It was horrifying to me to discover that I had become one. I called it “Christian realism,” but that isn’t what it was. It was plain, old-fashioned cynicism. I often quoted Jesus’s words that we needed to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), but one day I realized that my serpent side had won out. I had discovered that people really are a lot worse than I thought they were. And with that discovery, something terrible happened.

I became a cynic.

Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Cynicism robs you of seeing anything as true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Cynicism is a hard and dark place to live.

Now I’m what you might call a recovering cynic. I still have to fight cynicism, but I’m better. I’m not better because people are, at heart, good and pure; they aren’t. I’m not better because I am, at heart, good and pure; I’m not. I’m better because of Jesus.

The One Reality of Cynicism

Cynicism and Christian realism are similar in that they both see reality. Cynicism, however, looks at only one reality.

In John 2 we’re told that when Jesus was in Jerusalem, many people were impressed and believed in his name when they saw the miracles he did. Then John says that Jesus “did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Jesus was a realist.

We see this realism again in Mark 3:5, when Jesus was angry at the shallowness and lack of compassion in the religious people, yet he was also “grieved at their hardness of heart.”

Jesus understood that people are a lot worse than most people think they are. In fact, he understood this far better than the most hardened cynic. At the same time, though, he grieved. Perhaps one way to define Christian realism is to say that it perceives the dark side…and weeps. But Christian realism also goes beyond weeping; it never loses hope.

The problem with most Christians is that we have a naive belief in the goodness of people. We really believe that we’re all reasonably good folks who have some stuff in us that’s a bit skewed, so can’t we all just get along?

Our problem, I fear, is that most Christians have never faced the hard and scary side of sin—both others’ sin and their own.

Nothing is more dangerous than an unrealistic view of human nature. It will cause you to leave your car and your home unlocked, invest in the latest “Christian” money-making scheme, or send generous gifts to those who tell you they’re trying to stand for God and save Christian values from the hordes of unbelievers bent on destroying all that’s good and pure.

When we live in denial of the dark side of human nature, we get hurt needlessly, often get conned, and should never play poker. It’s the difference between believing that democracy is a wonderful form of government because people are basically good and should participate in their government, and believing in democracy because people are basically bad and no one person should be entrusted with too much power. It’s the difference between being genuinely surprised by evil and being genuinely surprised by good.

But coming to the discovery that people are a lot worse than I thought they were was a process.

My Theology

It started with my theology.

The world is not a pretty place. Once I accepted that the Bible is true, I had to deal with what the Bible said about the world and about human nature. And, frankly, it’s not a pretty picture.

We may like to think that people are basically good, but the Bible says that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In Romans 3:10-18 Paul quoted a string of Old Testament passages that should cause us to wince.

It isn’t just us; it’s where we live. Although Christians have sometimes ignored biblical environmentalism, the Bible makes clear that we should act as stewards of creation and protectors of life. However, biblical environmentalism is a long way from the silly and superficial view of the environmentalist who calls earth “our mother” and worships at the altar of nature. Biblical environmentalism looks at the world the way it really is: a world in which the strongest survive and eat the weakest; a world in which earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods bring destruction and death; and a world in which very little is safe or controllable. Genesis 3:16-17 talks about the curse of the ground and the horror of pain. Paul wrote about creation being “subjected to futility,” being in “bondage to decay,” and “groaning together in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:20-22).

The Bible says that God is in his heaven; but all is not right with the world, or with us. Not even close.

My Experience

The discovery that people are a lot worse than I thought they were was also confirmed by my experience.

I didn’t start out being cynical. It almost happened without my noticing it. I began with high hopes for people, for me, and for the church. I started out accepting the tenets of American optimism: that every problem had a solution, every human being wanted to be better, and every situation was redeemable.

Cynicism goes with the territory of being a pastor. Your heart breaks, your hopes shatter, and your mind is overwhelmed by the dark secrets of people you love. When that happens often enough, you either become a sweet, nice, and insipid clown saying things nobody believes and everybody expects, or you move into a mode of cynicism about almost everything. It’s not easy to live in denial and be a pastor—at least not a sane one.

