Working like a Cynic
By: Dr. Emily Kahm
Sometimes, I think it’s okay to look at a Biblical text and want to shout at it, “THIS ISN’T HELPFUL.”
It’s not the text’s fault that it catches us on a bad day (or month, or year). There’s still beauty and wisdom in it. But when you’re in the depths of stress, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty, deeply cynical and mourning the fact that the world you live in is nothing like you think it should be, a gentle, comforting exhortation like this one from Paul can feel more like a platitude. Platitudes, it should be noted, are naturally infuriating.
“Do not be anxious about anything!” Right, sure, I’ll get on that just as soon as I answer 7 more emails at 10pm so that I can look like a good worker in the midst of a global pandemic. “The peace of God will guard your hearts!” Well, it hasn’t yet, so when is that supposed to arrive? “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” Oh Paul, dear sweet Paul, you wouldn’t survive 6 seconds on social media. We don’t think about the good things. We find every dumpster fire in the world and spend our time sharing articles about those instead.
The trick, then, is figuring out how to take this reading seriously instead of setting it (and those like it) on fire by the laser-beam force of our own cynicism. Paul, after all, wasn’t exactly a sunshine and butterflies sort of fellow, and plenty of his letters are basically a face-palm in epistolary format (case in point: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?!”). He lived in a real world full of greed and terror and anxiety, just as we do. His words surely weren’t just about being comforting and vapid. In fact, his instructions are a lot more interesting if you assume they’re coming from a fellow cynic.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” These aren’t banalities, they’re marching orders. Rejoicing can be hard work, and right now is one of those times. Paul is insisting that it’s work worth doing – just like quelling our own anxiety, and presenting our struggles to God rather than flailing around with them by ourselves. He tells us to fill our mind with beautiful things, and I don’t think he means to ignore the pain of the world to do so, but to see where the world’s pain is being tended to or healed and to think about those things. This meditation isn’t just so we can feel better – it’s so we can do better, having been inspired and enlivened by imagining what actions are within our power. He promises the peace of God, but maybe this is less the tranquil peace of a still pond and more the kind of exhausted satisfaction we find when, at the end of a very long and very difficult day, we settle into bed knowing we’ve given what we could.
I prefer this Paul, who faces the chaos of the world and digs in deep to find the beauty, and I think a lot of other people – especially those who are run ragged, down but not out – would too. It’s a helpful reminder as we pass each day that this is the work that means the most and that will sustain us the longest. As for that peace of God, well, I haven’t found it yet; but for the moment, I can dig down deeper and trust that maybe it’ll find me when I need it the most.
Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, where she is a recovering cynic. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and her toddler son, Xavier.