Saturday, May 17, 2014

Paul Miller on Naïvete and Cynicism

Is it possible to experience childlike trust and delight while still acknowledging a reality that contains evil? Or is it necessary either to be naïve (that is, to be numb intellectually) or to be cynical (that is, to be numb emotionally)?

In his book, A Praying Life [2009, p. 83-85], author and teacher Paul Miller sees Jesus offering a wise third way  something Miller calls "tension" and "cautious optimism." Here's an excerpt:

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Jesus does not ignore evil. When he sends the disciples on their first missionary journey, he says, "I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). The overwhelming temptation when faced with evil is to become a wolf, to become cynical and lose your sheeplike spirit. Jesus tells us to instead be warm but wary  warm like a dove but wary like a serpent.

Jesus keeps in tension wariness about evil with a robust confidence in the goodness of his Father. He continues, "Beware of men" (10:17); then in the next breath he warms our hearts to our Father's love, saying, "Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows" (10:31). Since your Father is intimately involved with the death of even one sparrow, won't he watch over your life? You don't have to distance yourself with an ironic, critical stance. You don't have to shut down your heart in the face of evil. You can engage it.

Instead of naïve optimism, Jesus calls us to be wary, yet confident in our heavenly Father. We are to combine a robust trust in the Good Shepherd with a vigilance about the presence of evil in our own hearts and in the hearts of others.

The feel of a praying life is cautious optimism  caution because of the Fall, optimism because of redemption. Cautious optimism allows Jesus to boldly send his disciples into an evil world.

When I was discussing this with my friend Cathie, she responded: "I love it! I am not called to put on rose-colored glasses and see everything in life as pretty and good and uplifting. Rather, I am called to trust that God sees what I see. In fact, he sees beyond what I see. He sees the whole story and is completely trustworthy to be at work on a grand scale, in the minutia, and even in my own life."

Our confidence in the face of evil comes directly from the sprit of Jesus and animates a praying spirit. Audacious faith is one of the hallmarks of Jesus' followers. As we shall see later, praying is the principal way we enter into this expansion of the rule of Christ.

Jesus isn't just offering practical wisdom. His wisdom works because in his death he himself acted boldy, trusting his Father to help him. While Jesus is hanging on the cross, the religious leaders cynically mock him for his childike trust. "He saved others; he cannot save himself.... He trusts in God; let God deliver him" (Matthew 27:42-43). In effect they are saying, "Look what happens when you act like a child and trust your Father. He abandons you." They accuse Jesus of naïvete, of acting foolishly because he believes in God's goodness.

Jesus does not answer his mockers because his ear is tuned to his Father. Like a wise serpent, he says nothing. Like a harmless dove, he does nothing. Even as his Father turns his back on him, Jesus trusts. Faced with the storm of life, he tightens his grip on his Father.

Jesus' childlike faith delighted his Father, and on Easter morning his Father acted on Jesus' dead body, bringing him to life. He trusted in God; God delivered him. Evil did not have the last word. Hope was born.


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