Cynics Anonymous (Message for October 12th, 2014)

Scripture:  Philippians 4:4-9


                I have an age old question for you.  Is the glass half full or half empty?   This question is supposed to reveal our overall outlook on life.  However, it is a trap.  Does anyone ever actual say the glass is half empty?  People ask this question or bring it up when they want to prove the point that we should be more optimistic.   The generally excepted right answer is that the glass is half full.   Now there are some exceptions I have actually met some people who will proudly exclaim the glass is half empty.  These same people will also always point out they are not a pessimist they are a realist.   Some people (like me) are smart alecks with the question and make it all contextual.   The glass is half full or half empty depending on the context.  If I am pouring out, the glass is half empty, if I am pouring in the glass is half full.   Despite there being some outlier answers, I generally think that most of believe the “right” answer to this question is the glass is half full.   I could be wrong about this, but I think that most people prefer to think of themselves as optimistic people.    This creates an interesting dichotomy because we might be optimistic, but we are also deeply cynical.   

                There is an epidemic of cynicism today.    If you want proof, pick an article, any article on the Internet and look at the comments.  The article could be nothing of adorable kitten pictures, and I guarantee you will not have to scroll down very far until you find a cynical comment.  Cynicism is the belief that everyone is motived purely by self-interest, that nothing can be trusted, and everything is getting worse.  Cynicism has reached an epidemic level.  A big study on people’s attitudes released this year found that only 19% of millennials (young 30 to 20 year olds) think that most people can be trusted.  Before we get down on younger people, other studies have found a trust gap.   Across age groups researchers have found that people are deeply cynical about trusting others.  It has become our nature to assume the worst, to assume that everyone has an agenda, and that out of everything someone who is not us is somehow benefitting.

                This huge level of cynicism can lead us to think the world today is worse than it has ever been.  In many different areas for many people it is hard for us to look back to how things use to be, see how they are now and not get cynical about it.   It is funny how being a cynic changes our perceptions.  When we assume the worst in everything, we tend to find the worst in everything.   There are several examples of this.   For instance, many people probably think that crime is out of control.  It is a common complaint that things are not as safe as they use to be.   Statistically though this is not true.   Violent crime has been steadily dropping every year since 1993.    The national murder rate is now at its lowest point since the mid 1950’s.  In the same way teenage pregnancy is at its lowest point since the statistic started being recorded, and Illegal drug use is downy by 40% from the 1970s.   Yes, there are still problems today.   Yes, there are problems manifesting themselves in ways that we did not even think were possible 30 or 40 years ago, but the world is not a significantly worse place than it used to be. 

                A cynical outlook on life is a vicious loop that feeds itself.  When we start assuming the worst about people and the situations around us, we continue to only see and assume the worst.   Negativity is easy.  Negativity is like water in that it flows along the path of least resistance.  Studies have even found that negativity is contagious.  When people express their cynical views we are more likely to “catch” those views and adopt them than a positive outlook.    It is easy for us to find things to complain about, and the more we do this the easier it gets.  Scientists have found that when we complain or even listen to others complain for 30 minutes the part of our brain that is responsible for solving problems slows down significantly.   Essentially, we are satisfied just with saying what we think is wrong with everything than actually doing something about it.    Many people might like to think that the glass is half full, but it would appear that we may not be as optimistic as we would like to think.   Think about your average day, how much cynicism, pessimism, and general negativity do you encounter?   How often do you hear those attitudes from the news or TV?   From other people?   From yourself?   If you are like me, the answer is too much.   We have an epidemic of cynicism, and this morning scripture tells us why that is a problem.

                The attitude that Paul expresses in this morning’s scripture is the very opposite of being cynical.   He begins with rejoice.   When we rejoice we partake deeply in joy, and we exclaim happiness.  It is an impossibility to be positive and negative at the same time.  It is impossible to be cynical, see the worst in something and joyful, seeing the best, at the same time.   Paul then continues do not be anxious about anything but instead pray to God.   Paul’s prescription is not to assume the worst and complain but to pray.   Verse 7 states the result of this is “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”   Doesn’t that sound great?   The peace of God that transcends all understanding.   Can you picture how much better and how much more fulfilling your life would be if you replaced the negativity, the assuming the worst, and the cynicism with a peace that surpasses all understanding?  

