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Naive Optimism versus Cynicism — versus Prayer

22 January, 2010

My wife recently bought a book for a women’s study she participates in, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (NavPress, 2009), by Paul E. Miller. I was thumbing through it, and found it to be so insightful and helpful that I’ve deciding to read it along with her.A Praying Life cover image

Part 2 of the book is called ‘Learning to Trust Again’ — it’s all about cynicism and how trusting in Christ leads us out of cynicism, not into some naive optimism, but into an assured confidence in God’s steadfast character and his sure redemptive promises and purposes for us. In other words, it’s part and parcel of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’

The first chapter in Part 2, ‘Understanding Cynicism,’ really got me thinking (and praying!). Here are some particularly penetrating excerpts:

The opposite of a childlike spirit is a cynical spirit. Cynicism is, increasingly, the dominant spirit of our age. Personally, it is my greatest struggle in prayer….

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 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….

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….

A praying life is just the opposite. It engages evil. It doesn’t take no for an answer. The psalmist was in God’s face, hoping, dreaming, asking. Prayer is feisty. Cynicism, on the other hand, merely critiques. It is passive, cocooning itself from the passions of the great cosmic battle we are engaged in. It is without hope.

In the next section of the chapter, Miller describes how ‘cynicism begins, oddly enough, with too much of the wrong kind of faith, with naive optimism or foolish confidence.’ This is ‘childlike trust,’ but ‘without the heavenly Father’ to ground our trust in anything real, anything trustworthy. Miller follows this up with some really good commentary on contemporary culture’s vacillation between naive optimism and jaded cynicism.

I’ll recommend the book again by ending with this:

In naive optimism we don’t need to pray because everything is under control, everything is possible. In cynicism we can’t pray because everything is out of control, little is possible. With the Good Shepherd no longer leading us through the valley of the shadow of death, we need something to maintain our sanity. Cynicism’s ironic stance is a weak attempt to maintain a lighthearted equilibrium in a world gone mad. These aren’t just benign cultural trends; they are your life….

Cynicism is the air we breathe, and it is suffocating our hearts. Unless we become disciples of Jesus, this present evil age will first deaden and then destroy our prayer lives, not to mention our souls. Our only hope is to follow Jesus as he leads us out of cynicism.

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4 Comments
  1. Adam J. Myer permalink
    24 January, 2010 6:26 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Brannan. It was just what I needed this morning.

    • 24 January, 2010 9:38 pm

      Adam,

      Glad to hear it. It was just what I needed the morning I posted, as well.

      ~B

  2. 26 January, 2010 8:43 pm

    I stumbled across your blog on the “monerge” site.

    Enjoyed the thoughts.

    I will keep reading.

    Pete.

  3. 27 January, 2010 5:02 am

    Ditto on what Adam said.

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