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A Envious Fly in the Ointment of Christian Service

September 5th, 2019

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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!

Colossians, Dealing with Difficulties

Concrete Surrender

June 13th, 2019

Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27)

Surrender to God cannot be achieved merely on a theoretical basis. It must have something concrete behind it.

Like obeying our parents as children, obedience must always have a specific matter behind it, something they have told us to do. And on the specific and concrete matters of life do we surrender to God.

We have a problem with a theoretical Christianity. Charlie Brown of Peanuts once said, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” Just as the concrete realities of unpleasant body odors, the sights and sounds of societies, the unkind words that proceed from mouths, slovenly habits, insensitive and selfish actions make us as individuals more difficult to love, so the command to take up our cross and follow Christ is made difficult not by the theory of the idea but by the specific nature of applying it.

Oswald Chambers wrote:

There is only one thing you can consecrate to God, and that is your right to yourself (Romans 12:1). If you will give God your right to yourself, He will make a holy experiment out of you. God’s experiments always succeed. The one mark of a saint is the moral originality which springs from abandonment to Jesus Christ.

In Streams in the Desert we read:

There is a good deal of mere mental and logical sanctification nowadays, which is only a religious fiction. It consists of mentally putting one’s self on the altar, and then mentally saying the altar sanctifies the gift, and then logically concluding therefore one is sanctified; and such an one goes forth with a gay, flippant, theological prattle about the deep things of God.

The great daily need in our lives is to learn the benefit of difficult challenges, and to use them to put real teeth into what it means to surrender to God. Again, from Streams in the Desert: 

So few are willing to undergo the suffering out of which thorough gentleness comes. We must die before we are turned into gentleness, and crucifixion involves suffering; it is a real breaking and crushing of self, which wrings the heart and conquers the mind.

Your Cross to Bear

True abandonment must have something specific to abandon. True surrender must have something specific to surrender. A cross to bear must have something specific about it. We will only know complete surrender as we deal with actual concrete circumstances in life. So God allows these things to come into our lives so that we might grow through them. But the specific cross or the concrete circumstance we deal with is always the more minor and transitory issue. The great matter is that I learned to surrender my heart to God.

Again, like a child learning to obey his parent – the specific matter of obedience is not as important as the child learning to trust and obey his parent. And in the same analogy, what to a child might seem like a very significant matter, such as going over to Johnny’s house to play, later as the child matures is understood to have been completely unimportant. It was the trust and the discipline of obedience that were the weightier matters.

Taking the Cross to Calvary 

Crosses must be concrete, but be careful! Some limited thinking has taken this teaching of Christ and made it only about carrying our burdens. People speak of their “crosses to bear” but they never get to Calvary. They stay right there on their own via dolorosa complaining about how hard their life is. This idea misunderstands the original meaning of Christ’s words. Cross were not burdens to bear in Jesus’ day. They were instruments of cruel crucifixions. To take up one’s cross was not to merely endure a trial, but it was to carry it to the place where you were nailed to it and left to die.

Do not use the unpleasant things in your life as tokens to carry with you. We all do our share of complaining, but there is something much better to do with our problems than complain about them. Let God use them as He intended and let them be cross you carry all the way to Calvary. You may pray, “God, this person (or situation or circumstance) seems an incredible burden to me. I feel all alone in my misery, abandoned by those who should support me, and unnoticed by others. But if in this circumstance I can learn to surrender to you, then not my will but your will be done.”

Some people just get bitter through their problems. Those who get better through them learn this matter of surrender to God. If we do surrender, then we give God the opportunity to do something God-sized in our hearts, to truly change us inwardly. David prayed, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2). That rock is the place where in the midst of your challenges you surrender your heart to God.

A Fellow Missionary’s Testimony

A missionary colleague of mine several years ago shared this personal story – I will leave names out, both the missionary’s and the foreign land in which he served.

For several week he had been dealing with the difficulties of trying to get government permission for a children’s home, and was returning to his home after spending a very frustrating time in that nation’s capital. It had been a long day of dealing with crowds, strange odors, and corrupt public officials, as well as the frustrations of travel.

The final leg of his journey home was a twenty minute taxi ride, with a rather chatty driver. The driver asked him what he did for a living and the missionary told him. Then the driver asked him how he liked living there, and the missionary the “proper answer,” and said that they loved living there and that they loved the people there, even though that was not what he was feeling at the moment.

Then the taxi driver asked, “What do you love about us?”

The missionary was struck by the question and he said to me that at that moment he could not think of a single thing he loved about the people. It troubled him that he really did not like the people or the place.

After he got home he went to his study to pray and confessed to God that he really did not love the people. God seemed to say to his heart, “I did not send you because you love them, but because I love them.”

Those frustrations and difficulties led the missionary to take that cross and go to Calvary and die to himself. This gave God the opportunity to put in the missionary’s heart something infinitely greater than the missionary’s love – God’s own love for the world. We will never be able to be true channels of God’s love until we learn to lean upon Him in faith and surrender.

Daily Devotions, Dealing with Difficulties, The Deeper Christian Life