free of the hard work of Bible study and sermon preparation lies a dichotomy that, at least in part, characterizes vast tracts of Christianity, including segments of American Christianity. The dichotomy takes various guises: education versus faith, letter versus spirit, liturgy versus spontaneity. I was warned not to learn too much in college and graduate school so as to preserve my faith. I was told not to study too hard so as to live in the spirit. I was cautioned not to succumb to rote prayers so as to maintain the vitality of worship. Whatever one calls this dichotomy, however one labels it, it consists of this: the polarization between preparation and inspiration. Maria Woodworth-Etter, the trance evangelist, as she was known, opted for inspiration without any preparation whatsoever. This sort of speaking, utterly spontaneous preaching, was, she came to believe, as much a sign of the holy spirit as her trances, her healing, and her ability to perform miracles.

[From my book Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith] you know that I am intent upon breaking down dichotomies . . . . My primary reason for breaking down the dividing-wall inherent in these dichotomies is that they are not biblical. I do not think that Jewish and Christian scripture support these dichotomies, and I believe that we carry them into our lives to our detriment . . . . Few of us want a nurse who can insert a needle but not be compassionate; few of us want a nurse who can be kind but careless with a needle. Why, then, should we want to distinguish knowledge from piety, study from the holy spirit? Yet we do–some of us all the time or all of us some of the time . . . . Those who cautioned me not to build up a cache of knowledge, for fear I would lose my faith, had no need to worry. A life of study and life in the spirit, in my view, go hand in hand, at least from a biblical perspective. While I do not want to denigrate preachers like Maria Woodworth-Etter, I want to point out that hers was not a biblical experience.

[Throughout my book Inspired]. . . we noted that . . .

  • virtue emerges from a lifetime in which people cultivate the spirit-breath [of God] within them.
  • preparation is required to put ecstasy in its place and that the work of inspiration becomes even more arduous after the spirit speaks a word of revelation.
  • assiduous preparation sets the stage for inspiration.

There is no shortcut to effective preaching and teaching. Inspired speakers, at least from a biblical perspective, do not offer compelling speeches and gripping sermons because the holy spirit inspires them on the spot, in utter spontaneity, void of preparation, unmoored from a community . . . . The holy spirit fills them because they are already prepared, well-studied, alert. With this insight . . . we return to the worlds of Joseph, Bezalel, Daniel, Simeon, and Anna–whose ardor and arduous labor led to sparkling inspired moments in the history of an ancient faith tradition.

Jack Levison, Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, 125-28; 183-84.

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A. W. Tozer on Spiritual Dryness

kalahari dead tree 1Periods of staleness in the life are not inevitable but they are common. He is a rare Christian who has not experienced times of spiritual dullness when the relish has gone out of his heart and the enjoyment of living has diminished greatly or departed altogether. Since there is no single cause of this condition there is no one simple remedy for it.

Sometimes we are to blame, as for instance when we do a wrong act without immediately seeking forgiveness and cleansing; or when we permit worldly interests to grow up and choke the tender plants of the inner life. When the cause is known, and particularly when it is as uncomplex as this, the remedy is the old-fashioned one of repentance. But if after careful and candid examination of the life by prayer and the Word no real evil is discovered, we gain nothing by putting the worst construction on things and lying face down in the dust. To say that we have not sinned when we have is to be false to the fact; to insist that we have sinned when we have not is to be false to ourselves. There comes a time when the most spiritual thing we can do is to accept cleansing from all sin as an accomplished fact and stop calling that unclean which God has called clean.

Sometimes our trouble is not moral but physical. As long as we are in these mortal bodies our spiritual lives will be to some degree affected by our bodies. Here we should notice that there is a difference between our mortal bodies and the ‘flesh’ of Pauline theology. When Paul speaks of the flesh he refers to our fallen human nature, not to our physical bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Spirit there is deliverance from the propensities of the flesh, but while we live there is no relief from the weaknesses and imperfections of the body.

