How To Handle Criticism

This tribute to Tim Keller is an excerpt from Scott Sauls’ new book, From Weakness to Strength: 8 Vulnerabilities That Can Bring Out the Best in Your Leadership.  Published by David C. Cook.

Finally, Tim could receive criticism, most of which came from the outside and was almost always unfair, and it would bring out the best in him rather than bringing out the worst in him. By his words and example, he taught me that getting defensive about criticism rarely, if ever, leads to healthy outcomes. He also taught me that our critics, including the ones who mischaracterize and falsely accuse us as pastors, can sometimes be God’s instruments to teach and humble us as persons. In Tim’s words from one of my favorite essays of his:

 First, you should look to see if there is a kernel of truth in even the most exaggerated and unfair broadsides…So even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong. Perhaps you simply acted or spoke in a way that was not circumspect. Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own shortcomings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you. It will then be possible to learn from the criticism and stay gracious to the critic even if you have to disagree with what he or she has said.

If the criticism comes from someone who doesn’t know you at all [and often this is the case on the internet] it is possible that the criticism is completely unwarranted and profoundly mistaken. I am often pilloried not only for views I do have, but also even more often for views [and motives] that I do not hold at all. When that happens it is even easier to fall into a smugness and perhaps be tempted to laugh at how mistaken your critics are. “Pathetic…” you may be tempted to say. Don’t do it. Even if there is not the slightest kernel of truth in what the critic says, you should not mock them in your thoughts. First, remind yourself of examples of your own mistakes, foolishness, and cluelessness in the past, times in which you really got something wrong. Second, pray for the critic, that he or she grows in grace.


Bless Those Who Persecute You…

A man’s evil toward you will have passed away but your good thoughts about him will remain.  If good thoughts do not arise spontaneously in you, will to have them even though your heart still harbors resentment or hatred.

Wurmbrand, Richard. 100 Prison Meditations: Cries of Truth from Behind the Iron Curtain
(Kindle Locations 1324-1326). Living Sacrifice Book Company. Kindle Edition.

Peace Without Understanding

A sufferer once came to a pastor and asked him many questions. The pastor answered, “Kneel here in church and ask Jesus for the answers.” The man replied, “Do you really think I will hear a voice from heaven?” “No,” said the pastor, “but by keeping quiet in prayer for several hours before God, you will realize that you can go along without answers to all your problems. This would have been Jesus’ answer and it will quiet you.” You do not need more than His peace, which passes all understanding. You do not need both peace and understanding, for understanding presupposes qualifications that most of us do not have.

Wurmbrand, Richard. 100 Prison Meditations: Cries of Truth from Behind the Iron Curtain
(Kindle Locations 143-148). Living Sacrifice Book Company. Kindle Edition.

Loving the Unlovable

One way of understanding what love is and what it means to love is to say that to love something is to see it as we think God would see it— rather than as we, fallen human beings, are inclined to see it. To love something is to see in it the hope and the promise that are in it, which our cynical, tired selves cannot see but which by God’s grace we can see. We do not fail to see the sins and failings, but we also see past them to the hope and the promise. Seeing the sins and failings is therefore not final and fatalistic. We see them but we see beyond them to the possibilities of goodness and forgiveness and redemption. We recognize that “the story’s not over.” We see the hope on the other side of where we are.
So when God in the Bible tells us that we are to love our enemies, he is not telling us to love what is evil, or to love the evil in our enemies. He is telling us to love what is beyond that, to love the goodness in them that he sees and that he put there. He is telling us that if we love that good thing, it will grow. If we look at that— via the “better angels of our nature”— we will feed it and thereby also starve what is evil. In other words, what we love we change toward the good— by loving it. That is the only path forward, if we care about what is good. We must choose what we look at; and we must choose what we look beyond. But if our focus is on what is ugly and evil and dark, we will strangely strengthen the ugly and evil and dark.

Metaxas, Eric. If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (pp. 230-231). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Doing Battle God’s Way

As our American culture grows less and less “Christian-like”, it’s important for those who serve God to remember that we are called to be soldiers in a spiritual battle. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that spiritual battles are won the same way human battles are.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

2 Timothy 2:24-26 (ESV)

…not be quarrelsome…patiently enduring evil…correcting opponents with gentleness…I don’t remember reading these tactics in The Art of War. But I also don’t always see them in the behaviors of those fighting for the cause of Christ.

Russell Moore’s book, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, is insightful:

The Spirit bears fruit in our lives, as Jesus lives out his life through us. This fruit consists of kindness and gentleness. This is not a break from the fighting. This is how we fight.1

The Scriptures command us to be gentle and kind to unbelievers, not because we are not at war, but because we are not at war with them.2

How easy it is to forget that those who don’t believe in Christ, who have cultural values different than ours, who behave in ways that offend us, are not the enemy: They are victims of our enemy. They’re the ones we’re sent in to fight for — not with.

