Monday, January 29, 2007

Dealing Christianly with criticism

You've faced it, I've faced it: criticism. Particularly criticism from the godly.

I've faced it quite pungently as a pastor, and as a blogger. I'm sure that those whose criticism I don't fully and instantly embrace are sure that I've callously and arrogantly brushed it aside without a thought, and I understand that thinking. However, this is seldom (if ever) the case.

Evaluating and responding to criticism is a very thin tightwire, I think; and I think you'll agree, if you think it through with me.

"Squish" Hewitt likes to quote a proverb, "When everyone tells you you're drunk, sit down." There's clearly wisdom in those words: if you keep hearing the same thing from person after person after person, the odds are good to excellent that they're seeing something. And you're a fool if you shrug it off without a thought.

The proverb has wisdom, I say, but not all wisdom. The answer to the rhetorical question, "Can [however many] Frenchmen be wrong?" is "Of course they can." Think of it Biblically. Consider this:
When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: 'Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." (Exodus 14:10-12)
It's all there. These are the people of God! They'd just prayed (v. 10), so what they said had religious backdrop! They said en masse that Moses had brought them all out to die in the wilderness! They said they knew it all along!

And they were all wrong!

Then think of the spies' report in Numbers 13. Twelve spies sent, twelve came back, ten of the twelve — a landslide! — said that there was no way they could take the land. And they were dead wrong.

But they did persuade most of the people, and most of the people took their counsel and acted on it. And they were dead wrong.

We could go on and on. Think of Israel at Jesus' time. "Crucify! Crucify!" Religious people, all united and fervent in their opinion; all dead wrong. For that matter, think of Israel today, the vast majority of whom still are stubbornly and hard-heartedly in a state of Deuteronomy 18:19.

So the Christian must know that is possible for the vast majority of any body of religious to be absolutely certain, blood-earnest, heartily and specifically condemning, and utterly, completely, dead wrong.

And think of "leaders" we've all known who lead by the wet finger raised to the breeze. You know the sort: every decision, every phrase, is poll-tested and designed to play to the masses. The only principle on which you can be sure they'll stand is the principle of the retention of power. Too many Republican senators have shown this characteristic in recent years and days.

But it isn't merely a political phenomenon, for scores of pastors and writers are little different. They preach topically, so as to avoid unpopular truths. In interviews or private conversations, they may insist that they hold these truths. "Hold them" they may; "hold them high" they do not.

Paradoxically, folks do not have much respect for "leaders" whom they know to be easily "rolled" by popular opinion, whereas they tend (tend) to respect principled leadership. Think of conservative reaction to Mitt Romney, who was insistently and forever pro-abortion when running for office in a pro-abortion state, and now is insistently pro-life, as he runs for nomination within a (largely) pro-life political party.

So we should disregard all criticism, right?

Well, of course not. And here we must turn about, lean over and examine the other side of this narrow ridge on which a Christian leader must stand, with its equally disastrous dropoff.

We also read insistent, pointed, forceful exhortations like these:
Proverbs 12:15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 15:32 Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

Proverbs 17:10 A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding
than a hundred blows into a fool.

Proverbs 19:20 Listen to advice and accept instruction,
that you may gain wisdom in the future.

Proverbs 29:1 He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck,
will suddenly be broken beyond healing.

Ecclesiastes 7:5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.
The stance of the wise should be to be very open and receptive to criticism; indeed, to welcome it. After all, what is our goal? Is it to maintain every position intact, never grow, never realize that a thing can be handled better than we'd done in the past? Or is it to keep growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ, which necessarily involves what Luther's first Thesis calls an "entire life... of repentance."

If you've spilled nasty things all over your shirt/blouse, would you rather that no one say anything, so that you can maintain the illusion of perennial and perfect tidiness—until you get home and realize you'd looked like a pig all evening? Or would you rather someone tell you in kindness, so that you can try to do something about it?

So if we've ugly and destructive attitudes or behaviors, is our priority to maintain the illusion that we've Arrived, until we arrive Home, and realize what a perfect mess we've been?

So, yikes: this second body of texts strongly urges listening to criticism, hearing and heeding it, taking it to heart. It urgently warns us against deaf ears, hard and arrogant hearts, and stiff necks.

So what do we do? We daren't assume that majority opinion is right; we daren't assume that any criticism is wrong.

Actually, I think that is exactly what leaders must do. If you hear criticism, and never think it has even a grain of wisdom and truth in it, you're either Jesus, or you have your heart in the wrong place. But equally, if you're like President Logan in Season Four of 24, with no root nor rudder, you're not wearing the mantle of leadership well.

