Dealing Honestly with Criticism in Ministry

Criticism is a hard thing to deal with. This past week as I was digging through some old files on my computer I found a file that I had labeled “problems.” I currently have a paper file labeled the same in my desk drawer where complaint letters are kept. Thankfully it doesn’t have too many letters in it…yet.

Going back to the other day, I knew that I shouldn’t open the file and look inside, but curiosity got the better of me and I did. Inside I found some letters from when I was a pastor in California. The memories of those occasions had mercifully faded, but the letters instantly brought back those difficult days.

As I reviewed the contents, I could feel myself growing anxious as I repeated in my mind the answers to the harsh and unfair things written in them. Although there may have been small bits of truth sprinkled throughout, these letters represented the worst of the problem issues in my ministry.

You see, whenever someone has come to me with an issue, although it would be easier to push off the person by ignoring them, or tell myself that I know better because God has called me as the pastor of the church, I know that this would be foolish. I have tried to give everyone a hearing who comes and brings a complaint—and often I have had to humble myself and ask forgiveness when I have been wrong. Sometimes I am partially wrong or there has been a misunderstanding. If that is the case, I then have an opportunity to set things right and correct the error-either in them or myself, or both of us.

But these files I have often marked times when a person had come with sinful intent in their heart. They may have been bitter, sinfully angry, or even divisive. Many times they may have also been too cowardly to even speak to me personally and had emailed their complaint. I kept those emails and letters as a record of their words in case the issues needed to be further addressed with discipline, or maybe several meetings so that we could work through the underlying issues that are sometimes at the root of the problems.

The old files reminded me of something else. I am reminded in times when venom has been spewed at me by those who at one time professed to love me and the church, that it is possible—even as a Christian—to become so bitter and angry that we become a pawn in the hands of our enemy. He uses such embittered Christians to sow discord and division in Christ’s Church.

Not every complaint or criticism should be viewed in this way. But when we have truthfully evaluated the complaints brought to us and see that the heart of the complainer has succumbed to the root of bitterness, we must put aside the complaint, leaving it to the Lord. And we must guard our own hearts against becoming bitter ourselves. Instead we must pray that the Lord would free our embittered brethren from their anger, and we must long to see the day when we will be reconciled—whether in this life or the life to come.

How God’s Sovereignty Affects Our Attitude in the Present Circumstances (part 3)

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs. But I will declare it forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob. All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up.

(Psalm 75:8–10, ESV)

Trials, difficulties, and challenges have a way of making clear where we place our faith. For those that are believers in Jesus Christ, the times when we are most challenged in our faith offer us a time not only to test the faith we have, but also to grow in our faith and trust of Christ.

In the first two posts of this series (you can read them here: How God’s Sovereignty Affects Our Attitude in the Present Circumstances (part 1) and here: How God’s Sovereignty Affects Our Attitude in the Present Circumstances (part 2)) I laid out six ways in which the sovereignty of God affects our attitude toward our present circumstances from Psalm 75. Here are the final three reasons:

7. It Focuses Our Hearts On God’s Grace (v. 8)

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” (Psalm 75:8, ESV)

The references of God’s wrath being like a cup of mixed wine is a familiar metaphor used throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, wine was often mixed with spices and used for special occasions, usually for the purpose of intoxication.

In other places, this picture of the wrath of God as a cup of wine pictures the wicked as reeling, vomiting, crazed and prostrate. God is giving them what they so richly deserve. He is giving them a dose of their own medicine. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The retribution is terrible, it is blood for blood, foaming vengeance for foaming malice. [If] the very color of divine wrath is terrible, what [must] the taste be?”

But how does this encourage us when we are in the midst of the trials? It once again shows that God is sovereign, in control over the wicked. And the encouragement that we receive is in relation to his sovereign grace that he has poured out upon us.

When you recognize the fact that all of mankind sins “and fall short of the glory of God” and that “the soul that sins must die,” you see that you and I are worthy of this cup of staggering—this cup of God’s hot, spiced wrath.

We are so worthy of his eternal punishment. But God poured out his wrath upon our Savior Jesus instead of us. We received mercy because of the abundant grace of God towards us. And it was given to us because of God’s sovereign choice. Undeserved and overflowing.

8. It Encourages Worship (v. 9)

But I will declare it forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.” (Psalm 75:9, ESV)

Because of the surety of the justice of God, the psalmist expresses his delight in God through praise. The title “God of Jacob” used sin verse 9 is both an endearing name as well as a covenant name. Although our God is indeed the God of all the nations, the psalmist personalizes his worship by expressing praise that the God of the universe is also the personal God who loves, cares for, and protects his people.

