We’re going to spend a few minutes tonight looking at how a leader handles criticism. One of the great tests of leadership is always how one responds to critics. If you are going to be a leader, then criticism is part of the job description. You are going to be criticized no matter what you do.
There is no such thing as opportunity without opposition. If you are going to lead – in fact, if you are going to live – you are going to be criticized. Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” The problem with a lot of churches, and a lot of ministries, is that they have been trying to please everyone. There’s a very real sense in which you can’t serve effectively until you know how to handle criticism.
Some of you are probably a little discouraged right now, because every time you step out and try to do something, you’re criticized. Some of you might even have stepped back from active ministry because you’re tired of the heat. You never knew what you were signing up for. My goal tonight is to encourage you and to give you some principles that you can use in dealing with criticism. These principles are found in the book of Nehemiah. The first principle is this:
1. EXPECT CRITICISM
Nehemiah 4 says:
Sanballat was very angry when he learned that we were rebuilding the wall. He flew into a rage and mocked the Jews, saying in front of his friends and the Samarian army officers, “What does this bunch of poor, feeble Jews think they are doing? Do they think they can build the wall in a day if they offer enough sacrifices? Look at those charred stones they are pulling out of the rubbish and using again!”
Tobiah the Ammonite, who was standing beside him, remarked, “That stone wall would collapse if even a fox walked along the top of it!” (Nehemiah 4:1-3)
From here we learn the first principle. Never be surprised by criticism. Expect it. You can guarantee that no matter what decision you make, no matter what actions you take, you will be criticized. It’s just a fact. There’s not a person in the Bible who did anything for God and was not criticized. If Jesus was criticized, you will be criticized too.
Why will you be criticized? John Maxwell, at his first church, attended a congregational meeting as a young pastor. To his alarm, a vote at the meeting passed by only about 90%. Maxwell went home and called his dad, who was also a pastor and said, “Dad, my vote passed by only 90%. What should I do? Resign?” His dad laughed as he responded and said, “I know you, son, and it’s the best vote you’ll ever get. Stay and see it through.” You can always count on at least 10% opposing you no matter what you do.
Why will you be opposed? For one thing, vision is a very easy thing to criticize. Nehemiah had a vision, and visions attract criticism. To make it worse, visions are very difficult to defend against criticism. “The very nature of a vision is that there is far more solid information on the what side of the equation than the how side” (Andy Stanley). A cynic will always be able to poke holes through a vision – even a God-given vision. That’s just the nature of what a vision is.
Another reason you’ll be criticized is because your decisions and your actions are going to be a threat to someone else. Sanballat and Tobiah had a vested interest. They didn’t want the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Sometimes you’re going to step on toes and challenge someone’s vested interest. Leadership, by definition, is about change, and change, by definition, is a threat to people. You’re going to step on someone’s toes every time you lead or serve.
Sometimes we deserve the criticism. Whenever megachurch pastor is questioned about how he reacts when his methods are attacked, he quotes something that his mentor, Gil Bilezikian, told him years ago: “Bill, sometimes your critics are your best critics.” Sometimes we deserve the criticism that we receive.
In any case, never be surprised by criticism. Principle number one is this: expect criticism.
2. SOURCE THE CRITICISM
You may or may not be familiar with the names Sanballat and Tobiah. But let me give you two quotes from earlier in the book of Nehemiah that describe who they are:
But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of my arrival, they were very angry that someone had come who was interested in helping Israel. (Nehemiah 2:10)
But when Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab heard of our plan, they scoffed contemptuously. “What are you doing, rebelling against the king like this?” they asked. But I replied, “The God of heaven will help us succeed. We his servants will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no stake or claim in Jerusalem.” (Nehemiah 2:19-20)
Who were Sanballat and Tobiah? Enemies of Israel, and enemies of God. That’s all that Nehemiah needed to know when he faced their criticism. If they opposed God, of course they’re going to criticize Nehemiah. The second principle you must follow in handling criticism is to source the criticism. The source will often tell you more than the criticism itself.
Now, sometimes criticism from an offbeat source is valid. Don’t just trash criticism because it comes from a disagreeable person. Once in a while, that disagreeable person will be right in what they say. But always consider the source. Learn to recognize that some people are naturally critical. Len Sweet writes:
What is true in nature is true of human nature: 95 percent of the seed you plant is good, 5 percent is bad. You can trust 95 percent of the people; the other 5 percent of the people are crooks, cranks, cheaters, and crackpots. Do you live your life ruled by the 95 percent or the 5 percent? (Soul Salsa p.99)
Some years ago, I heard a speaker say, “Every church is going to lose people. You have no choice about that. But you have another choice: you can choose who you lose. You can choose to lose your winners, or you can choose instead to lose your whiners.” He may have been a little bit blunt, but he was right. You are going to be criticized – you can’t escape that. But you can choose your critics. You can either choose to accept the cranky 5%, or you can live to try to please them and lose the support of the 95% who are positive. When criticized, always take the second step of sourcing your criticism. The source will often tell you more than the criticism itself.
