The Altar of Cynicism

by

People lose their souls to many gods. There are the popular gods like money, sex, and power. But there is one unusual god to which men lose their souls, and maybe that god has seduced more people than any of the more famous or obvious gods that live in our hearts. 

Cynicism is the god of the thinking person. Cynicism at first sight is not attractive, and thus, it does not seem seductive or powerful. 

It was the god with whom Solomon battled from the beginning of Ecclesiastes to the end. Oh, he spoke of living for money, sex, and power, but what did he conclude? He concluded that they were void of meaning. They were carafes that looked like they were filled with wine, but they contained only colored water. Solomon surveyed all the gods. In fact, he was intimate with each of them. But the one that came the nearest to owning his soul was cynicism. He looked at everything — his money, his power, his work, his brilliance, even his relationships with his wives and friends. He concluded that all of these were useless. There was nothing or no one who delivered what they seemed to promise. These gods that he had loved with all his might went back on their word; they double-crossed his soul. Thus: “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity” (Eccl. 12:8). The Hebrew word translated vanity means empty, transitory, unsatisfactory. His gods were empty and could not satisfy. They could not be trusted.

Last year I read a very powerful book in which the protagonist had everything (money, power, prestige, family, sex), but he “woke up” to discover how empty his life was. So he set out to find a reality that could be trusted. Along the way his wife, parents, and friends all proved unfaithful and untrustworthy. In the end, he sailed out of the harbor into the ocean alone on his boat with no direction. He had lost his soul to cynicism. Every god, every man, every woman, every institution he trusted let him down. But then he, too, had proved to be unfaithful and untrustworthy, because like all of us he had lied, he had failed to deliver when others trusted him. He, himself, had not been faithful. In the end he became cynical. He kept saying, “To hell with it, to hell with it all.”

This is where cynicism takes hold: with our realization that nothing or no one can be totally trusted, and we can’t even point the finger of accusation at others because we ourselves cannot be trusted. We must number ourselves among the unfaithful and untrustworthy. Cynicism is the temple to which we finally come after stopovers at the houses of all the other gods. It is the temple at the end of “temple row.” 

At the last, Solomon was saved from his cynicism. Ecclesiastes did not end like the book I read. Solomon did not sail out of the harbor into an endless ocean of emptiness. He did not end his story with the words, “To hell with it, to hell with it all.” He came to the sanctuary of a changeless God — a God who made incredible promises of grace and then kept His word. He came to a God who forgave unfaithful and untrustworthy people. He came to a God who said, “I will be faithful to my covenant with you. I will be faithful even though you have not been faithful to Me.”

Don’t expect more from your deities than they are able to deliver. Money will fail you, pleasure will fail you, power will fail you; friends, wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, and children will fail you. Solomon was right about that. And when they do, many of us are devastated. In our bitterness and resentment we go to the temple of cynicism. But there is a gospel for cynics. There is a gospel that says to us, “Of course, all of these will fail you. Of course, they are unfaithful and untrustworthy, and so are you.” So, in the words of Solomon, let’s hear “the conclusion of the matter.”

Don’t give up; there is one more temple. It is the temple that welcomes the unfaithful and untrustworthy. Above the door are words of grace: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isa. 55:1–2).

The cynic comes to this temple and finally finds One who will not betray him and who will never fail him. This God has declared that the sun and moon will fall from the sky before His word and promises can be broken. He went to the extreme of sacrificing His own Son to keep His promise, to be faithful to His oath of justice. He has never lied. He has never broken His word. Here is One who is trustworthy. And surprisingly, He has invited the unfaithful and untrustworthy to come and live with Him. The way His creation treated Him, we would expect Him to be cynical. Yet, He speaks grace to the very people who failed Him. Former cynics no longer go about every day saying, “Vanity of vanities…everything is vanity.” They are singing a new song, one about an amazing grace that saves wretches.

And now a very strange thing has happened. These former cynics now give the grace they received to those who have been unfaithful and untrustworthy to them. 

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