As the birthdays pile up, I find my passion waning. I used to have stores of energy. I was so excited about the future. I had an unwavering desire to see the good and beautiful. I desired change. I believed I could make the world a better place.
I was in my twenties, and I had mostly arrived there unscathed. Sure, I endured little sufferings, here and there, minor bumps and bruises. But nothing that required serious attention.
Then, my life fell apart. The first deep wound came when Tiffani discovered my addiction to porn. Was my marriage over? Would all my dreams drown in this ocean of sin, an ocean I built with my own hands? They didn’t. But I was changed by the ordeal. I was ashamed. I hurt someone I loved, and that hurt me.
Then, my body failed me. It failed me in spectacular fashion. It deserves a round of applause. In a few months, I went from healthy and running marathons to spending most of my time in the bed. Over the next several years, I lost so much. I lost almost everything. I had no idea why I was so sick. The unknown combined with the pain made my days unlivable.
With God’s grace and much effort, I’ve resurrected my life from the ashes of despair.
But I’m not the same person. No one endures suffering and stays the same. You change, for better or for worse. With every stab of life’s blade, the pull of skepticism becomes stronger. The wounds heal, but I still see the scars. I feel them, as I rub my fingers across the wounds of days past. I hate wounds. I hate pain. I don’t want to put myself out there and risk another blow to my soul.
As a young pastor, I noticed that many of the elders and older Christians were skeptical about the younger generation, and about the world.
“I was once like them, with all their passion and desire,” they would say. “Just give it time, eventually they will see.”
I found this mindset frustrating. And troubling. These are the people we appointed to lead us towards the divine? They’re enslaved to cynicism. You can’t lead anyone in shackles.
Are they not supposed to empower others with their years of wisdom? Had experience not revealed the myriad of ways God moves and heals and reveals himself? Had the years of walking with God not increased their desire and passion?
It hadn’t. Time leached their optimism. I didn’t understand why.
Now I do.
After years of failure and suffering, I find the same cancer spreading in me. And, make no mistake, this mentality is cancerous. It’s evil. It’s anti-God, a disease that drains your soul. It retards your spiritual growth. It makes you bitter and angry and skeptical toward anything or anyone who threatens the status quo. You become the gatekeeper of nostalgia rather than a trail guide for the future. You think you’re duty to Christ is to protect people from failure rather than lead them on a journey towards God.
What causes people to become cynical as they get older? Refusal to learn and grow from suffering. Suffering is a non-negotiable. You will experience it. How you respond to suffering determines who you become.
I want to allow suffering to form and shape me deeper into the image of God. I refuse to allow suffering to fortress my heart and mind. So, how do you grow from suffering without becoming cynical?
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned the hard way, through experience.
1. Live in reality.
When confronted with change, many people choose to live in a world that no longer exists rather than embrace the truth in front of them. They prefer the way things used to be. They refuse to live in reality.
And when you refuse to live in reality, you can’t grow. You can’t experience God. So, all the things of God – love and joy and peace and hope – evaporate. And what fills the void? You got it. Cynicism.
What does it mean to live in reality? It means you see your life as it is, not as you would like it to be. It means looking yourself in the mirror and realizing you are the problem. It means living in this moment, right now. It means learning from the past, but never living in it. It means hope for the future, never anxiety. It means listening to the stories of real people. It’s an openness to change, to let go of any belief or perception that hinders the presence of God, that keeps you chained to the past.
2. Embrace uncertainty.
Every person I’ve encountered who was cynical about my decisions or motives, had this thing in common: he or she knew, without a doubt, their way was the right way. I was wrong. No further questions necessary.
Suffering is supposed to shatter our certainties, to help us see that we don’t know. One of the sure signs that someone hasn’t grown from suffering: they’re always right.
Certainty isn’t a spiritual virtue. Certainty isn’t from God. God is Mystery. In the Bible, when someone comes near to God, do they become more certain? No, they become unsure about, well, everything. They’re perplexed, bamboozled. As you grow near to God, you become less certain. In fact, you see certainty as unhelpful, unnecessary, a roadblock, a stumbling block. People who are close to God, who know God, don’t need certainty. They just need God.
3. Never stop changing.
When suffering and failure come, the temptation is to close down, to guard your heart and mind. But you can’t do this without also shutting down love and hope and joy. This is the great irony of suffering, that you must remain vulnerable if you want to enjoy capital-l Life.
When hard times turn people cynical, it’s often because they build large walls to keep the pain away. They stop taking risks. They stop learning. They stop growing. These people think they must do this to protect themselves. This isn’t protection, though. This is spiritual suicide.
4. Discover your true self.
Thomas Merton once said, “There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend; to discover myself in discovering God. If I find him I will find myself, and if I find my true self I will find him.”
Suffering is an invitation to find your true self. What is your true self? It’s the part of you that’s untainted, that’s whole and pure. It’s the part of you that doesn’t need to prove or attain. It’s not greedy or jealous. It’s not attached or addicted. It’s the part of you whose identity is Christ.
Most people don’t discover their true self because the journey’s too hard. It involves looking at the man in the mirror and examining his motives. But this is the way we transform. It is the only way. This is why Jesus’s first sermon, in Matthew, began with “Repent.” Repent means to change your mind. Jesus tried to tell us. If you want to experience God, stop trying to change your circumstances. Change yourself.
Until then, you live in self-deception.
5. Develop a sense of wonder.
Wonder is essential every good and life-giving virtue. Joy. Love. Hope. Peace. All of them hinge on wonder. Abraham Heschel says, “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”
He’s right. He’s so right.
Wonder is an awareness, a particular way of seeing the world that looks for God in all things, at all times. Even in the darkest moments, God is here. Maybe you don’t understand it. Maybe you can’t feel his presence. But you know the Divine in this moment. So, you know this moment has meaning.
You know people who develop a sense of wonder, don’t you? They have a different aura about them. The hopeful energy is tangible. You can feel it. These people never take themselves too seriously. They give to each moment exactly what it requires. They aren’t enslaved to the opinions of others.
If the moment calls for grief, they grieve. If they moment calls for celebration, they celebrate. If the moment calls for silence, they don’t utter a word.
Wonder is cynicism’s kryptonite.
6. Only focus on what you can control.
For years, I compared my suffering to others. I played the self-pity game. I asked God why my suffering was so much worse than the rest of the world. And you what happened? I suffered more.
I’m learning now that it’s a waste of time and energy to focus on things I can’t control.
Here’s what I can always control. My response. Always. I can’t control what happens to me. I can control how I respond. I can choose joy. I can choose love. No matter what.
When suffering comes, you can choose self-pity. You can choose to play the victim. Or you can choose to find something good and meaningful and beautiful. Either way, the choice is yours. Just remember, your choice shapes your reality.
People who grow cynical don’t believe this. They don’t believe they have a choice. They’re caught in that vicious cycle of victimhood. They find their identity in comparison. This is not the way of Jesus, who walked all the way to the cross, without blaming or comparing or self-pitying. He didn’t waste energy on circumstances he couldn’t control. He focused on his response. He focused on love.
I want to follow the way of Jesus.
We don’t have to allow suffering to make us cynical. We can age without bitterness. We can allow years of heartbreak and failure to shape us into the image of God.
I want to become more like God. As the birthdays pile up, I want to become more loving, more hopeful. I hope you do too.
Grace and peace, friends.