                As Christians we should always be glass half full people, because if we are being the honest the glass is always more than half full anyway.   In fact, if we stop focusing on the negative, if we stop having a cynical outlook then I think we would find that the glass is often overflowing.   If we all started listing out every single way both great and small that God has blessed us all individually, then we could be here all day.    We have so much to be joyful for, and we have so much to be thankful for.   Not only is God involved in our world and in our daily lives, but we have such a great reason for joy.   The God who created us loves us enough that He wants to spend eternity with us.  Even though we do not deserve it the great debt caused by our sin has been erased out of the glorious love of Christ.    I cannot say it more clearly:  Because of Jesus’s great act of love we will spend eternity intimately knowing a love and care greater than we could ever imagine.    That is a reason to rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again rejoice.   This does not mean that we do not have problems, this does not mean that we will be free from negative experiences, but joy-not cynicism, should be what defines how we interact with the world. I really love how the praise song “Blessed Be Your Name” puts it.  In the song we sing “Blessed be your Name in the land that is plentiful, where the streams of abundance flow- Blessed be your Name.   Blessed be your Name when I am found in the desert place, though I walk through the wilderness-blessed be your Name.”   It does not matter what comes our way- how smooth the road is or how rocky, we should still be able to rejoice because we know that God is with us always.   To everyone we interact with we should be known as joyful people not as cynics.   

                Maybe you are able to interact with the world around you on a level where joy is what defines you.   Maybe you are able to keep from being cynical and seeing the worst in everything because you are too busy focusing on how truly good God is.  If that is you then, thank you for being an example for the rest of us, and please continue to set that example by rejoicing the in the Lord always.  However, if most of you are like me then we have to confess that we are probably a bit too cynical, we ae too quick to assume the worst in others in the world.   We spend too much time being negative and not enough time rejoicing.    If that is you, then I think there are three steps we can take to change that behavior.  

                First we have to admit we have a problem.   We have to be willing to confess that we are being cynical.  We have to stop trying to cover up this flaw and disguise it as a virtue.  We are not being a realist.  We are not calling it like we see it; we are just being cynical.   We are focusing on the negative-plain and simple.  We cannot change our behavior until we call it what it is.   We cannot keep insisting the glass is half full, when all of our actions and words show that we clearly believe the glass is half empty.   We have to be willing to admit that we have a problem with being cynical, with assuming the worst of people, and with bitterly complaining.   Not only do we have to be willing to admit it, but we need to be willing to confess it-to God and to each other.  If you want to take a real big step to go from being cynical to rejoicing then the best thing you can do is have someone hold you accountable.  Talk to the person who you trust the most, and have them call you out when your start dwelling on the negative.    Remember cynicism and negativity is easy, and often we fall into the easy mental habits.  By admitting this is a behavior we want to escape from, and leaning on each other to do that we can take the first step. 

                The second step is at the heart of this morning’s scripture.   Verse 8 states “finally, brothers and sisters whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things. “  If we are focused on the negative around us then we cannot be focused on the positive.   If we are so busy looking for evidence of how godless society has become, then we are going to miss what God is doing all around us.  Instead of focusing on what is wrong with the world let us focus on those things that is true, noble, right, pure lovely excellent and praiseworthy.   Rejoice in the small things in life.   Our thoughts truly do define our actions and attitudes, so if we want to be known as joyful people, if we want to have a peace that surpasses all understanding then that needs to be our focus.  I think if we look back at verse six there is a key word.  The verse states “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God.”   The key word is thanksgiving.  We should pray and we should bring our petitions and issues before God, but we should do so always in attitude of thanksgiving.  Because as we have already stated we have so very much to be thankful for and that good news of the gospel always outweighs the bad in our lives.   

                The final step is that we can be the positive influence we want to see.   When we are presented with obstacles, when we are confronted by things we think are wrong, and when our thoughts are challenged we have two options.  We can try to solve the problem or we can get cynical.   This is true for small issues and this is true for big issues.  It is so easy to sit back and point out what is wrong with things, but it is a lot harder to do something about it.  Cynicism gives us an excuse out of hard work.  It is so much easier to throw our hands up and say we can’t do anything anyway and then complain about it.   No one ever complained meaningful change into the world.   Real change requires doing something.   So if you think that kids today lack respect and direction then volunteer to work with them.  Be a loving leader full of joy in their life.  Teach them what it means to respect by respecting them as precious children of God.   Do you often complain that the poor are freeloaders of society?  Then volunteer with organizations like Habitat for Humanity that provide a hand up to help ensure people escape the cycle of poverty.    If we are busy loving people instead of complaining about them, then our focus will not be on the negative.  Instead our focus will be on whatever is true, noble, pure, loving and praiseworthy.   

                My name is Sean and I confess that I can be a cynic.   I will not ask you to do the same.  We can be anonymous cynics here today, but may we not leave here as cynical as we came in.   May we leave our negativity, our judgmental attitudes, and cynical assumptions at the foot of the cross this morning.   May we replace our cynicism with rejoicing.   May we focus on that which is good and truly worth focusing on, and may that joy define us.   Because when we do that I think we will find the peace of God in our lives, the peace which transcends all understanding and guards are hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.   If that is what you want today, then will you please join your heart and mind with mine in prayer.