3. PRAY ABOUT THE CRITICISM
Nehemiah 4:4-5 reads:
Then I prayed, “Hear us, O our God, for we are being mocked. May their scoffing fall back on their own heads, and may they themselves become captives in a foreign land! Do not ignore their guilt. Do not blot out their sins, for they have provoked you to anger here in the presence of the builders.”
Twice in this episode, Nehemiah prays. Nehemiah, frankly, was ticked off. When he prayed, he didn’t hold back how he really felt. He was very open with God. Notice that there was no transition between the criticism and the prayer. The first thing that Nehemiah did after he was criticized was that he prayed. Prayer was his initial response to being criticized.
Why is it so important to pray when you’re criticized? Well, for one thing, you’re usually better off telling God how you really feel than telling your critic. God can handle a lot more of your frustrations, your hurts, your wounds, than others can. You don’t need to unload and dump on others. It’s better to let God have your load.
Proverbs 26:4 says, “When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are.” What’s the alternative? When you’re ridiculed don’t take it out on people, talk it out with God.
Another reason to pray is to ask God, “God, is there any validity in this criticism?” I find that it’s only in prayer that my own sense of pride comes down. Ask God for his verdict. Allow God to make you sensitive to the truth that may be in the criticism, and able to ignore the rest.
L.L. Bean uses this formula: there are 25 complaints for every one that you hear. That’s why it’s important not to dismiss criticism before you’ve prayed about it. Multiply every criticism you hear by about 25. That’s reality. Ask God in prayer, “What can I learn from this criticism?”
The third reason you want to pray about it is so that you’re clear about your audience. Most of us want to be people pleasers. I know that I do. We all love to be crowd pleasers. Nehemiah wasn’t serving for the applause of people. He was serving for the applause of God, and God alone. Your real goal in life and in ministry isn’t to please other people. Your goal is to play to an audience of one. Your goal is to please God.
“Who do you want to please the most? If it’s God, then you can survive whatever is thrown at you. If it’s people, then you can count on betrayal, loneliness, mistrust, and failure. Wait for applause, and you’ll wait forever. Wait for consensus, and you’ll wait forever. Wait for people’s approval, and you’ll wait forever.” (Leonard Sweet, Soul Salsa, p.101)
Aim to please God and God alone.
How should we respond to criticism? Expect it. Source it. Pray about it. There’s one more principle on how to handle criticism. Principle number 4 on how to handle criticism:
4. CONTINUE YOUR WORK
Nehemiah had three alternatives. When every body started opposing him with rumors, resistance and ridicule he could
a) Give up
b) Leave the wall and go fight – do a preemptive strike
c) Build the wall and arm himself defensively
What did Nehemiah choose? Nehemiah 4:6 – the very verse after his prayer – says, “At last the wall was completed to half its original height around the entire city, for the people had worked very hard.” By responding this way, Nehemiah avoided a common mistake associated with criticism. He didn’t allow his enemies to become the focus of the attention. He defended himself, yes, but he remained vision-centered in spite of the criticism his team received.
When criticized, how do we normally respond? We are usually tempted to begin a dialogue with our critics, or even those who are simply parroting their criticism. We waste time and energy and thought trying to answer questions for people who really aren’t interested in answers. Without realizing it, we shift our attention away from being vision-centered. We allow ourselves to become critic-centered.
You never leave the wall to fight the enemy. You could spend all your time putting out fires and never get your job done. You could spend all your time greasing the squeaking wheel (the critic, the complainer, the kook) and never get your dream or whatever God’s called you to do, done. You’ve got to learn to serve and battle at the same time.
Don’t let criticism distract you. Learn to expect it. Learn to source it, to pray about it, to learn from it, and most of all to work through it. Persistence is the ultimate test of leadership. This is the acid test. How do you handle it when the going gets tough? The secret of success is you simply outlast your critics. How do you get to be an oak tree? An oak tree is just a little nut that refused to give his ground. It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence but if you just hang on you’ll outlast the critics. There is nothing the devil would rather do than stall us and stop us and move us into neutral so resist discouragement and keep on.
Heavenly Father, we know that you’ve said in your word we should not be ignorant of Satan’s schemes. We should realize that behind the opposition, the source of it is that old serpent, the devil. We know that he will use ridicule. He will use organized resistance. He will use rumors and many other things to discourage us. Lord, help us to recognize when we are discouraged the cause, whether it is fatigue, frustration, failure, or fear. Help us to take the antidote to those and then rely on you. Help us to not underestimate the opposition we receive for being Christians, for being leaders. Help us reinforce our weak areas by the power of your Holy Spirit. Help us to renew the people around us and encourage them. Most of all, help us to refuse to quit. Because we’re doing this for Jesus’ sake. We pray it in His name. Amen.