When Paul wrote Galatians 2:20, he gave all who are called to minister a timeless truth: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” In my Bible I have these words written by this verse: Am I dead to flattery and flattening? Dead men have no feelings.
I don’t know about you, but it is easy for many of us to get puffed up when someone compliments us. If you are one who stands at the back door after the service, you will often hear complimentary comments regarding your message. If we don’t take this flattery with a grain of salt, we may find ourselves puffed up with pride. The devil can whisper in our ear and our flesh can turn up the amplifier. Howard Hendricks calls the backdoor handshake “the glorification of the worm.”
I remember the first time I was asked to preach at a large, prestigious church where approximately 5,000 people would be in attendance. I was getting dressed and feeling quite good about myself and the opportunity. While I was putting on my jacket I asked my wife, “How many great preachers do you think there are in America?” Sensing my head was about to explode, she replied, “One less than you think there is.” I got the message.
Rather than being amazed that anyone would endure our messages, we can become offended that all of our members don’t show up to sit under our wisdom. It is a subtle and satanic temptation to seek out those who will flatter us. The problem is that if you don’t cater to those who flatter you, they can easily turn against you.
To live for flattery is to run your ministry—and your life—on the basis of public opinion. It will make you politically correct and spiritually anemic. To have any other motive than pleasing God will result in an unsatisfying existence. When someone compliments a message I’ve delivered, I normally try to say something like, “The Lord honored His Word today. I’m grateful God used that word in your life.”
While we may believe we can handle flattery, we can be quickly leveled by verbal flattening or an anonymous letter. It’s when Sister Sourpuss comes at us with claws out, fangs first, and venom oozing out from head to toe. Finding a fault is never difficult to those who are determined to find it. In every church and every ministry you’ll find those who will never give you the benefit of the doubt. They are sure that your motives are mixed, that your theological training is lacking, your visitation skills are weak and your pastoral heart is missing. Truth is, you can’t win with those folks. Don’t try.
I would suggest that you read Marshall Shelley’s excellent book, Well Intentioned Dragons, if you are dealing with critics and cynics. It is one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read and one that I reread at least once a year. Before you are finished with the first chapter, you’ll find yourself saying, “Been there and done that.” We’ve all been there. We’ve all faced our fair share of critics. We’ve all heard too many caustic, cynical remarks made by carnal people.
Shelley has a profound warning in his book, “When attacked by a dragon, do not become one.” That’s easier said than done. The most dangerous and damaging thing you can do with your critic is to spend all your time vindicating yourself or justifying your motives. Your critics will not believe you no matter what you say, so you are just wasting your breath.
When I was pastoring in another state, one of the members of the pulpit committee gave me some sound advice and deep insight into what it takes to survive in the ministry. He said, “You will always have sixteen people in this church who are against everything you do. No more and no less, there will always be sixteen. They will never die. If they do die, someone will take their mantle. Don’t be afraid to make a decision based on the reaction of the sixteen. They didn’t like the last pastor, and they won’t like the one after you either.”
I’m not talking about those who correct in love. I’m talking about those who want to play Holy Spirit in your life. All of us have endured a deacon or board member you could never satisfy. In fact, one discovery I’ve made through the years in talking with disgruntled people is that many of them resisted a call to the ministry themselves. Now they are unfulfilled, disobedient and taking it out on those who answered the call.
Preachers make easy targets. Regardless of what size church we find ourselves in, we are known in the community as “the preacher.” That brings an intense scrutiny, and hunting season on preachers is open year round. Remember, those who criticize you have probably never walked the ground you’ve walked. Most preachers I know are good, decent people who are busy trying to move their congregation along another inch here and working diligently to prevent a backwash there.
A minister named Bob Cook once came to Harry Ironside, asking the famous Bible teacher how he should respond to criticism leveled against him. Ironside’s advice: “Bob, if the criticism about you is true, mend your ways. If it isn’t, forget about it!” To reply to a mean-spirited remark with another mean-spirited remark is like trying to remove dirt with mud.
In due time, the record will be set straight. We could all learn a lesson from Paul who said, “But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1 Cor. 4:3-5).
Do your job. Let God set the record straight.