Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Christian Faith in an Age of Cynicism
by Rev. Ray Murray
Scripture: Psalm 4:6-8
The Dictionary says a 'cynic' is a person 'who expects, believes the worst about people, their motives, or the outcome of events.' Cynicism, then, is the habit or mind set of believing the worst about people and life. And, this, I would suggest is what David has in mind here in verse 6 when he says, "Many are asking, 'Who can show us any good?'" It's that spirit that not only looks on the black side, but has gone one step further and says, perhaps in a sneering kind of way, 'Who can show us any good.'
2. The Areas Where People are Cynical Today.
Let me say something, first of all, about some of the areas where there is a great deal of cynicism and scepticism today.
And the first area I would mention is politics. People are saying of politicians, 'Who will show us any good?' They make many promises and a great number of critical remarks about each other, but how many are really prepared to deal with the issues that confront us as a nation? The former ALP numbers man, Graham Richardson, made a very true comment when he said once: 'People are cynical of politicians today.' That's very sad - but it's also very true. They take their promises and their policy statements with a grain of salt.
But people are not only cynical about politicians. They are also cynical about business. We see some big companies complaining about how hardly they're being dealt with. But when we look a bit closer we see that they are harsh and unscrupulous in dealing with their workers. And how often do we hear the comment, when a job is advertised, that the position is already filled by those 'in the know.' It's so often stacked against the person on the outside - especially young people applying for jobs - that they get very cynical about job adverts. But it comes down to the ordinary business dealings as well. Some time ago I was interested in a CD player. In one shop it was $499, and in another, $699. And when I mentioned it, the Manager said, 'We'll sell it to you for $499!' How can we believe the prices we see when these sort of things happen! Advertising about Sales, Clearance Sales, and Closing Down Sales are met with a cynical - 'I'll believe it when I see it.' And the sad thing is that some Christian organizations are getting caught up in the same sort of thing.
[c] Pop Music.
But cynicism is also present in one of the most potent influences on young people today - Pop Music. Some time back Kylie Minogue had a song called 'Where The Wild Roses Grow.' And this is what she sings:
On the third day he took me to the river;
He showed me the roses and we kissed.
And the last thing I heard was a muttered word -
as he knelt above me with a rock in his fist.
And then Nick sings this:
On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow;
She lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief.
And I kissed her goodbye; Said all beauty must die,
and I leant down and planted a rose between her teeth.
This is a violent, cynical approach to life crystallised in those words - 'all beauty must die.' Our faith tells us that all beauty will not die!
[d] Literature and Films.
But this cynicism is also in literature and films. Very rarely do we find modern books and stories having a happy ending. People have given up expecting things to have a happy ending. They have the cynical attitude to life reflected here: 'Who will show us any good,' they say. Of course, we mustn't gloss over the tragic side of life. But the Christian Faith says that those who trust God will have a happy ending. And this cynicism in literature is a subtle attack on the idea of triumph and victory inherent in the Christian Faith.
And last, but certainly not least, people are very cynical about God. God is often included in that statement, 'Who will show us any good?' It makes me sad to hear young people today say: 'God never answers prayers.' We have to be very careful as Christians that this cynicism about God that we meet with in others, and in society, doesn't influence us, so that we come to have a cynical attitude towards God too. In fact I think this often underlies our lack of prayerfulness both as individuals and collectively. We are cynical of God. We aren't game to come out and say it, but it's there. If we really believed that God would answer our prayers you wouldn't be able to stop us from praying!
3. The Attitude of Christians in a Cynical Age.
So much for the cynicism of many people today. What is to be our attitude in such a cynical atmosphere? Its very easy to become like so many others, and start saying, 'Who will show us any good?' - to become pessimistic and despairing. Even David himself could say on another occasion, "I said in my haste, 'All men are liars'" [Psalm 118]. But we have to resist that spirit of the age - and here David shows us an alternative attitude that we ought to have.
[a] Acknowledge the Lord's Goodness.
For one thing, we ought to acknowledge the Lord's Goodness to us. He says in verse 7 - 'You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.' When people become cynical and sceptical about life they become very short sighted. They say, 'Let's eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.' They turn to their parties, or their drink - or the grasp of the moment's enjoyment - to give them some relief from the hopelessness and emptiness of life. That was a solution familiar to David. He saw people trying to get solace from eating and drinking. But it's not David's solution. That may provide a temporary respite. But there is a deeper source of joy and gladness than that - and it's found in God, and in His goodness towards him. We may be cynical about politicians, and business people, and about life - but there's one Person whom we can never be cynical about - and that is God. He can and does give us deeper joy than anything else.
And that's true isn't it? For those who have come to know God, he gives deeper joy than anything else. He gives us meaning and purpose in life; he gives us forgiveness and acceptance through Christ; he gives security and strength for living; and he gives us a glorious hope for the future. David could say that God had made an everlasting covenant with him, arranged and secured in every part [2 Samuel 23:5]. And every Christian can say the same thing.
