I’d been anticipating my upcoming vacation like a kid dreaming about summer break. My last day of church duties had finally come. Just need to preach a sermon, love on some folks after the church service, then put on my Ray-Bans and get ready for some summer fun with my family.
A few hours after the service, I jumped on my email to respond quickly to one last email I’d been waiting for. The email I’d been hoping to receive wasn’t in my inbox…but another one was. A man in our congregation had come home from the service and was apparently so inspired by my sermon about church unity that he decided to write to me in detail all the ways I had let him down as his pastor over the past few months. He was concerned about the decisions being made by the church leadership. He was unhappy with the way we’d handled the Coronavirus crisis. He even disapproved of some of the things I’d prayed for during our worship service a few weeks earlier!
Ugh. Not how I wanted to start my few weeks of summer glee!
Even though God has given me thicker skin over the past fifteen years of ministry, it still hurts to read words like those emailed to me. It almost feels like someone sucker-punched you. Even worse than the pain of the punch is trying to figure out out how not to let the pain control your mind, energy, and attitude during your upcoming vacation. Unfortunately, pastors don’t get grievance days for emotional wounds received on the battlefield of ministry—even if you’re wounded on the first day of your vacation.
Why is it that even though I’d received five nice comments about my sermon on Sunday, plus a financial gift to use on our vacation, the only thing that dominated my mind was that hurtful email? How could I deal with this situation in a godly, productive way without obsessing over it in the coming days and robbing my family of precious time together?
I Will Cast My Cares On You, the Almighty
Psalm 55:22: “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.”
1 Peter 5:6–7: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
The song “Cast My Cares” by Tim Timmons has been a salve for my wounded soul for several years now. I wish that my sinful tendency was not to obsess over stressful situations and personal criticisms, but it is. When I’m at the end of my rope, the only thing I can and should do is cast my cares on the Lord, who cares for me. I need to stop talking to myself and start preaching to myself. I need to stop fretting and start bearing my soul to God.
Three tools of grace that have helped me cast my cares on the Lord are:
1) praying the scriptures as I find words that articulate my feelings,
2) singing worship songs to the Lord as I admit my need for him, and
3) talking to godly, outside counsel, who, more often than not, simply preach the gospel to me.
The Lord knows my strengths and my weaknesses, and he knows how much I need him. By casting my cares on him, I remember afresh how much I need him and can do nothing without him. I remember that he is my compassionate Lord and Savior who, though he has already carried all my sins on the cross, tells me to cast my cares on him, too.
Don’t Let Satan Win
1 Peter 5:8–9: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”
I certainly don’t believe that there’s a demon hiding behind every bush; but, I do know what Satan wants to do with me. When I’m wounded, Satan wants to pounce on me like a lion and devour me. Satan wants me to believe lies. Satan wants me to worry about the future. Satan wants to rob me of rest.
I know that Jesus already won the war for my soul by dying and rising for me, but I also need to remember that Jesus has given me the spiritual weapons I need to win the battles I face against evil. The Lord himself is my shield when Satan shoots arrows at me. In my mind, I raise my shield of faith and trust the Lord to stop every dart. God’s word is my sword of truth, which I use to slash and stab at the lies that attack me. The helmet I put on is the helmet of God’s salvation, which reminds me who I am now in Christ by grace through faith.
I don’t have to let Satan win the battlefield of my mind. I just need to stay sober-minded, watchful, and prepare to attack the lies of Satan whenever he rouses his ugly head. And, oh, how I look forward to the future day when Jesus will cast Satan into the Lake of Fire forever!
Remember the Frailty of Men
Psalm 118:8: “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.”