Have you thought much about why you worship God? Most of us would probably say that we worship him because of what he has done for us—for his love of us, most clearly shown in personally saving us from our sins.

But here in verse 9, the psalmist gives us another perspective about praise. It includes praising God for who he is which drives what he has done, including bringing us salvation. In verse 9, the psalmist is praising the Lord for his vengeful wrath which he will pour out upon all unrepentant sinners. Now, to most of us, that seems like a weird thing to praise God about—maybe even inappropriate. “Praise God for crushing sinners and sending them to hell?” Is that right?

To clarify, we shouldn’t delight in the punishment of sinners with a ghoulish delight. But we should see that it is very appropriate to praise the Lord for his justice and hatred of evil, by which he will make right all wrongs, and punish the wicked for their rebellion against God.

Look at Rev. 19:1-3 when you have an opportunity. If you read it, you will see the rejoicing and praise of God’s people. Then in verses 6-18 you will read about two feasts of celebration—the marriage supper of the Lamb (in verses 6-10) and the Great Supper of God prepared for the birds of the air (in verses 17-19). 

So, we should think about God more deeply and meditate on him as we seek to worship him. Our Great God is worthy of worship for all of his attributes, not just the ones we benefit from and are tied to our comfort. His so-called “negative” attributes along with his positive attributes all make up the character of God—and everything about our Great God and Savior is worthy of praise.

9. It Drives Evangelism (vv. 9-10)

But I will declare it forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob. All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up.” (Psalm 75:9–10, ESV)

There is a question about what exactly the “it” in verse 9a means and how it ties in with verse 10. Some scholars have said that the “it” of verse 9a refers to what God said he would do to the evil. And I think that that is part of it, but not all that the “it” refers to.

There is a bit of a puzzle in verse 10 as well regarding who is speaking, but I believe the most logical and probable answer depends on the word “it” in verse 9. I believe the psalmist is stating that he will declare God’s words of impending judgment. It would read something like this, “But I will declare [the coming judgment of the Lord] forever; and I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.”

And then, verse 10 makes sense. It is a reiteration of what he has already said about bringing low the proud “horns” of the wicked.

Now if that is what it means, then here is what I think that means for us. I think the impending judgment of the Lord should have two responses that impact our evangelism:

First, it should drive us to share Christ because we believe in the reality of the coming judgment of God. How can we say we believe in hell and the torments of a Christless eternity and yet still remain unmoved to share Christ?

And finally, a warning of the coming judgment of God should be included in our gospel messages. Many versions of gospel presentations have been “cleaned up” and sanitized like some Disney movie. No blood or gore. Everything packaged up into a neat and clean “Jesus loves you” gospel. Even John 3:16 is inadequate in itself because “perish” is so vague. Unpack this when you proclaim the gospel. Let sinners feel the fires of hell. Don’t let them go unwarned!

When we remember the fact that our God is seated upon his throne, it changes everything in our outlook. And the reverse is true as well. When we forget or minimize the sovereign rule of God over this world, we also cast ourselves in a place where we were never meant to be, carrying burdens we were never meant to carry. For the unbelieving world, this is how it functions. But for the child of God, may we not only say that Jesus is Lord, but may we live daily in the beautiful light of this truth and embrace each day as a gift from our sovereign God.

How God’s Sovereignty Affects Our Attitude in the Present Circumstances (part 2)

When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars. Selah I say to the boastful, ‘Do not boast,’ and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up your horn; do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with haughty neck.’ ” For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.

(Psalm 75:3–7, ESV)

When I read passages like Hebrews 11, I can’t help but think that the Christians of yesterday were made of different stuff than today’s Christians. Do you sense that today’s churches are filled with Christians who say they’d die for Christ, but begin fidgeting in their seats when the sermon goes long? If my observations are correct, then how can we hope to endure true and sever trials? I think Pslam 75 goes a long way to helping us see the benefits of resting in the sovereignty of God.

Yesterday’s post demonstrated that trials and difficulties 1. Make us aware that God is always near us, 2. Give us a thankful heart, and 3. Teach us patience. You can read the full post here: How God’s Sovereignty Affects Our Attitude in the Present Circumstances (part 1)

4. IT ALLOWS US TO RELAX (v. 3)

When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars. Selah” (Psalm 75:3, ESV)

Jesus warned us against the sin of anxiety in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:25ff). When we become anxious over anything, we really put aside the fact that God is sovereign—he is in control.