Someone has said that anyone who likes the law and sausage should never watch either one of them being made. I would add that anyone who likes the church should never watch how church is done. Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy that a leader of the church should never be a new Christian. I used to think that all Paul was saying was that he wanted discipline, knowledge, and maturity in the church leaders. I suppose that was a part of it. Paul pointed out the danger of a new convert becoming “puffed up with conceit” and falling “into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6).

But I’m older now, and I think I better understand why Paul didn’t want new Christians leading the church. More than the fear of conceit and a need for godliness drove this injunction. I believe Paul was aware that, after just one board or congregational meeting, a new Christian might be driven to become a Buddhist.

When you have a pastor who thinks people are wonderful, the occurrence of sin is minimal, and Christians are entirely sanctified, you’ve met a pastor who has never gone through a building program, offended the wealthy, stepped on the toes of an elder, preached from a text he wished wasn’t in the Bible, or taken an unpopular stand. Either that, or you’re dealing with a person who has lost his mind.

If you’re committed to other Christians, you’d better be prepared to be committed in spite of the dark side of human nature. I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me that they wanted a career change because they were tired of working “in the world.” They want to work in a place where their coworkers are Christians and where people love one another. “I’m tired of the struggle, the politics, and the difficulty of maintaining my witness in the secular workplace,” they say. “Can you help me find a job in a Christian ministry?”

I respond in a loving and pastoral way: “Are you a fruitcake? No place you can go is free of sin. If you like Christian organizations and the church, it’s better not to work there.”

And that’s true for unbelievers too.

My Shame

When I discovered that people were worse than I thought they were, I also found out that I was worse than I thought I was.

It was verified by my shame.

I’ve told you some of the bad things about being a pastor. Now let me tell you one of the good things: I know that I’m not alone in this. Most people think that they are the only ones who are lonely, afraid, angry, doubting, and sinful. When you talk to as many people as I do, have as much contact with students as I do, and get as many letters as I do, you begin to get the feeling that we’re all very human.

That’s particularly true when it comes to sin.

Time and time again, people would confess their sins to me and I would think, That could have been me. Or, on several occasions, I’ve been there and done that…I just haven’t been caught—yet.

To be honest, there is no sin of which I’m not capable or haven’t committed. Not only that, but there are a lot of sins I would have committed if I’d had the time or was sure I wouldn’t get caught.

Gradually I had become a cynic about other people; but more importantly, I became a cynic about me.

My Faith

People—myself included—really are a lot worse than I thought they were. I learned that from my theology, my experience, and my shame. But I started moving from cynicism to Christian realism because of what happened to my cynicism.

My cynicism was redeemed by my faith. When you realize that people are a lot worse than you thought they were, and when you realize that you’re not above the rest of the human race, you’ll have a choice to make. You can deny the reality, you can become bitter, you can run, or you can just accept the dark side as a part of what it means to be human. On the other hand, you can discover the joy, the power, and the freedom of being loved even when you don’t deserve it.

Jesus really is a friend of sinners. In fact, he didn’t come for the healthy but for the sick. The angel who appeared before the birth of Jesus told Joseph, “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus [meaning ‘the Lord is salvation’], for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

Jesus really is a friend of sinners. In fact, he didn’t come for the healthy but for the sick.

The church is not a place for people who are “together,” obedient, and spiritual. If you really think it is, then you were conned. The church is actually a place for people who are needy, afraid, confused, and quite sinful. But even more important than that, the church is a place for people who have been loved…and have no idea why. Each congregation is, as it were, a local chapter of “Sinners Anonymous.”

God’s power is made perfect in weakness, God’s grace shines clearest through sinners, and God’s message can only be heard from people who are beggars telling other beggars where they found Bread.

Alcoholics Anonymous teaches that only a drunk can help a drunk. They’re right. That’s why drunks get help from AA. Only people who truly understand that they’re a lot worse than they thought they were can help people who are learning the same thing about themselves. Only sinners can help sinners.

People—you and I—really are a lot worse than we think we are. But as the late Jack Miller said, “God’s grace is a lot bigger than we think it is.”

That’s Christian realism.

Adapted from Steve’s book, What Was I Thinking?