12 Steps to Take When You Come under the Fire of Criticism

Criticism Can Help Refine You

We live in a cynical and condemning world. In case you haven’t noticed, the ministry isn’t getting any easier. Studies show that Americans have a less favorable view than ever of fundamental Christianity. In fact, much of the world hates our beliefs. Recently USA Today reported that fifty-seven percent of Catholics had a favorable view of Muslims, while only forty-six percent had a favorable view of fundamental Christians!

Abraham Lincoln wrote, “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how—the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

One pastor wrote, “The qualifications of a pastor are to have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” It has also been said, “Treat both criticism and praise like bubble-gum—chew on it a bit, but don’t swallow it!”

I realize we will never please everyone. Frankly, pleasing everyone should not be the goal of a spiritual leader. In 2 Timothy 2:3–4, Paul said: “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.” Paul’s ultimate goal was to please the Lord as he served Him.

While we cannot control criticism, we can respond biblically to it. And by walking in wisdom, we can do much to prevent it.

Why Hostility toward Christian Leaders Is Growing

We are attempting to lead people in a very unusual day. More than ever, pastors are suspect. Gone is the day when pastors were trusted and respected merely because they were a minister. More and more, this title automatically brings men under closer inspection and greater suspicion. Harold Myra wrote, “The furnace that forges leadership burns steadily, and this is particularly true among those charged with very large responsibility.”

Warren Wiersbe shares in The Integrity Crisis, “The church has grown accustomed to hearing people question the message of the Gospel, because to them the message is foolish. But today, the situation is embarrassingly reversed, for now the messenger is suspect.”

There are several factors that have influenced such a decline in respect toward spiritual leaders. Much of it comes from the media’s portrayal of the ministry. Rarely does a news program or entertainment venue represent biblical leadership in a positive light. From ministry scandals to cultic abuse cases to outrageous caricatures, pastors and spiritual leaders are almost always positioned negatively on television and the Internet.

The failure of Christian leaders is another attributing factor to the decline of respect for religious leaders or institutions. It seems annually that there is another nationally recognized leader in Christendom who falls publicly either to moral failure or to financial improprieties. To the average unchurched person (whom we are trying to reach) this has a growing negative impact.

Christian literature has progressively become less and less doctrinal and distinctive and more profit-driven by a broad market. The more vague and obscure the spiritual thirst of the nation has become, the more vague the gospel has become from mainstream publishers.

Jealousy and envy from those who share our faith breed hostility in our culture. I will never understand why we do not rejoice in God’s blessings for another ministry, and I cannot comprehend why we have to actively undermine what God is doing, even if we choose not to rejoice!

Frankly, some criticisms that spiritual leaders face are brought on by themselves. A lack of discernment in the pulpit, an inability to control the tongue, and a prideful attempt to “take a stand” have often exposed a carnal side of an otherwise good man. These actions prove a man to be full of the flesh and not the Spirit. A critic is someone who points out how imperfectly other people do what the critic does not do at all!

How Biblical Leaders Respond

In short, as a biblical leader you are going to have painful things coming at you from four different directions—a secular workplace, a hateful world, carnal Christians, and jealous leaders. It probably helps just to know that you are not alone! Every leader who ever tried to do anything for God faced this kind of opposition.

Being attacked hurts—especially when you know the attacks are untrue, distorted, and unfair. When you know your record is clean—you have been faithful to your wife, true to strong doctrine, sincere in your ministry, and pure in your motives—it’s painful to discover that others are still unhappy with you. After all, you never dreamed that Christians could generate enemies simply because of their biblical position.

In these moments, everything within you wants to rise up and defend yourself. You want to engage and win. The essential question is, how should a godly leader respond? What would God have us to do in the face of such growing hostility? Allow me to share with you twelve steps you can take when you are under assault.