Look at verse 3 above—that is not describing you!! But how many times do we feel like the world will stop and all the plates we are spinning will come crashing down if we don’t do it all?

Here’s a reality check. In Acts 17, Paul is describing our God who was unknown to the Greek philosophers in Athens. In verse 24-25 he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Did you make the world and everything in it?

Are you the Lord of the heaven and earth?

Do you need a place to sleep, food to eat, and water to drink?

Do you give to all mankind life and breath and everything?

No? Then you aren’t God, and you can relax. God is in control.

5. IT HUMBLES OUR PRIDE (vv. 4-5)

I say to the boastful, ‘Do not boast,’ and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up your horn; do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with haughty neck.’ ”” (Psalm 75:4–5, ESV)

The sin of Satan that brought about his fall is also the sin that his children excel in. It is amazing that in the end days, the arrogance and pride of Satan, the Antichrist and the False Prophet will manifest itself in leading a proud and arrogant world to face the King of Kings, the Creator of All in battle! We wonder how such blind foolishness could exist, but pride blinds us from the truth!

In verses 4-5, it refers to “lifting up your horn” and this is a metaphor for stiff-necked rebellion. It pictures a beast of burden that refuses to allow the owner to place a harness or yoke upon his neck. He refuses to allow his master to control him in any way.

Speaking with a haughty neck is similar, except the picture is of a human who speaks with arrogant pride that seems to be oblivious to the existence of God who will take into account every word spoken (Matt 12:36).

As one Scottish Pastor wrote,

“Pharaoh reacted to God’s command to let his people go by saying, “Who is God that I should obey him?” Nebuchadnezzar endeavored to set his throne and kingdom above him whose throne and kingdom are forever and ever. Herod listened to the adulations of his degenerate admirers: “It is the voice of a god and not of a man.” Coming nearer to our own time, we have read of how Adolf Hitler gazed at a picture of himself riding proudly on a white horse, a picture which bore the blasphemous title, “In the beginning was the Word.” Then in a voice that deliberately mocked Christ, the eternal King, He exclaimed, “I am providence.”

But Pharaoh and his hosts are swept to destruction; Nebuchadnezzar becomes the companion of “the beasts of the field”; Herod is devoured by worms, and Hitler becomes a suicide. “Those that walk in pride God is able to abase.” “He shall cut off the spirit of princes; he is terrible to the kings of the earth.” “All the horns of the wicked will I cut off.”

-Murdoch Campbell as quoted in Boice, 628-29.

Although the Lord is clearly speaking to the wicked, we cannot allow the application of this truth pass us by as if we also do not struggle with pride at times as well. When we are going through deep waters and hard trials, we can begin to practice a sort of pride—similar to what Job exhibited. Job was a righteous man, but he was not perfect man. He was so convinced of his righteousness that he went too far. He began to call upon God to judge him! Look at Job 23:1-7 when you have some time.

When we come under severe trial, it is important to put aside your pride and see your need. Look to Jesus, not to your own righteousness. Only in Him will you find your help and relief. Pride seeks to “un-God” God. Humility in trials sees Him sitting upon His throne as He is.

6. IT PLACES OUR TRUST IN GOD (vv. 6-7)

For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” (Psalm 75:6–7, ESV)

In verse 5, the Lord has finished speaking. Now, the priest or Asaph is speaking. He begins with a reminder to put our trust in God.

The wicked thought that their promotion and help would come from the surrounding nations. In reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles you can see the testimony of how many nations, Israel included, depended upon political alliances and partnerships. Some of these were useful for defending against larger and stronger nations. Some were used to overcome nations in acts of war.

But the Lord is saying to Asaph and his readers that defense and war do not come by the number of alliances and the sizes of your armies. Your resources are no guarantee of your success. After all, Egypt was the largest and most powerful nation on earth, and they were defeated by their Israelite slaves without raising a single weapon! 

So, who can guarantee our successes and our failures? Verse 7 tells us clearly. God executes judgment—putting down his enemies, and God raises up those whom he chooses to.

Thus we, his people, should not depend upon our resources apart from God as if they can lift us up or guarantee our success. This is the lesson that Jesus was teaching in his parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:15-21). Right after this teaching, what did Jesus teach? About not being anxious, but to depend upon our good God—trusting him as our good heavenly Father.

When we are in need, which doesn’t necessarily mean financial need, we tend to depend upon God more. We should allow the trial to do this and cause us to grow in our trust in the Lord.