I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (Colossians 2:4-5 ESV)
Human nature, being what it is, can lead otherwise good people to take the ministry of the gospel of Christ and the message of love and craftily and evilly twist it around to denigrate another’s sincere ministry. There is a place for the honest assessment of the ministry of another, but that is not what seems to happen most of the time. Instead, there is a malicious attack on another’s ministry motivated by simple jealousy of the attention or respect that they have received.
This is normal
The first thing we should consider is that unjust criticism is normal in this world. Paul was a victim of these nasty attacks and unjust criticisms, but everybody who has ever sought to lead for the cause of Christ has been also. Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Jeremiah, and the apostles, and of course Christ Himself, all experienced these criticisms. With Paul the “friendly fire” had become so unfriendly and intense that he recorded that some were even glad that he was imprisoned:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. The former, however, preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can add to the distress of my chains. (Phil. 1:15-17)
Sometimes the followers of God’s greatest leaders have acted in a jealous spirit to discourage others. When the Spirit came upon two men in the Israelite camp, and they began to prophesy, Joshua urged Moses to tell them to stop, thinking that only Moses should prophesy. But Moses replied: “Are you jealous on my account? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would place His Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)
John the Baptist’s followers also were initially jealous when Jesus and His disciples began to gain prominence. John said:
John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of Him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom stands and listens for him, and is overjoyed to hear the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:27-30)
It is a sad but true statement that whenever we hear of the spiritual failing of a notable pastor, some pastors feign disappointment but inwardly (and often outwardly) rejoice at the downfall of another out of simple envy and jealousy. Not all ministers react in this spirit; many genuinely grieve for their fallen brother. But it is still sad that so many quickly send in resumes to fill the position and think that the failings of one brother may lead to their own promotion. They fail to see the damage that this causes to the name of Christ.
How to handle criticism
But there is a point to admitting this reality, and in that admission, again, Paul is not seeking to elicit sympathy, but rather he is serving as an example for all who are also serving. What do we do when we are victims of unjust criticism? Here are some biblical answers to this question:
- First, we should consider if there is any validity to their criticism. Do we have something to learn? Did we do something wrong? Are we making some mistakes? Even criticism given in a wrong spirit might be valid, so we should at least for the sake of Christ have the humility to consider that they might have at least some valid points.
- Pray for the one who criticizes you unjustly. Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:43-45).
- Meet with him if you can to see if you have offended him, or can clarify some of the issues he is complaining about. Jesus said: “Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24).
- Learn from the experience and seek to live your life and carry on your service so as not to needlessly allow people to be critical. I have often advised my younger ministry colleagues that they cannot prevent people from “shooting” at them, but they do not need to buy the ammunition through unwise and foolish words. Paul said: “Do not allow what you consider good, then, to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. For whoever serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men” (Rom. 14:16-18).
- Learn to ignore it and move on in ministry. Solomon write: “Do not pay attention to every word that is spoken, or you may hear your servant cursing you. For you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others” (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22). Charles Haddon Spurgeon said to his students that every pastor should have “one blind eye and one deaf ear,” that there was no way to prevent people’s lips from speaking hurtful and critical words, so the best thing was to simply stop your ears from hearing.
Do not let the critic destroy your joy or your ministry
Jesus said, “You will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:22). There are any number of would-be “joy killers” in the Christian family. But Christ’s teaching means that we have the power within us, within His life in us, not by faith prevent that from happening. Hold on to Christ and if you do you will hold on to your ministry and to your joy!
Personally I have had a few experiences similar to the one of Samuel when he grieved and prayed for Saul for a period, and then God told him to stop it and move on and anoint the new king (1 Samuel 16:1). I have had a few brothers and sister who have been my critics and I have been sincerely burdened for them. I have both grieved for them and prayed for them for a period of weeks and sometimes months. Then the Lord seemed to say to my heart words similar to what he said to Samuel, to stop the grieving and even the praying for this person since they had rejected me and my ministry. Instead I should move on and see how God could use me elsewhere.
In the “moving on” it is important to do it graciously, and not in a mean spirit. Leave the door open in the name of grace and if God shuts the door then that is His business, but not yours or mine. But we should move on positively and see where God can use us. Remember, Paul’s greatest pulpit was prison!