1. Go to God in Prayer

Take your burden to the Lord. This is His flock, and you are His man. In His presence you will gain strength, wisdom, and perspective. You will be reminded of your dependence upon Him. The Bible says in Hebrews 4:15–16, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

2. Rest in the Sovereignty of God

Early in the process there must be a yielding of your will to God’s. You must accept that He has allowed the attack, and you must rely on His timetable and His process to respond to it. God has not forgotten you. He is working in you, and He is preparing you for a greater work— even through the efforts of the critics. Remember, anything out of your control is in His plan. There is not a season of criticism in our ministry that has not been immediately followed by a far greater season of growth and blessing—and the harder the trial the greater the blessings! Though the criticism and attacks were hurtful for the moment, months later and in retrospect, I have often felt that the trials moved me forward in God’s grace.

3. Receive Difficulty as a Friend to Develop You

Ask the Lord to help you, by faith, to see the blessings that will result from the burden. Accept the trial that you might win the crown. The psalmist wrote, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Looking back, spiritual burdens and trials have always helped us to go forward in ministry—every time.

4. Don’t Retaliate

Mark Twain said, “Few slanderers can stand the wear of silence.” In moments of attack, you don’t want to react. He who throws mud always loses ground. Hold your tongue, hold your pen, hold your internet postings; grab hold of your words and submit them to the approval of the Holy Spirit. Don’t abuse your authority or use your pulpit as a battering ram.

Every time our ministry has been attacked, I have called on the counsel of godly leaders and friends. Without fail, they have urged me not to retaliate. A few times I found myself in a position where retaliation would have been very easily accomplished. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit guided me in those moments to protect the testimony of the ministry.

Many years ago, one of the most painful and slanderous attacks against our church was delivered by some individuals who served in positions of civic public service. Their actions were not only wrong; they were an abuse of their positions. Several years later, I had an appointment in my office with a very prominent public figure who happened to be the head of the organization where these individuals served. The appointment was requested by this man for the purpose of hearing the gospel. It was a tremendous open door, and I labored for two hours to share Christ with him, very nearly seeing him trust the Lord.

Early in our conversation, he asked me the names of those who had slandered me from within his organization. He said he would “take care of it.” Without hesitation, I refused. I’m still praying that the Lord will reconcile those relationships and restore those brothers to my heart. I could not dishonor the Lord and injure those critics in that moment. I pray you won’t either.

5. Grow in Grace

“And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). Allow God to use this time to call you more deeply to prayer and Bible study. Soften your heart and grow. If you don’t make this conscious decision, your heart will likely harden and your spirit will become calloused toward people. Keep your heart soft and your spirit right during these times of difficult growth.

Second Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.”

6. Humble Yourself before God

John Adams, toward the end of his life, wrote to his grandson, “The longer I live, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know. Walk humbly. That is enough.” Let these trials cause you to decrease so Christ can increase.

7. Love Your Family

In moments of pain and discouragement you start to feel like the whole world is against you. Isn’t it amazing how Satan can do this? You might have a whole church family praying for you and loving you, but two critics can rob your joy in the Lord. In these deceptive moments, God has always encouraged me with thoughts like this: “Well, I can love my wife and love my kids. As long as they are for me, we’re still in this together!” Somehow these trials have always drawn our family closer. No one knows your integrity and sincerity more than your family. Let the trial renew your commitment to loving them passionately.

8. Make Important Assessments

Henry Blackaby wrote in Spiritual Leadership, “Past leaders had certain times in their day when they were inaccessible to people. During such times they could reflect on their situation and make decisions about their next course of action.” He continues, “Leaders realize they must occasionally step back from the day-to-day operations in order to gain perspective on the broader issues such as the nature and the future of an organization.” Often it is a moment of criticism that will cause you to pause and evaluate. Don’t ignore criticism. Step back, lay it before the Lord, and ask Him to reveal the truth to you.

