It is a regular occurrence. The committed churchman apostatizes. The pure, young single lady in the youth group becomes pregnant out-of-wedlock. The loving wife leaves her family for the promise of sexual freedom. In churches across the country, things like these happen regularly. And what is our reaction? We are surprised. And that is actually most surprising since we believe in total depravity.
But eventually, we stop being surprised: we become cynical and spin a web of self-fulfilling prophecies around us. We expect the worst in others, and we see the worst in others. This cynicism eventually blooms into bitter self-righteousness. So, the question becomes, “How do we root cynicism out of our hearts before it has a chance to grow?” The apostle Paul provides an answer for us to this question in 2 Timothy 4.
Be Unsurprisingly Surprised
The apostle Paul in 2 Timothy relates to Timothy some of his difficulties. One of those difficulties is his abandonment and betrayal at the hands of other Christians. Paul writes, “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica….Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Timothy 4:10,14). The implication of Paul’s words here is that Timothy would be surprised about what has happened. Paul pleads with Timothy to come to him soon (2 Tim. 4:9). When Christians sin, either directly against us or indirectly, there is a temptation to become cynical about all Christians.
Cynicism is the easy and broad way to respond to sin; it allows us to build walls around ourselves and our institutions that will keep others from getting too close. We sit in the dark corners of our hearts, waiting to prove our cynicism right through their sin. Cynicism causes us to doubt the professions of others: we hear of others repenting and believing in Christ, so we say, “Sure, let’s just wait and see.” It causes us to withhold the blessing of baptism from others: “We will wait a year or two and see if you really are a believer.” It causes us not to seek communion with others: “I know what happened the last time I let someone get to know me and see how that blew up in my face.”
When cynicism reigns, others never surprise us because we assume the worst and expect it. Therefore, sin doesn’t surprise us. The cynic looks at Paul’s situation and says, “Obviously, that is what is going to happen because that is the way people are.”
This cannot happen in our hearts. We must simultaneously cultivate two things: un-surprise and surprise. We cultivate un-surprise by keeping our theological truths in our mind, so it should not surprise us when people sin. Romans 1 (sinfulness of humanity) and Romans 7 (the indwelling sin of Christians) provide ample evidence. But on the other hand, we must cultivate surprise. It should be unsurprising that people sin, yet their sin should surprise us. We should see their sin and remind ourselves that sin dwells in their hearts and our own. We should see their sin and respond in love and concern, calling them to repent. The un-surprise we cultivate keeps us grounded in biblical truth, and the surprise we cultivate pushes us out of ourselves to love others and call them to holiness. It is, in fact, the surprise that we cultivate that keeps us from growing cynical and bitter.
Drawing Close Rather than Pushing Away
Paul writes, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16). Rather than viewing his abandonment as an opportunity to push others away, he viewed it as an opportunity to draw close to Christ: 2 Timothy 4:17, “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.”
I am sure that it shocked Paul that others abandoned him. Some examples of this include a husband leaving his wife and children for a man, a church member denying the gospel, or a strong Christian leader caught groping his assistant. Paul’s shock and surprise pushed him closer to Christ, not away from Christ. Further, it drove him to write to Timothy, relating these things to him to aid his growth in Christ. If we allow cynicism to rule the day, we will pull back from Christ because we believe He won’t keep His promises. We will pull back from others because we believe they are just waiting to hurt us. But this is not what the apostle Paul models for us in his ministry.
Instead, we should use the surprise and pain discussed in this article to push us forward in accomplishing God’s mission. Through the difficulty and pain, Paul clung to Christ, and Christ strengthened him. Avoiding cynicism enabled Paul to grow and become more like Christ while accomplishing the mission which Christ had given him.
The question becomes, “How will you respond to someone’s sin? Will you allow cynicism to push you away from Christ and someone you are in conflict with? Or are you going to draw close to Christ and to that person for the sake of helping them repent and return to Christ?” If our natural inclination is the former, we must war against it for the glory of Christ, ourselves, and the good of others.