One often-unsuspected cause of staleness is fatigue. Shakespeare said something to the effect that no man could be a philosopher when he had a toothache, and while it is possible to be a weary saint, it is scarcely possible to be weary and feel saintly; and it is our want of feeling that we are considering here. The Christian who gets tired in the work of the Lord and stays tired without relief beyond a reasonable time will go stale. The fact that he grew weary by toiling in the Lord’s vineyard will not make his weariness any less real. Our Lord knew this and occasionally took His disciples aside for a rest.

Another reason some of us become jaded is monotony. To do one thing continuously will result in boredom even if what we do is pleasant: and to think about the same things without cessation will also lead to boredom even if we are thinking about the things of the kingdom. Milton suggests that God made night to alternate with day for the purpose of providing us with ‘grateful vicissitude,’ a welcome change for which we should be thankful.

Some of the purest souls have written of the dangers of continuous spiritual exercises uninterrupted by lowlier considerations. Von Hugel speaks of the ‘neural cost’ of prayer and advises that we should sometimes break off thoughts of heavenly things and go for a walk or dig in the garden. We have all known the disappointment felt when returning to a passage of Scripture that had been so fresh and fragrant the day before only to find the sweetness gone out of it. It is the Spirit’s way of urging us on to new vistas. In the wilderness God kept Israel moving. One may wonder what would have happened if they had camped in one place for forty years. The lives of the great Christians show that they differed not only from each other but from themselves at different periods of their lives. Spiritual exercises that helped them at one stage of their development later became useless and had to be changed for others.

To stay free from religious ennui we should be careful not to get into a rut, not even into a good rut. Our Lord warned against vain repetition. There is repetition that is not vain, but oft-repeated prayers become vain when they have lost their urgency. We should examine our prayers every now and again to discover how much sincerity and spontaneity they possess. We should insist on keeping them simple, candid, fresh and original. And above all we should never seek to induce holy emotions. When we feel dry it is wise either to ignore it or to tell God about it without any sense of guilt. If we are dry because of some wrong on our part the Spirit through the Word will show us the fault.

In short, we can keep from going stale by getting proper rest, by practising complete candour in prayer, by introducing variety into our lives, by heeding God’s call to move onward and by exercising quiet faith always.

A. W. Tozer, “How to Keep from Going Stale,” Alliance Witness, (May 17, 1961), 96:10, 2.

photo courtesy of picasa/morkel erasmus

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The Remarkable Value of Spiritual Community

Significant sentences spoken by my spiritual community, especially those spoken by those ahead of me on the path, impact my inner being with spiritual power.

It would take more space than the constraints . . . allow to record the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of impacting sentences that have been spoken to me over the course of my life. Emotions stir as I remember life words spoken to me by my mother and dad, so many spoken by my wife, Rachael, and by my two sons, others spoken by close friends including the two couples in our longstanding spiritual formation group.

But let me mention just a few sentences recently written to me that linger with growing impact. I received them in an email from a ninety-year-old man who from a distance has been a profoundly impacting mentor: Dr. James Houston.

Late in 2012, after I wroter to Dr. Houston that my two previous bouts with cancer were perhaps making a third appearance, my poor communication led him to think my cancer had again been diagnosed. Within a few days, I received the following email that went almost exactly like this:

Dear Larry,

How grievous to hear that your cancer has returned. So few Christians realize how valuable it is to reckon with our mortality. Perhaps you’ve heard Samuel Johnson’s apt comment that “Nothing quite clears the mind like a walk up the gallows.” Facing our mortality provides much clearer perspective. It will be good to see what the Lord gives you to enjoy and pass on to others in whatever time He yet provides.

With Warmest Affection,

Sentences like these help me appreciate that I am alive in spiritual community. They provide hope that faith deepening in the darkness of doubt will provide wisdom to live well in whatever circumstances of blessings and difficulties [that] lie ahead, to delight my Father through the Spirit’s power to put Jesus on display by the way I relate.

God, may it be so, for the sake of your kingdom and my eternal joy–in that order.

Larry Crabb, “Growing Older: Struggling with Doubt, Alive in Community, Moving toward Wisdom,” Conversations 12:1, Spring/Summer 2014, 42.