[b] Rest in the Lord's Protection.
But not only does David acknowledge the benefits he has received from God. He is also able to rest in the Lord's protection. In verse 8 he says 'I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety.' He realised that God was in control of things: That this was His world and His plan was being worked out in it; that He had the wisdom, and the power, and the goodness to take care of him. And so he says, 'I will lie down and sleep in peace.' This attitude is just the reverse of a cynical attitude in life. It is an attitude of confidence and trust and peace.
The common belief today is that this is a world that has come into existence by chance, and is controlled by chance. But then people do a strange thing. They run here and there trying to get meaning and purpose into it. But you can't put meaning into something that is by definition meaningless. It isn't any wonder that there's a spirit of weariness and fear about today with that sort of approach to life: uneasy lives and sleepless nights. What people must come to realise - and we must realise more than we do - is that this is God's World. He's in charge. The future of the universe is not in our hands. God has His plan and it's on schedule, and He loves His people with an everlasting love. If only we appreciated that more, we could be like the Psalmist - lying down, and sleeping in peace, confident that the Lord would look after us.
[c] Calling on God in Prayer.
But David has more than a spirit of thankfulness to God and confidence in God. He also has an prayerful attitude towards him - and this comes out in verse 6. 'Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord.' It seems from the Psalm that David is in a pretty bad situation. People are giving him a hard time; they worship false gods; and they are very pessimistic about the future. Does he give way to the same sort of pessimistic attitude to the future? Not at all. In fact just the opposite: he knows there is someone who can help. God has blessed him and God has provided for him. So, in the face of this cynicism all about him, he lifts up his eyes to God, and prays for His blessing. A cynical, sceptical attitude breeds prayerlessness. The experience of God's goodness and mercy, and trust in His sovereign control and protection cultivates and encourages prayer. It draws us to Him with the confidence that what He has done for us He is able to do for others. It gets rid of cynicism.
4. The Atmosphere We Must Try to Create.
This, then, is the attitude we ought to have as Christians: thankfulness for His blessings; trust in His control; and believing prayer for His intervention. If we cultivate such an attitude it will keep us from the cynicism and pessimism that's about us today. But I think we have to take all this a step further, and think, not just about the attitude we are to have, but about the atmosphere we must try to create as Christians. And in a world where many are indeed saying in one way or another, 'Who will show us any good?' we must try to communicate the attitude of the Psalmist here. We must try to create an atmosphere of compassion and hope.
On the one hand we must have compassion for those caught up in this cynical attitude. People who turn away from God have every reason to be cynical about life and their fellow human beings. How often does God warn us in the Bible that if we trust in man we're trusting in a broken reed. The tragedy today is that many people put their trust in people - in politicians, or business people, or just ordinary people - and they have been let down. People have tried to fix things in a humanistic way, and it's been a big failure - and will probably become an even bigger one. No one can go against the laws God has placed in nature without paying a terrible price. We have to have compassion for such people. Their hope and confidence has been destroyed.
On the other hand we must confess, like David does here, the true source of our hope and confidence and joy. Because we know who God is, and what he can do, we must say: there is one who can help us. There is one who can provide the deepest joy that there is; there is one who can enable us to lie down in safety; there is one who answers prayer; and there is one who can show us real and eternal good.
One of my favourite Psalms is Psalm 34. I often read it when I go visiting in hospital. But I've always felt a bit uneasy about the way it starts out: 'I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the Lord.' I used to think to myself, this is a bit hard, telling a person who is in pain to rejoice! And then I noticed something that's easy to miss: David, after saying he is going to praise God, says 'Let the afflicted hear and rejoice'! In other words, he speaks to the afflicted and says, 'Look, I'm praising God because I was in trouble and the Lord heard me and delivered me from all my fears.' And then he goes on to say, 'Taste and see that God is good.' Rely on him! Trust him - and you'll see that he's good! That's the sort of witness we must bear. We must say: Look, God has been good to me. He's given more joy than anything else. He helps me to lie down and sleep securely. And he'll do the same for you if you trust in him.
So, here we have the spirit of our age brought before us in those words: 'Who will show us any good?' And that spirit has entered into most of life today. As Christians we must enter a massive protest against it - first by cultivating this attitude of thankfulness, trust and prayerfulness that David had, and secondly, by seeking to create this atmosphere around us. And we do this through compassion and confession - acknowledging God's great goodness to us. And of all things, if we have tasted the goodness of God, we should be able to do that. It's a witness that a weary and cynical world needs.
This article formerly appeared in The Presbyterian Banner ( the official magazine of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia) in June, 1998. Reverend Ray Murray went to went to Taree High School in New South Wales and is the former Minister at Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia. He studied at Westminster Theological Seminary and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) as well as the Free Church College in Edinburgh.