3 Ways to Keep From Becoming Spiritually Bitter and Cynical

We live in cynical times. Both inside the church and outside of it, many have become disillusioned about institutions they once trusted, whether those institutions are political and governmental, medical, or spiritual. 

Given the many recent scandals within the evangelical church, such as the rise of Christian nationalism and conspiracy theories, sexual abuses and abuses of power coming to light, increased political division within our congregations, and the deconstruction movement, many followers of Jesus find themselves doubting the church in ways they might not have ever imagined. 

On a more personal level, so many people have experienced incredible loss within the last two years, from loss of income and opportunities as a result of the pandemic, the death of loved ones, strained relationships, and the loss of nearby friends who have moved away as part of the broader trends of upheaval and change brought on by the pandemic and other factors. 

All of this has left many of us feeling downright bitter and cynical. Sometimes, we aren’t even sure who we’re bitter toward or exactly what we’re cynical about. We’re just angry, frustrated, and disappointed to the point of numbness. 

That isn’t a great place to be. 

In the midst of all that, we have an opportunity to lean into the work that God wants to do in our lives in ways that we never could have experienced otherwise. But those treasures often await us on the other side of our struggles, our emotional and spiritual turmoil. 

If you’re in that place right now, here are 3 things you can do to help you from becoming spiritually bitter and cynical. 

1. Grieve Your Losses.

Christians are meant to be people who are marked by hope. After all, we know the end of the story. There’s nothing that is wrong and broken in this world or in our lives that Jesus won’t redeem and bring back to a place of restoration, whether on this side of eternity or the next. 

Nevertheless, it’s never healthy to allow that ultimate hope to negate the fact that we have every right (and every need) to grieve our losses. 

There are likely things that have happened or have been done to you in this season that hurt you deeply. It’s okay to admit that.

It’s okay to admit that the words and actions of people you love have caused you deep pain. It’s okay to admit that you are deeply troubled and saddened by the fact that certain relationships have been strained and loved ones have passed on from this world. It’s okay to be deeply disappointed that things haven’t gone the way that you’ve expected in recent months. 

In fact, more than being okay, it’s completely necessary. 

Christians tend to suffer under the illusion that this isn’t the case. Most often, that misunderstanding comes from our misapplication of some of the words of scripture –– for example, Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica. 

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Paul encourages us that we don’t grieve or mourn as people who have no hope. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t mourn, and mourn deeply. Living in the joy of Jesus doesn’t require us to pretend that we’re always happy. It only means that we have a deep-seated belief in the truth that there is always hope, even in the midst of pain. 

So far from ignoring our pain, we ought to allow ourselves to feel it to its fullest extent. In fact, walking through the darkness of that moment, rather than emotionally running away from it or burying it beneath spiritual language, is what allows us to step into an experience of actual, real hope as opposed to a feigned affirmation of hope. 

In this season, if you have something to mourn, step into the grief. Whether it’s the loss of a friend or loved one, or simply the death of a dream. An experience of hope awaits on the other side. Refusing to take that journey will only make you bitter and cynical.

It's never healthy to allow our ultimate hope to negate the fact that we have every right (and every need) to grieve our losses. Click To Tweet

2. Don’t Ignore Your Anger.

Christians tend not to do well with strong negative emotions. That includes grief, and it also includes anger. 

There are plenty of things to be legitimately angry about in this season. The fact that many Christians –– and not only Christians “out there,” but our friends and neighbors –– have embraced things like Christian nationalism and conspiracy theories or have sought to minimize the pervasiveness and severity of systemic abuse in the American church should trouble us deeply. 

For you, maybe you’re angry at the people who have left your church because they felt your pastor wasn’t saying the right things. Or maybe you’re one of the people who’s upset with your church’s leadership, because you feel that they haven’t taken important issues seriously enough. 

While our anger must never cause us to lash out in unhealthy or unloving ways, that doesn’t mean that our anger shouldn’t exist. There is a righteous kind of anger that we’re allowed to have. When certain things happen, you should be angry. 

And even if you find out that your anger isn’t 100 percent “righteous indignation,” exploring your anger is the only way to see what’s beneath it. Maybe you need a change in perspective. Maybe there are things that you need to confess and work through in your spiritual journey. You won’t discover those things by slapping a bandaid on your anger or forcing yourself to smile through your teeth while your heart seethes. 

When you force yourself to live the lie that everything is okay when it’s clearly not, your soul begins to die. And that’s when you become truly bitter and cynical. You can keep up the veneer of joy for a while, but it won’t last forever. 

When you force yourself to live the lie that everything is okay when it's clearly not, your soul begins to die. Click To Tweet

3. Refuse to Give Up.

Anger and grief are big emotions. That’s why we fear them. We think, even if only implicitly, “If I fully embrace what’s happening within me –– the anger, the grief, the questions –– what if I just never come back?” 

That fear is legitimate. We are living in an age where people who were raised up in the Christian faith are abandoning it left and right. And most of the people who are leaving the faith are marked by their expressions of both anger and grief. How do I know that won’t be me? 

There’s a man who once met Jesus who could probably identify with your struggle. His son was sick, horribly demon possessed, and suffering. And it had been happening for years. The man was at his wit’s end. But he brought the boy to Jesus, perhaps as a last ditch effort to find healing for his son. He begged Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 

In reply, Jesus said, “If I can? What do you mean, if? All things are possible for those who believe.” Knowing that Jesus was right, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

Sometimes, you know certain things are true even if you don’t currently believe they’re true. And in knowing those things, you can eventually let your faith catch up. 

So what are the things that you always need to know? I think there are two. The first is that Jesus rose from the dead, he is the hope of salvation, and that he will redeem all things. The second is that the way that God has elected to work in the world is through his church. 

While you might not see much redemption happening in your life or in the world around you, and your experience of the church has damaged you rather than brought you into an experience of redemption, you can know that these things are still ultimately true.

As long as you continue to firmly commit yourself to affirming those truths, regardless of what might come, you can tackle the questions, hurts, traumas, frustrations, and doubts without fear of losing your faith. 

Sometimes, you know certain things are true even if you don't currently believe they're true. Click To Tweet

The Journey Between ‘Here’ and ‘There’ is Rarely a Straight Line. 

At the end of the day, we know our ultimate destination. But our life is a journey. That’s why the New Testament often refers to Christians as “sojourners” and “aliens.” 

In that journey, you may find that you make some pit stops that will raise the eyebrows of some fellow Christians who don’t understand –– or perhaps those understand all too well. But keep moving forward. 

If you choose to stop acting on what you know and choose to live in the midst of what you currently believe, you’ll end up bitter and cynical. 

Some parts of the journey will be uglier in others. But maybe Jesus is working within you to bring about real change in the world around you. Or maybe he’s just working to make a change within you that you never thought possible. 

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