Cynical Prophets and Prophetic Cynics
In recent years, I’ve had the joy of pastoring many fine prophets, some highly gifted, some deeply wounded, and some with a potent combination of gifts and grief. I’ve know the sorrow of watching broken prophets decline into cynicism and the joy of walking cynics forward into their true calling as prophets. In some ways, cynics and prophets are exactly opposite; in other ways, there are virtually identical. Maybe they are the flesh and spirit manifestation of the same gift.
The true prophets
To truly understand the cynic, you must first understand the prophet, because they function out of the same gifting but are shaped by different responses to a variety of circumstances.
Ideally, the prophets’ foundation is built upon a revelation of God’s great love for them and the world of people to whom they are sent. God gives the prophets three gifts (at least): A sword of truth, a balm for healing, and a promise of hope.
A healthy and mature prophet will use all three gifts
effectively. With the sword of truth, they will confront the hypocrisy and
oppression of political, religious and economic powers. With the balm of
healing, they will minister words of life to the broken and crushed. And
always, they will deliver the promise of hope, inviting all to come into
alignment with God’s heart for them and the world.
This three-fold prophetic ministry is seen clearly and
consistently through the Old Testament as well as Jesus’ ministry.
The false prophets
A variety of false prophets have always been at large. Some simply serve the wrong gods, drawing people away from the one true God. We tend to think of these false prophets as the shamans of pagan religions when it fact they may operate within the Christian church, prophesying on behalf of consumerism, moralism, nationalism, militarism, etc., even in Jesus’ name. In other words, they are those who simultaneously pledge allegiance to Christ while binding themselves in an embrace to the very powers that killed Jesus of Nazareth.
But there are other types of prophetic error as well. Some prophesy out of wounding and rejection, thus drawing people away from the churches that offended them under the guise of purity and passion (e.g. 1 John).
Others prophesy out of ego to create dependence and draw people to follow them personally rather than equipping the saints to connect with the Good Shepherd for themselves.
Some prophesy without any face-to-face communion with God. Rather than receiving revelation in intimate friendship with God and then sharing what they hear, many a prophet makes proclamations from their own souls, reading and then blessing the wishes of those to whom they prophesy. Prophets that bypass friendship with God are identified in the Scriptures as “soothsayers” and “fortune-tellers.” I suspect this is far too common within the church.
- The fashionable cynic: is a pseudo-prophet who can mimic the prophetic call to confront hypocrisy, but without love, ends up missing the target. They steal the hope they were meant to offer and heal no one. Even as they leave their audience laughing, they function only to harden their hearts and inoculate them from good news.
- The wounded cynic: is a genuine prophet that’s been wounded (or, as one writer put it, “A disappointed optimist.”). They have either not yet been captured by love OR they have had their heart broken and their hope stolen. They may still function to confront oppression and hypocrisy, but they need to be restored to and reminded of the call to deliver love and hope. Without these virtues in their foundations, they can be dangerous to the innocent, creating a hardening against love and trust.
Therefore, the cynic is in danger of acting as a false prophet through either errors of commission (bringing truth but without love), or commission (assaulting/stealing hope) or misdirection (using the right gift on the wrong people). They can end up actually lurking to pounce on every seed of good news, even that which is meant for them. [e.g. Beware of rolling eyes at enthusiastic testimonies of faith. What does that communicate? What does that do?]
Relationship to the Church
Jesus models the prophet’s relationship to the church seven times in the first section of the book of Revelation:
1. The critiques of the churches in Rev. 2-3 are based in a revelation of Jesus and who he is to us. I.e. the One who walks among the lamps; the First and Last; the One who opens doors no one can shut, etc.
2. He includes encouragement, affirmation and advocacy. He loves them and is clearly for them.
3. He speaks the truth in love about that which endangers them, bringing correction without condemnation.
4. He delivers an invitation to restoration and a promise of hope.
Confronting Hypocrisy in the Church
One difficulty that comes with confronting hypocrisy in the church is that we often misjudge what hypocrisy actually is.
Hypocrisy is NOT the failure to live the Christian life perfectly. It is NOT stumbling short of some kind of golden standard in our daily lives. Cynics and critics would never fail to find examples of this, but that is not the issue. The church does not claim to be sinless as if it never falls short of the glory of God. Hypocrisy, rather, is the self-righteous claim that we do NOT stumble. In this, the cynic may be the greatest offender, for in pointing the prideful finger of accusation, he/she becomes like the very hypocrites that Jesus confronted. Cynics frequently display the meanest kind of self-righteousness (in part because of the mocking tone) and may inadvertently take of the role of the accuser (Satan’s ‘ministry’).
True prophets, guided by the Spirit, are first of all advocates even in their critique. They see the stumbles, to be sure, but they invite the stumbler to the true value system of God’s church—not perfectionism—but the ministry of Jesus to forgive, to extend mercy and to heal the very causes of the stumble.
But the cynic and prophet are alike in this: they can be ruthless with their critique of the powers. The biblical prophets DID use taunt songs, parody and biting satire on the so-called powerful. And here, cynics can be affirmed in their gift but also called to implement the rest of their arsenal. How?
- By reminding them that God is love, that He loves them and that He loves others.
- By offering healing to the wounds that produce cynicism.
- By calling them to see their complicity in whatever they are attacking and asking them to offer identificational repentance.
- By reminding them of their call to offer hope, healing and promise.
- By pressing them for the good news that they could be sharing.
- By calling forward the prophetic gift in the cynics we encounter.
So, rise up, (fellow) cynics. Pursue your healing. Remember the good news. Reclaim your gifts. Rejoin the mission to free hearts and restore lives. We need you.