Ironically, just minutes before receiving that cutting email, I’d finished reading an amazing little book by Richard Baxter, called The Sin of Man-Pleasing. In this life-giving work, which should be required reading for every pastor, Baxter writes:
“We must know how frail, and erroneous, and unconstant a thing man is; and therefore not be too high in our expectations from man. We must suppose that men will mistake us, and wrong us, and slander us, through ignorance, passion, prejudice, or self-interest. And when this befalls us, we must not account it strange and unexpected…Remember what a multitude you have to please; and when you have pleased some, how many more will be still unpleased, and how many displeased when you have done your best.”[i]
If you’re going to be a pastor, then you must come to terms with the reality that many people will disagree with you, criticize you, and not like you—even when you’ve done your best. All the nights you’ve spent turning in your bed, contemplating the right thing to do will not spare you from criticism. Your devotion to Scripture and to seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit will not spare you from man’s disapproval. Ministry is not an academic exercise, whereby you will be rewarded an “A” if you just get the answer right. Baxter writes, “You have men of great mutability to please; that one hour may be ready to worship you as gods, and the next to stone you, or account you as devils, as they did by Paul, and Christ himself.”[ii]
In short, displeasing people in ministry is not the exception—it’s the rule. You must decide, then, who you will aim to please. Your church members? Your peers? Your friends? Yourself? The Lord? Yes, the Lord. As you trust that God has already justified you eternally through faith in Christ, make it your aim to please the Lord, and the Lord alone, in your ministry. And remember that even when you’ve done your best, your efforts will still displease many. Entrust yourself to the Lord and to his ways, and do not put your trust in the approval or disapproval of men.
Eat the Fish, Spit out the Bones
Proverbs 12:18: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Once you get over the initial distress of being criticized, it’s wise to ask, “What can I learn from this? Is this feedback coming from a godly person I respect? Is this person in the habit of voicing criticism, or is this a rarity? Can I see at all where this person might be coming from? Is there anything true about this criticism that I can receive and learn from? Which parts of this criticism do I simply need to reject, because they are intentionally hurtful or abusive?”
A pastor friend of mine who reads a lot of books tells me, “Eat the fish and spit out the bones.” The same is true when receiving personal and professional criticism. We need to prayerfully, humbly sift through what’s there. If we’re not sure what’s really there, or what the tone or the intent of the critic is, then we might need to meet with him/her further to discern that.
But as we sift through the criticism, we’d be wise to own, accept, and grow from the fair criticisms, and look over or reject the malicious criticisms.
Forgive in Your Heart and Pray for Your Critic
Colossians 3:12–13: “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Matthew 5:43–44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...”
The Lord has forgiven you and me of so much, friend. More than we can begin to comprehend. By the power of his indwelling Spirit, we must put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, longsuffering, and forgiveness. Just as the Lord has forgiven us, so also we must forgive others. For the sake of our own mental and spiritual health, for the sake of our relationship with the Lord, and for the sake of our unity and peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ—yes, even our critics—we must forgive.
Since forgiveness is no easy or trivial action, we can only do it in the power of the Spirit. So, we pray. We ask God to help us in our weakness, in our flesh, in our anger, in our hurt, and in our doubts. We ask God to catalyze the resurrection power of Christ in us to help us forgive our offenders.
Also, we pray for our critics. We don’t know all the ways that they’ve been hurt. We don’t know how bad their weeks have been. We don’t know what misinformation they might be working with. We pray for them, for their hearts, and for God to help and mature them, too. We ask God to reconcile us with our critics, if possible, as we make every effort to be at peace with them.
Philippians 3:12–14: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
After we have sought to deal with the criticisms of others in a God-honoring way, we need to move on. We know that we are not perfect yet, but we cannot allow the sting of criticism to hinder us from pursuing Jesus and his mission for us. Just as Paul did, we must seek to forget what lies behind and to strain forward to what lies ahead. God gives us permission to leave those critics and critiques in his hands, while we move forward in faith.
Pastors, time is short. We can’t allow the disapproval of man or the attacks of Satan to deter us from seeking God and his kingdom. The Lord is too wonderful. We can’t stay in a rut of self-pity. The souls of the lost are too valuable. We can’t allow Satan to hinder us from spreading the light of the gospel in this very dark world. Yes, as a soldier of Christ, you will carry in your body the sting of Christ’s death, and that’s really going to hurt sometimes. But don’t forget that at the very same time, you carry with you the power of God that resurrected Jesus from the dead, which no power on heaven or earth—including critics—can conquer!
Move forward, pastor, and trust your life and ministry to Christ. The hardships you are experiencing in ministry are not unique to you. Your fellow pastors around the world are experiencing the same kinds of hardships. Put on your sunglasses, vacate with your family, and don’t let Satan, critics, or you ruin your summer vacation!
[i] Baxter, Richard. “Consider the Nature of Man in General.” The Sin of Man-Pleasing, Kindle.