Are you a skeptic or a cynic?

Drawing a distinction and determination between the two can go a long way toward not only our happiness but also the strength and effectiveness of our Christian witness.

Cynicism and skepticism figure prominently in today’s culture, exacerbated by access to social media and a seven days a week, twenty four hour a day news cycle that seems to never sleep.

Skepticism is defined as having “great doubt” regarding the truthfulness or trustworthiness of a claim. Arthur Conan Doyle, the beloved British writer and author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, once said healthy skepticism was actually the foundation of all accurate observation.

Cynicism, on the other hand, describes situations where we’re “contemptuously distrustful” of someone’s action or motives. It’s been said a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

In other words, skepticism and cynicism could be considered two sides of the same coin – yet are miles apart in significant ways. In both instances, there’s a lack of trust regarding truth, but the difference goes much deeper.

Questioning motive seems to be at the heart of the cynic, whereas being suspicious of the facts makes the skeptic.

To be clear, in a general context, and especially within Christian circles, most everyone benefits when a general sense of trust exists between parties and people. In popular parlance, we might say we should be giving one another the benefit of the doubt. If a neighbor reaches out, we’d be wise to assume the best of intentions. For the sake of this examination, we’re zeroing in on matters that require societal discernment.

For example, polls show that American’s trust in government has been declining over the years, and it’s no wonder. Each day seems to bring a new scandal or scoundrel to the headlines. What’s less clear is whether similar amounts of both have been around forever – but citizen reporters and the death of establishment media are simply exposing the sins that were traditionally covered up.

Nevertheless, Christians have a responsibility to wrestle with these distinctions. It would seem God anticipated the struggles, too, especially given the wisdom left for our discernment and consideration in the Scriptures. Even though the situations chronicled occurred thousands of years ago, the principles remain timeless.

The apostle Paul’s words should convict the Christian cynic who has little to no patience for government. Writing to believers in Rome, Paul urged:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:1-7).

These can be difficult words to swallow, especially when our taxes are being squandered and spent on immoral and sinful activities. This isn’t to say there aren’t times to stand our ground and practice civil disobedience in matters of conscience. But it makes clear God sees government as an intended good, and a structure necessary for human thriving.

In a spiritual context, we often talk about “skeptics” as those who question or are suspicious of the Christian faith. The beauty of Christianity, of course, is that it’s strong enough to withstand any storm, critique, or challenge. Its skeptics are welcome. Plus, history shows many eventually stand a very good chance of becoming believers.

Christians are understandably guilty of falling prey to cynicism from time to time, especially as we grow weary of critics who predictably mock and malign the faith. The distinction here, though, is we’re to not celebrate the cynicism. It’s corrosive. It corrupts. It steals our joy.

While the skeptic knows that he doesn’t know everything – the cynic often believes he knows it all.

As Christians, we should question, challenge, and be skeptical of many of the trends and spirit of the age. Only a fool would blindly accept some of the nonsense being traded as fact today.


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