Teachable Cynics

“If you’re regularly willing to give a critique, but not willing to take one, you’re not a leader, you’re a cynic.” – @edstetzer 

Matthew 18:4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Cynicism is the ugly side of discernment. According to Merriam-Webster, a cynic is someone who is “contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.” Compare that to something we all desire, discernment. This good trait is “the ability to see and understand people, things, or situations clearly and intelligently.” Do you see the fine line between the two definitions? Our greatest strengths tend to be our greatest weakness. Discernment and cynicism are two sides of the same coin, and any of us who consider ourselves discerning need to be on guard against the other.

How do we foster the good character trait of discernment while protecting ourselves from its ugly counterpart, cynicism? I think the key is found in the quote from Ed Stetzer. The discerning person must be willing to seriously consider criticism of themselves. Back in the day at my Christian college, they called this being teachable.

There is a simple, age old problem that faces a discerning person when they are faced with critique or correction. It is pride. A discerning person likely struggles with personal pride more than anyone else. That’s a strong statement, but remember that the central thing about being a discerning person is that you accurately evaluate situations and people. You’re good at seeing through others’ true motives or the unintended consequences of poorly thought out choices. Discerning people are good at evaluating others, but that can trick them into thinking they are best at evaluating themselves. When someone comes to them with concerns or encouragement, the discerning person assigns the worst motives to them instead of the best, picks apart the person bringing the critique, and then moves from the good side of discernment to the bad side of cynicism. They trust in their discernment more than they trust the one speaking to them. That is the heart of pride.

Humility is a hard trait to foster in ourselves if we feel we are a discerning person. But the ability to receive criticism of ourselves may be the most important character trait of all, especially for a person gifted in discernment. The discerning person has a choice to make in a moment of criticism. Does our discernment define us? If we find our identity in that noble character trait, we actually set ourselves up for failure. But if Christ defines us rather than our ability to discern, then Christ will still define us when we are critiqued. Our identity can stand up to the fact that our discernment of ourselves failed and that we needed someone else to speak into our lives.

As it does at many points of life, a robust understanding of the gospel and our subsequent identity in Christ is the thing that equips us to live as humble, discerning people rather than proud cynics.

7 Responses to Teachable Cynics

  1. Anonymous February 20, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    thank you…sobering…everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord;. he who trusts in his own heart is a fool Prov 16:5a; 28:26a

    concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware… the same God who works all things in all persons but to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good; the one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.

    …but I show you a still more excellent way- pursue love, seek to abound for the edification of the church.1 Cor 12,14;1 Tim 4:14

    may the Lord ever help us each,together!

  2. K February 20, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

    Thank you for this. This is so me. In fact, it wasn't even until doing your Ephesians study a few years ago that I was convicted over my cynicism. I honestly just saw it as part of who I was but now I'm asking God to help me in this area of my life.

    I love this quote from Ann Voskamp: “Cynicism isn’t strength and ranting doesn’t rejuvenate and frustration can never accomplish what Faith can.”

    Thanks for this challenge and reminder.

  3. Paul February 20, 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    Thanks Wendy.
    I appreciate your thoughtful posts.
    Have you noticed, however, that those who face legitimate criticism because of their actions or words, are often quick to brand their critics (no matter how humble or soft-spoken) as “cynics” or worse, “bitter” (especially if the subject of the criticism happens to be a popular pastor or religious leader)? How that serves to deflect legitimate critique, squelches the conversation, and simultaneously shames the person who bothered to raise a legitimate issue?

  4. Wendy February 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    It's reverse cynicism. I think any of us who receive criticism ought to put aside self preservation and seriously consider the other's concerns.

  5. Laura Eder February 22, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    This post brought to mind another quote that I found equally true and helpful (though I don't know who to attribute it to): “Accountability has to be invited to be received.” Another insight into the importance of a “teachable spirit.” If the discerning person has no relationships with other mature believers in which he/she invites somebody else's discerning eye to speak into his/her life, it won't matter if they do, it likely won't be believed or received.

  6. Wendy February 22, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

    That's a good point, Laura.

  7. Pia February 25, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

    Just ouch!