During every season of criticism, we have identified areas where we could have communicated better or could have taken preventative measures to help people understand our position or our polity. We have grown greatly from the information given to us from critics. Many of the principles in this post flowed from teaching moments during trials. As with Joseph, what they meant for bad, God used for good. My only regret is that I would have liked to redeem the relationship and not merely benefited from the criticism.

Winston Churchill said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.”

One pastor said, “When criticism is a threat, a leader becomes defensive, but when it is viewed as a natural occurrence and a challenge, it can become a source of constructive energy.”

9. Don’t React

All leaders get criticized. It’s their response to criticism that sets them apart. John Adams wrote to a friend in Massachusetts after he had been hurt by a rival, “When a man is hurt he loves to talk of his wounds.” This might mean you need a wise listening ear. It also means you could say the wrong thing in a moment of reaction! Some battles are not worth fighting. An old Chinese proverb states, “A bulldog could whip a skunk at any time, but it’s not worth the fight.”

Hurting people hurt people. When you are hurting, don’t react; respond. Prayerfully seek God’s direction, obtain godly counsel, and follow a very predetermined course of action that pleases the Lord.

10. Increase Your Accountability and Accessibility

The more your ministry grows, the more important it is that you protect yourself with accountability and accessibility. With broader influence comes broader accountability—embrace this as a preserving agent, not a restraining one.

When we have been attacked, the Lord has always led us to strengthen the structure of accountability and to more effectively communicate transparently. Increased accountability has always positioned the ministry for bigger influence and greater responsibility. It’s a paradox that God would use a trial this way, but the results are wonderful.

11. Develop Leaders around You

One man said, “Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.” When the leader is attacked, people usually look to the surrounding leadership for a response. In other words, the church family will watch your pastoral staff, your deacons, and other leaders around you. It is no doubt then that these leaders will often come under attack as well. Satan will do everything he can to undermine the respect and trust of those in leadership. You can be sure that you are not his only target and neither are your leaders. He’s going after the sheep. In distracting the undershepherd, he’s hoping to steal a few lambs!

This is one of the great benefits of developing strong leadership around you. There is safety and strength in a team of leaders. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto!

Furthermore, instead of creating a dependency mentality in your congregation, teach the Bible and help your members to grow in discernment and to follow the Spirit’s leading in their lives. Develop leadership within the church body. The stronger your church, the more easily they will see through and withstand the deception of the wolves. “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

12. Don’t Quit

Let the trial strengthen your resolve. Often trials are the greatest indicator that we are on the right path, doing the right things. Everything that is moving forward encounters resistance—so thank God you are apparently moving forward. One man said, “Defeat may serve as well as victory  to shake the soul and let the glory out!”

If you quit, your critics win, and much is lost for the cause of Christ. Don’t let petty people determine your destiny. God planned even your enemies, and they are serving His purposes in your life.

It has been said, “For every action there is an equal and opposite criticism.” I want to remind you that not all critics are your enemies! Not all critics have the intention of being hurtful or scornful, and if you lump them all into the same category, you will often be wrong. Proverbs 27:6 reminds us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend….” Some critics are truly seeking to understand. They genuinely have a concern. Even if their spirit is wrong in the way they raise it, their heart may be in the right place. You sometimes have to presume a genuine heart when it is hard to see one.

The critic may be a friend seeking to help you. He may have the insight to see one of your blind spots. He may be genuinely seeking to protect you and grow the ministry. It would be a mistake of gigantic proportions to stop your ears to all criticism.

Generally we find it easier to take criticism from someone we know and trust, but I challenge you to receive it even from those you do not know. If God brings someone into your life with a negative insight, receive it with a soft heart, pray about it, and communicate with that person openly and transparently. Most importantly, be willing to change! Positive, growth oriented change is good for you and the whole church.

There are many times when I have benefited from such negativity and have gained a friend in the difficult, but worthwhile process.

Remember, a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor. Suffering truly qualifies and equips you for the ministry.

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