My kids looked at me with muddled amusement as I laughed like a hyena at one point during the film, Madagascar. They were too young to understand the irony of the Wonderful World scene, in which the escaped zoo animals discover that life in the jungle is not all they dreamed it would be.
I laugh-cried and wheezed at the hysterical incongruity of the scene because I could empathise with the animals’ disillusionment! I’ve lived long enough to see how harsh life can be, with its gross injustices and niggling disappointments.
It struck me how beautifully unaware my children were of the harsher realities of life. They were so trusting.
Cynicism is the opposite of trust
At home, our current memory verse song is based on Matthew 6:25-27 (pictured below). Its catchy tune has been stuck in my head all week. I know that Jesus’ words are meant to be comforting…
Don’t get me wrong: this is one of my favourite passages of Scripture! The problem is, I struggle with cynicism. And cynicism is the opposite of trust.
When I think of “the birds of the air” the first thing that springs to mind is the image of a slimy, stiff baby bird that I found inside its shattered shell on our concrete driveway one morning last year. It had fallen from its nest in the overhanging tree branch.
After trying, unsuccessfully, to cover the tiny dead body with leaves before my 5-year-old could lay eyes on it, I spent the next several minutes talking with two forlorn, frowning, question-filled children about the reality of death — and eggs. Just what you want to be doing first thing in the morning as you’re rushing to school!
Why does that tragic scene keep springing to mind? I’ve wondered this week as I hum along to our irresistibly catchy Bible memory verse tune.
But what about baby birds that die?
This thought has been persistent enough to make Jesus’ words of comfort feel uncomfortably hollow to me.
And I realise that cynicism still has a grip on my heart.
Moving away from cynicism and towards trusting God
A couple of years ago, my prayer life was close to non-existent and I didn’t know how to resurrect it. After reading A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller, I realised that cynicism was at the heart of my problems with prayer.
Cynicism, a trait that I’d always considered to be an asset — a sign of intelligence and my brand of humour — turned out to be a kind of poison in my heart.
Cynicism kills hope… The cynic is never fooled, so he is never delighted.1Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life, pp.85-87.
Yep, that described me. I had been so disappointed by life and by other people, and even by God, that I had sunken into a state of constant numbness. It seemed better not to feel anything at all than to feel so bitterly disappointed all the time.
Paul E. Miller suggests that the cure for cynicism is to become like a little child again.
Both the child and the cynic walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The cynic focuses on the darkness; the child focuses on the Shepherd.2Ibid, p.87.
Since applying this advice to my heart and asking God to help me, I’ve discovered trust and hope hatching in my heart again.
I can’t say that I no longer feel painfully disappointed by life and other people, and even by God, because the reality is: I still do feel that way sometimes.
But what I have started to do more and more is to focus on my Shepherd rather than on the darkness — and this has made a huge difference.
Trusting God in the darkness
Today, when I sing the words of Matt 6:25-27 and the incongruous dead-baby-bird scene springs to mind, I know that my Shepherd understands. I talk to him about it.
I admit to him that I’m cynical. I confess how hard it is to trust his words of comfort when baby birds fall from their nests and die before their wings have even had the chance to fully form. I’m honest with him about my doubts.
Focus on the Shepherd, not the darkness
As I focus on my Shepherd, another Bible verse about birds comes to mind: Jesus says that not even one sparrow falls to the ground and dies without our Father’s knowledge (Matt 10:29). My sadness is soothed when I remember how compassionate God is: he’s not removed from the sadness of this world’s losses.
I remember how Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died — even though he knew that death is not the ultimate end, in light of sweet resurrection power (John 11:25, 35). Curiously, my worries fade as I consider how fleeting life is: any struggles I’m having now will not last forever.
As I focus on my Shepherd, the Parable of the Lost Sheep comes to mind. How delightful is the man’s jubilation over that one lost sheep from his flock of 99 who is rescued (Luke 15:3-7)! And I marvel at the way Jesus pursued me even when I drifted away from him. He never stopped loving me. He loved me enough to lay down his life as a ransom for my sins (John 10:11, Isaiah 53:6).
As I focus on my Shepherd, my heart fills with trust again.
Jesus, our Shepherd, we want to come to you like little children but it’s hard when cynicism is numbing our hearts. Please teach us to look towards you rather than focusing on the darkness that surrounds us — because you know the way; you are the Way, the Truth and the Life. We want to learn how to trust and hope again. Amen.