When it comes to criticism, I think the best target is: Be neither aloof, nor a slave. You should listen, and listen hard; you should weigh carefully and unsparingly before God. But you must weigh, honestly and humbly. Our own personal stance should be like that of the wise man in Proverbs 9:8b-9:
...reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
Now here's the sad part. Almost invariably you will infuriate, and perhaps unintentionally make an enemy of, every critic whose advice you don't fully follow. Show me a leader with no enemies, and I'll show you a nothingburger. The wiser of your critics will realize that you will ultimately not stand before the judgment seat of Them, but the judgment seat of God—and at some point this must rule your perspective. They'll not make everything ride on your accepting the infallibility of their judgment.

And given that God both counsels us to take criticism very seriously, and not to be its slave, His perspective will be our wisest perspective.


Pastor Steve said...

This is the area of being a pastor that I have one of the hardest problems with. It's hard to receive criticism from people who don't give you any room to disagree with them and then they assume you are blowing them off because you don't instantly change.

It's also really hard to receive criticism from people who you perceive to be godly and mature, but yet who you think are wrong. I keep asking myself if I am deluding myself, filled with pride, or am missing something.

It's a continual struggle, but you do have to fall back on the principles you set forth in this post.

Lance Roberts said...

I think one of the most important things for people to realize is that every single person is wrong on every single issue (of any complexity) in some way. It may just be a way you feel about the issue, but since none of us is perfect in anything, we'll all have something to learn about everything.

One of the saddest things out there is people who won't listen to criticism, they think they've arrived, and that attitude will kill them spiritually.

The example I like to use is that of course I don't go to purposely listen to women preachers, and if I catch one on the radio, I'll turn the channel; but sometimes I still end up hearing them. So while I will try to get out of and avoid that situation, if it happens I realize that God could still be giving me a message through her, and I still have to evaluate what I heard.

DJP said...

Pastor Steve—are you me? I could've written that. I know exactly what you mean.

Have you had the snap! phenomenon? When someone thinks you're a pretty decent guy, pastor, and Christian — and then, snap! suddenly you're a bad guy, pastor, AND Christian, and all the GOOD things you once did are now all BAD things?

Mx5 said...

All I can say is... thank you for this post. I happen to be married to a pastor. Need I say more? It seems to me that pride takes more pastors down than criticism, but criticism tends to take 'em out faster. I could be wrong though ;-) Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post.

Pastor Steve said...

I feel like I seldom get the benefit of the doubt with some people. It's seems like people are slow to confront sin, but quick to confront their pastor.

The most disappointing thing is that you spend hours teaching people truth, and then even more hours showing them you love them - helping them move, babysitting their kids, going out as families together, but then something comes up (most of the time rather minor), and they turn on you so quickly and assume the worst about you, when in your mind you have proven your love and your best intentions over many years in many ways. That is what hurts the most.

Constructive criticism is always welcome, but petty criticism, and refusing to "agree to disagree" over minor things, and even the unwillingness to show deference to the pastor (when appropriate) are the things that really hurts my spirit and makes it so difficult to turn around and love those people once again after the situation resolves itself.

I guess that is my expanded rendition of my snap! moments.

There's no room for a pastor who refuses to accept criticism and analyze it biblically, but in my experience the bigger problem is church members who are quick to criticize and refuse to rationally (biblically) talk through the criticism.

Mx5 said...

I know what you mean, Pastor Steve. 'Seems like some in our flock - about 3% or so - like to shoot at my husband, but I figure it comes with the cup, so-to-speak.

It was easier when my hubby was in youth ministry working at an outreach center, and having the next door business owner (a tattoo artist) getting in his face about his "kids" than it has been being criticized for everything from the use of name tags to the misuse of his time. At least with unbelievers in general, my hubby didn't have to wonder where they were coming from - they just said it, rather than snipe as some of our church members have a habit of doing.

I guess it's easy to criticize anyone, just like many of us do with our favorite sports teams' coaches.

I hopped over to John Piper's biographies of some of the great preachers of old, and was humbled reading what they endured in their callings. It did help calm me down a lot after the most recent fray.

This isn't to imply that what we go through is easy, by any means.

To me, the big question is why more people don't know how to disagree biblically? Maybe they do know how, and choose not to do it?

DJP said...

I also think it's partly due to our prosperity, and lack of persecution. In China, do you think underground church members get all bent over the pastor's choice of ties, or whether they're singing too many hymns and not enough choruses, or whether he's nicer to X than he is to Z?

Highland Host said...

One of our local pastors recently referred to a wonderful critic he met in Nuneaton. The pastor (then a young man) had just finished the Bible reading (from Judges). He had not said five words in his sermon when a man in one of the pews jumped to his feet, banged angrily with his stick on the pew in front of him, and cried 'HERESY!!' at the top of his voice.

Those are the critics you know to ignore.

P.S. The 'heresy' was preaching from the Old Testament.

Ivy said...

dear sir, i'd like to check with you on your earlier comment on changing channels when women preachers come onto the radio. Is it biblically wrong to have a woman preach? thanks!

DJP said...

I don't recall that remark, Ivy. But yes, it is absolutely wrong for a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, at least in a church context (1 Timothy 2:9-15). By God's design, she may be many things. She may not be a pastor.