Photo Courtesy of becomefree.org

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Are You in a Dark Night of the Soul?

When a person turns to the service of God with real determination, God normally nurtures his spirit and warms his heart, as a loving mother does to her little child. But as he grows, the mother puts him down and makes him walk on foot. She does this so that he can leave behind childish ways and take on greater things, more real things.

It is the same with the soul. When God senses that he has grown up a bit, God draws him away from the sweet breast and puts him down and gets him used to walking on foot so that he can grow strong and leave his baby clothes behind. He find this new phase bewildering, since everything has turned back-to-front.

Here God gives the person to taste the food of the strong which is dryness and darkness … the spirit begins to receive in its empty dryness.

St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Book 1; 1:2; 8:3; 12:1

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An Exhortation for the Overly Quiet Person – Part 2

” . . . often those who are overly quiet, when they suffer some injustice, develop a greater pain because they do not speak about what they endure. For if their tongues spoke calmly about what they suffered, the pain would fade from the consciousness. For wounds that are enclosed are more painful. But when the pain that burns internally is released, the wound is opened for healing. They should know, therefore, that they aggravate the seriousness of their pain by withholding all speech when they become annoyed. They are to be advised, therefore, that if they love their neighbors as themselves, they should not keep silent about the things that justly deserve censure. For by the medicine of the voice, both parties can receive healing; for the one who inflicted the harm, his evil actions are checked, and the one who sustained the pain is relieved by releasing his wound.”

Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, §14

Artwork Courtesy of Frans Wesselman

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Honest Doubt

Doubt has been my off-again, on-again companion for most of my life, from mid-teen years till now. As I grow older, a quieter, deeper kind of doubt seems more on-again. I wonder: what am I firmly persuaded is true, especially in my worst moments, moments of fear, of disappointment, of terrifying uncertainty, and of paralyzing doubt?

I find comfort in John Owen’s words written by the great Puritan pastor and theologians several centuries ago. As Christians grow older, Owen said, their fire often flickers, their confidence often fades, their hope often dims. But fear not, Owen counseled. God’s deepening work continues. Do I believe that? I am not always sure.

I want to walk through the doorway of doubt to discover that living truth. To deny doubt will deny me that opportunity.

Just recently, I felt nudged through that door when I saw something in a familiar passage I hadn’t noticed before. When Jesus feed the five thousand, he distributed the multiplying bread and fish to his disciples, who ate the food for themselves first, then served others. Looking back on forty-plus years of counseling, writing, and teaching. I am now seeing that I’ve spent a lot time in the kitchen preparing meals of truth, then only nibbling on bits of food before I carry full plates to others.

No wonder I doubt whether God’s provisions are proper nourishing my soul. They aren’t, because I’ve not taken the time to eat them, to digest them, and to relax in God’s presence with gratitude for what he has given me to enjoy. Perhaps my ongoing doubts, coupled with worsening fatigue, need claiming as God’s nudging me to do what I’ve done so little over my years of active ministry, to come to his table and respond to his invitation to delight myself “in rich food” (Isa. 55:2).

Larry Crabb, “Growing Older: Struggling with Doubt, Alive in Community, Moving toward Wisdom,” Conversations 12:1, Spring/Summer 2014, 41-42.

Artwork: “John the Baptist in Prison,” Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1526-1579)

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An Exhortation for the Overly Quiet Person – Part 1

“It should be suggested to those who do not speak enough that while they flee some vices inadvertently, they implicate themselves in other hidden vices that are even more dangerous. For often when they bridle the tongue immoderately, they suffer from a greater loquacity [talkativeness] in the heart. As a result, thoughts become inflamed in the mind because of their being violently and indiscreetly silenced. For the most part, these persons allow these thoughts to flow all the more, because they believe themselves to be unobserved by those who find fault in others. But sometimes the mind is exalted with pride and despises those that it hears speaking. And when it closes the mouth of the body, it does not realize the extent to which it leaves itself open to the vice of pride. For as it suppresses the tongue, it equally elevates the mind, and because it rarely considers its own iniquities, it accuses others all the more frequently in secret.”

Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, §14

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