If we are too afraid of seeming inordinately Pentecostal to talk about the devil, we will find ourselves declaring war against mere concepts, like “evil” or “sin”. When we don’t oppose demons we demonize opponents.3

Moore describes Jesus as a “gentle steamroller”, exposing wrong but seeking to save, not to condemn.

Jesus is harsh with those who claim God’s authority and use it to twist revelation and to condemn. But he is gentle to those who are “sheep without a shepherd”. Too often, we do the exact reverse.4

Kindness does not avoid conflict; kindness engages conflict, but with a goal of reconciliation.5

Sometimes we’re so busy trying to prove we’re right and get “Amens” from our side that we lose sight of our objective: To point others toward the God who loves them.

Our anger, even at the sin around us, does not produce the righteousness of God. We’re told to be good listeners, slow to speak, and slow to anger; humbly responding God’s way (James 1:19-21).

One last radical perspective from Moore:

It may be that America is not “post-Christian” at all. It may be that America is instead pre-Christian, a land that though often Christ-haunted has never known the power of the gospel, yet.6

Whether we’ve seen the height of Christianity in America or just a foreshadow of it may depend on how we engage the battle.

1. Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015),189.
2. Ibid.,194
3. Ibid.,192
4. Ibid.,201
5. Ibid.,200
6. Ibid.,218

Expanding Our Perspective…

To view reality from a slightly different perspective often yields a view of things totally unlike what they appeared to be. If we take just a couple of steps in another direction, what we view as reality is often profoundly changed.

Job, Rueben P.; Shawchuck, Norman (2013-10-24). A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God (Kindle Locations 1359-1361). Upper Room Books. Kindle Edition.

The worst truth seekers in the world are those of us who believe we’ve already found the truth. But if we set aside our arrogance, we can recognize that our human condition limits us to only partial knowledge of any deep truth. Acknowledging those limits opens the door to seeing more of the breadth and depth of God.

We’re more comfortable when we stay within familiar circles that reinforce our preexisting points of view. But our ability to “understand and know God” (Jer 9:24) grows when we non-judgmentally rub shoulders with those who come with a different perspective. Read books by authors with different doctrinal positions. (You don’t have to completely agree with them to learn from them.) Go to a cross-cultural or ethnically diverse church service. Spend time with someone from a different socioeconomic class. Force yourself to do uncomfortable things with an open mind for the purpose of pursuing a broader understanding of God and how He engages with people.

Here’s an illustration: If you hold a basketball up in front of your face, you can see less than half of that basketball at any one time. If that ball is even bigger, the percentage of it that you can see at once is even smaller — picture how little you could see if the ball was a few feet in front of you and was one mile in diameter!  Now imagine how infinitely big God is.  What percentage of Him can I see through my white, middle-class, middle-aged, Southern Californian, conservative, male lens? Not much. Every time I shift that lens a little I have the opportunity to understand and know Him better.

Isn’t it risky to expose ourselves to things that might lead us into wrong thinking? Yes. We worry about those “slippery slopes” leading us astray. But sometimes truth grows on slippery slopes and if we want the truth we have to brave the slope. That’s why we need to keep a rope firmly attached to people who know us well enough to recognize when we’re in trouble and can pull us back to safety. But a risk-averse, stay in my comfort zone, fortress mentality doesn’t equip us to grow the Kingdom of God in a world full of opposition.

So stretch yourself. Experience some discomfort. Take some risks. Seek God in places where you haven’t looked before. You might be surprised to find that God doesn’t look as much like you as you thought He does.

Maximum Productivity

Genuine productivity is not about getting as much done for God as we can manage. It is doing the good work God actually has for us in a given day.

Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest (pg 54)

One great equalizer is the 24 hours we each get each day. Nobody gets more, nobody less. God’s not in the habit of rewarding the more productive among us with an extra hour or two.

God knows we all need time for a range of activities like social interactions, intellectual stimulation, exercise, rest, spiritual disciplines (e.g. prayer, scripture meditation & study, silence & solitude), serving others, supporting our families, and whatever else He calls us to.

So answer this: Does God ever expect anything of us that He doesn’t give us the resources to accomplish?

If you agree with me that the answer is “no”, why is time management the number one question people ask me for help with? Nearly everyone I know behaves as if God has given us more to do than He has given us time for.

I believe the solution for “not enough hours in a day” is to spend more of those hours in highly productive stillness. If we spend more time like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:38-42) instead of being busy like Martha, we will know how God wants us to spend our busy hours instead of doing what we (and others) think is important. Then when it’s time to work, we can do it with gusto, knowing we’re doing the right stuff.

Be still and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10)

It’s not just slowing down to hear what God wants us to do. It’s slowing down so God can reveal to us Who He Is. We should work hard first at seeking God…even if that hard work takes the discipline of “doing” less.

God doesn’t award us extra hours, but He does multiply or minimize the outcome of our effort. Consider what God says to the disobedient Israelites in Haggai 1:

You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes…You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away.

Compare that to the promise of Malachi 3:

…put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts.

You choose: Haggai or Malachi?

Seek God with your best hours, and let Him multiply the fruit of the rest.