Wickedness should not surprise us. A robust view of sin prepares us for the reality that institutions grow corrupt, politicians fudge promises, and even within the church folks gossip, cheat, and lie. Pastors fall. None of this is new.
It’s important to maintain a healthy realism about humanity’s moral potential. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out after World War II in Creed or Chaos?, “The people who are most discouraged are those who cling to an optimistic belief in the civilizing influence of progress and enlightenment.” The brutality of the war, she said, was “the utter negation of everything they believed.” Meanwhile, those who held a doctrine of original sin were better prepared to cope—sinners acting like sinners was no crushing blow.
Still, much of the news in 2017 has threatened to push my realism in the direction of cynicism. Everywhere I look, I find myself tempted to offer the most cynical take on my neighbors. Their votes? Myopic self-preservation. Their social media posts? Virtue-signaling. Their silence? Cowardice. When they change their minds? It must be cultural capitulation.
Even within the church, there seems to be an increasing temptation to believe the worst of others. On edge and distrustful, we are tempted to wash our hands of each other altogether. Why risk the struggle for unity in the body when we’re just going to get burned?
Included in Scripture as a sort of minority report, the Teacher’s philosophy feels right for such cynical times: “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (Ecc. 7:20). Fools abound and prosper, the righteous die, and on top of that, even the “righteous” aren’t that righteous. His counsel? “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself?” (Ecc. 7:16). The Teacher looks around at the world and sees its cracks—its folly and darkness—and thinks to himself, “Why try so hard?”
No one can accuse the apostle Paul of having sunny anthropology or a naïve view of sin. But he doesn’t give in to abject cynicism. While urging believers to correct and restore brothers and sisters caught in sin, he urges, “Let us not become weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9). Precisely when we’re at our worst, Paul commands us not to give up on each other.
But how can Paul maintain a sense of realism about sin without falling into a do-nothing cynicism about sinners? For Paul, love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:7). Rejecting cynicism requires hope, trust, and a willingness to endure disappointment in the face of human sin. Only the spiritual gift of love can do that.
This is because love “calls us back to kindness,” as John Calvin put it, requiring us to put ourselves second. After all, the heart of cynicism is a self-protective unwillingness to risk having our hopes for repentance, reconciliation, or unity dashed. Love moves us to humble ourselves before our fellow believers and help shoulder their burdens, since we know ourselves to be sinners with similar burdens (Gal. 6:1–4). Ultimately, Paul calls us to imitate the realistic love of Jesus.
One of the most striking things about Jesus’ earthly ministry was his stark realism about the people he was working with. When, impressed by his miracles, the crowds huddled around him to make him king, Jesus did not entrust himself to them, “for he knew all people, and because he did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person” (John 2:24–25). Jesus was no sucker. He wasn’t shocked or surprised at our sins, pettiness, narcissism, and self-absorption.