It’s Monday morning. You make a cup of coffee, sit down, and open your email. Scanning your inbox, your eyes lock onto a subject line that reads: Sunday’s Sermon. You brace for critique while hoping for encouragement.
Why do our eyes fixate on the negative? Some scientists argue that it’s part of our evolutionary biology: like our predecessors we scan the horizon for danger—a snake on the ground, a lion in the bush. We must be ready to flee at any moment, to survive.
During an unusually tense time in our church, a small group of progressively-minded people began critiquing my sermons. I received passive-aggressive texts, lengthy, impassioned emails, and often heard “what so and so thought” about last Sunday’s message. Gossip is, perhaps, the most hurtful. It’s painful and awkward to know a person disapproves of you enough to talk about you to others, but is unwilling to talk with you in person to move towards resolution in Christ.
If I had prayed for my critics during the week, I was inclined to pray for them on Sunday as well. I exchanged anxiety for prayer; defensiveness for intercession.
My words were often taken out of context and my intended meaning distorted. As a result, I became very aware of this group when preaching. The sight of certain individuals in the congregation made me wince. Danger was on the horizon.
How should we respond in those moments? My Sunday morning response was often influenced by how I had responded during the week. For months, when I was brushing my teeth in the morning, a carousel of critics would pop up in my mind. At first, I would entertain their accusations, responding to them by rehearsing counter arguments—all while brushing my teeth! As you might imagine, this led to more anxiety during the week and a dispirited feeling on Sundays.
But before too long, the Holy Spirit urged me to pray for each critic as they popped up. I prayed that their hearts would melt under his pure love; that they would repent where necessary; and that God would unify us in Christ. This helped with the Sunday morning wince. If I had prayed for my critics during the week, I was inclined to pray for them on Sunday as well. I exchanged anxiety for prayer; defensiveness for intercession. I also reminded myself that my critics will one day be glorified saints with whom I kneel before the Lord Jesus.
But why do we pay so much attention to the critical voices? Sometimes it’s because we just don’t want to be wrong. Ego. God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). The humble know this: I’m worse than either you or I think, but more loved than either of us can imagine. God uses hardship to wear down self-righteousness, allowing more grace in. He cements our worth to his righteousness, not our being right. And those who rest in his righteousness have nothing to lose when considering how they may be wrong. We can gain more of Christ.
However, when the critiques are unrelenting it’s wise to step to the side. We can filter them through trusted leaders; disregard the implacable by shaking the proverbial dust off our feet; or even allow others to take the heat for us. While looking for the truth in every critique can sound noble, it can also be exhausting and destructive. You may need to take a break from social media, or refrain from opening emails from certain people. Paul tells us to avoid fighting words and avoid irreverent babble, knowing it leads to death (2 Timothy 2:14, 16). Schedule time with encouraging church members and friends who bring you joy. Sometimes you just need to change the channel.
The humble know this: I’m worse than either you or I think, but more loved than either of us can imagine.
Other times we fixate on the negative because, well, it just keeps coming. We want the blows to stop but they seem unrelenting. Because hurt is real, we mustn’t bury it. Paul candidly describes his pastoral pain: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me … Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm … all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:9, 14, 16). Me, me, me. The persecution was personal, and it hurt. It’s okay to be sad about our sufferings and to share our unfiltered feelings with our heavenly Father.
As I got real with the Lord, the tears began to flow. I felt a release of pain and the steady embrace of the Father. I was also reminded that I am not a prisoner of people but a captive of Christ. Paul writes, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8). He frequently identifies as a prisoner of the Lord (Ephesians 3:1; 4:1; Philemon 1:1, 9, 23).
Paul knew that his chains belonged to Jesus, not Rome. He trusted God’s wise and loving providence. As a result, his sufferings took him further into Christ and Christ further into the world. This is God’s design with our pastoral sufferings. They are an invitation to go deeper into the sacrificial love of Christ, which when received yields not only comfort but also compassion for fellow sufferers. We emerge not just healed but different.
Fortunately, our fixation on critique doesn’t have to dead-end in despair. Our sufferings are not the result of chance. We are prisoners of Christ, who suffered for us and suffers with us. Jesus reminds us that when bound, we are free; when hurt, we can heal; when wincing, we can smile at the days to come because even the chains bind us closer to his side. I can give witness to this. I no longer see a carousel of critics but envision my fellow sinners as fully indexed saints at the feet of Jesus.
Jonathan K. Dodson is the author of The Unwavering Pastor: Leading the Church with Grace in Divisive Times. In the book, Jonathan offers help from 2 Timothy for pastors and elders to bring unity to their churches in divided times and to experience renewal in the trials of ministry.