Pastors, Imagine Facing Criticism in View of the Cross

1. Facing the Inevitable

I have a special love for young pastors. So idealistic. Oh, how I remember those unicorn and butterfly days of long ago. 

Those were my days as an assistant pastor. I thought I was just "doing my time" until I got a real preaching gig as a lead pastor. Then people would really love me, praising my oratorical gifting and expository genius as the next Tim Keller.

Seasoned pastors reading this are laughing. I am, too. 

Eventually, I became that pastor with the big desk and private bathroom off his office. I also learned what the phrase "having roast pastor for Sunday supper" means. Some call it Christian cannibalism. 

Look, if you have an insatiable desire to be criticized, aspire to be a head coach, a school principal, a politician, or a pastor. In these arenas, criticism is inevitable. 

And that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" ditty. It's a lie. Bones heal. Words cut deep and leave scars.

According to the dictionary, criticism is "the expression of disapproval." Certainly it has degrees, from mild disagreement to growing exasperation to rabid opposition. 

If you don't want to be criticized, don't be a pastor. Drive an ice-cream truck. 

"If you don't want to be criticized, don't be a pastor. Drive an ice-cream truck."

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Granted, criticism is not restricted to coaches, principals, politicians, and pastors. Everyone faces some form of disapproval at some point. Do you have parents? Are you married? Do you vote? Post controversial opinions on Twitter and Facebook? You get it.  

2. My Typical Reaction to Criticism

Although I am an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs, a 5 on the Enneagram, and a super high C (with no S, none) on the DiSC, I am more sensitive to criticism than you'd imagine. I'm also an only child whose parents were divorced when I was a baby and had a stepfather whom I called "Dad" leave the family when I was in 4th grade. I suppose there is a wound of abandonment and rejection somewhere down deep that influences my need for affirmation and acceptance, and why I am far more insecure than my temperament would indicate.

Nevertheless, when I am criticized, my knee-jerk reaction is totally in line with my personality wiring. I get defensive and condescending. After I have made my defense, I go on the attack. This attack is often just in my head. If I were not a pastor, I'd probably say more stuff out loud. But what I'm thinking would get me fired if I verbalized it. So, I restrain my fury to a storm between my ears.  

Sadly, and I wonder if this is true of other pastors, as restrained as I am with critics in churches, I am less retrained with my wife, which indicates that my restraint with others may look like humility but actually is pride. I just don't want people to see me lose it and have more for which they could criticize me! 

Thankfully, I have a wife who doesn't retaliate fire with fire, but is able to use peaceful negotiation tactics in an effort to deescalate my combative posture.

Whether facing the criticism of a spouse, an elder in the church, or a supervisor at work, responding to criticism with defensiveness just doesn't end well. 

"Responding to criticism with defensiveness just doesn't end well."

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3. The Message of the Cross

After a long and hard season of pastoral ministry in which I had been criticized to the point of emotional flogging, I realized something revolutionary for how I could respond to criticism in an entirely new way. 

Here is the eureka discovery: Nothing criticizes me more deeply than the cross.

The cross tells me that I am so deeply flawed and corrupted that it required Jesus to suffer death in my place. And yet, while enduring the criticism of the cross, my heart is restored, encouraged and sustained by the strongest possible word of forgiveness, acceptance, and love... through the testimony of the very same cross, WHERE Jesus BECAME THE OBJECT OF THE CRITICISM THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN aimed AT ME!

"Jesus became the object of the criticism that should have been aimed at me!"

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There is nothing anyone can say or think about me that is even close to how bad it really is. 

There is a story about the renown 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon, who after delivering a particularly earthy sermon, was told afterward by an older lady that he was the most unholy preacher that she had ever heard. Spurgeon leaned over to the man next to him and said, calmly, "And she doesn't even know the half of it."

That's funny right there. Why can't I think of those kinds of responses off the cuff? 

Seriously, the cross helps me absorb the blow of criticism. After all, if those who criticize don't know even "the half (or even 1%) of it," nothing anyone can say about me is nearly as devastating to my pride and self-righteousness as the cross.  The glorious thing is, that even though I don't know a half of my sinfulness, neither do I know even half of God's forgiveness, acceptance, and love.

Because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, I, like Charles Spurgeon, no longer have to become defensive when criticized, because through faith in the gospel, my identity is no longer rooted to my record, goodness or obedience, but to the record, goodness and obedience of Jesus. So I can be real about the reality and prevalence of my sinfulness, weakness, and need.

"Because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, I no longer have to become defensive when criticized."

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In view of the cross, I am free to confess that my condition is much worse than I think and rejoice that it is far better than I think at the very same time.

4. Embracing the Grain

A practical result of receiving the imputed righteousness of Jesus is that I am now free to evaluate criticism and embrace the grain of truth that I find.

Sometimes, what I find more closely resembles a boulder! On other occasions, the critique will be inflated and misguided. But if I know myself at all, I will expect to find some grains for which to own and offer a genuine apology to someone whom I have (even if inadvertently) offended. 

Because of my temperament, I usually am unaware of how I have hurt someone by an off hand comment or possibly some kind of neglect. It happens. A lot. 

The gospel is the power not only unto salvation but unto ongoing repentance, enabling me to let go of self-righteous self protection and expose myself to the residual impact of my remaining flesh, glorying in Jesus as my righteousness with every fresh opportunity to repent.

"The gospel is the power not only unto salvation but unto ongoing repentance."

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5. Grace Flows Downhill

I think it was Martin Luther who said that repentance should feel like death. It is the crucifying of self, particularly self-righteousness. Self-boasting. Self-glory. In repentance, I become the lowliest, most needy sinner. Yet as Stanley Voke wrote in his wonderful booklet, Personal Revival: Living the Christian Life in the Light of the Cross, "Grace flows downhill." 

Critique invites us to experience grace in new, living ways as we discover more and more what a wretch is the flesh and what a beautiful Savior is Jesus, who suffered my criticism on Calvary.

Thankfully, he didn't drive an ice-cream truck.  

If you are a young(er) pastor/leader and are interested in learning about gospel-centered mentoring, check out the Timothy Fellowship.

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