Monday, February 08, 2016

Responding to Criticism

In this post, I'm putting on my pastor's wife hat. I had the privilege a few weeks ago of presenting a devotional for our elders' wives. I had been thinking about criticism of leaders. This is not a response to any particular situation but just a reflection on leadership and what it can mean to those who are not directly in leadership but who support and serve, especially pastors' wives. I think that it's good to think about various situations and think through possible responses before a situation arises. It's all part of maturing in godliness.

So when your husband is criticized, how do you respond? Are you a "mama bear" when it comes to criticism of loved ones? Do you defend your husband to anyone and everyone at any cost? What does a godly response look like?

Before I get into my main points, let's consider who the criticism is addressed to. It's important for us as wives to remember that criticism of our husband is not an attack on us. So the response must be tempered by the knowledge that we cannot, and should not, respond directly to the person making the remarks. Our responsibility is to respond to our husbands and to God.

First, consider the source. This is on a continuum and has a point at each end. Is the person complaining someone who is from outside the church or has little relationship or influence in your husband's life or is it someone who has a lot of influence and a close relationship? On one end, it might be someone commenting online whom you don't know and on the other end, a fellow elder or leader in the church. Or it might be someone in between. While each person is created in God's image and should be treated respectfully and honourably, there is a difference in how we respond between a close friend and a stranger.

Second, consider your identity in Christ. Gal. 2:20 says, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." Years ago, my husband attended a John Maxwell seminar and one phrase has stayed with us. Maxwell said that he told his staff, "you don't have to survive." As Christians, our identity is in Christ and in his death and resurrection. We have been crucified with Christ so we no longer live. This means that when criticism or attacks come, we don't have to take it personally. We can remember that our life is in Christ and that because the gospel is true, those attacks are not what judges our lives. Our life in Christ is what we live our lives by. This doesn't mean that words won't hurt and that we can't be grieved by what others say but it does free us to forgive hurtful words and be ready to let things go. It also frees us to look at the other person and see where he or she is coming from. We can let go of our defensiveness and look honestly at the criticism to see if there is validity in it or where the other person may possibly be hurting. Terry coined the term several years ago - "thick skin, tender heart". When you are in leadership, thick skin enables you to take criticism without reacting in anger and a tender heart allows you to have compassion on someone who is hurting.

Third, consider what is true. Our mama-bear tendencies will want us to immediately dismiss the criticism as unjust and untrue but we owe it to our husbands to prayerfully consider the criticism. Even if it is mostly unjust, is there a core of truth in it that needs to be addressed? Is there a problem of perception? Our calm wise analysis can help our husbands to evaluate what has been said and see if there is truth. Or maybe it's something that has completely blindsided you and you have no way to objectively evaluate it. Maybe it's something that you need to take to others and ask if their perception of the situation is the same as the person who has been critical. Years ago, when our oldest was under two, someone criticized both our parenting and my housecleaning (all in one conversation!). I remember asking an older woman in the church to give me her feedback and there was a measure of truth in what had been said. It may be that there is no truth in the accusation and we can help our husbands to discern that as well. It's important to be humble in one's response. Phil. 2:1-11 is a good passage to meditate on when one is feeling attacked.

Finally, consider your response. Remember that the accusation is not against you. So your response will be different from your husband's. We have a great responsibility to pray for and love everyone in the church. Here are seven things to consider in our response.

1. We should pray for both our husband and the accuser. Prayer will work to not only change the situation but our hearts as well. Sue Rowe says in Letters to Pastors' Wives, "Our prayers are not just pleading that God remove the difficulties but rather that God's will be done in the circumstances to his glory and to the ultimate benefit of the church and to all who are involved." (p. 165)

2. Be a good sounding board. The quality of a sounding board in a piano can make the difference between a beautiful, resonant tone or terribly, tinny sound. When you listen to your husband, bounce "good sound" back to him. Listen well - listen to both what he is saying and what he is feeling. Remind him of the truth of the gospel. Help him to analyze what the real issues are but be careful to speak in such a way that you honour God and the other person. Eph. 4:29-32 says:

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
3. Keep your heart pure. Inspect your own heart for anger or malice. Confess your sin if your heart contains anger and bitterness. Rowe also said,

"Let's assume that the responsibility for bringing a peaceful solution to the conflict is not mine but belongs to others. I still need to come to grips with the reality that I have the responsibility to keep my heart pure before God as I respond to conflict and the effect it has on me and on those I love. I do this when I resist the temptation to respond in sinful ways that are motivated by the feelings of my flesh (Gal. 5:16-21). I will be instructed by God's word and motivated and empowered by his Spirit to respond with faith and obedience (Gal. 5:22-24). Jesus said it in a nutshell: to keep our hearts pure during church conflicts and in every other challenging situation in life, we must love God and love our neighbours. Both of these commands are other-focused. We are born into this world self-focused and loving ourselves. When we yield to life's temptations (which often ride on the coattails of conflict within our churches), either we are not loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, or we are not loving our neighbour, or both. Thus we should respond not with anger and bitterness, but with forgiveness; not with hate, scorn or withdrawal, but with love; not with gossip and slander, but with kindness; not with worry and anxiety, but with thankfulness and patience; not with malice and evildoing, but with self-control; not with despair but with hope; not with fear, but with faith. (p. 166)

4. Avoid gossip but get wise counsel if you need it. Guard from the temptation to talk to others, even other elders' wives, about the problem unless there is a definite need to do so.  Remember that if you talk to someone else not involved in the situation, you are placing a burden on them in how they see the other person in the conflict, especially if they are from your church. If you do need to talk to someone, choose your confidante wisely and make sure your husband knows that you will be talking to this person. Generally, I think if you need to talk to someone, don't talk about the conflict or the other person's sins but talk to someone about how you are handling it and how to respond in a godly way. 

5. Count your blessings. Look for ways to be thankful even in times of suffering. This will help keep things in perspective too. If we tend to dwell on the problems, it can magnify the problem instead of keeping them in perspective. 

6. Respond in faith. Believe God's word and trust in His promises. For example, He has promised in Matthew 28:18-20 to be with us always. In a time of difficulty, remind yourself that He is there. He has promised that if we come to Him with our burdens that He will take them and "His yoke is easy" (Matt. 11:28-30). Rest in that and place your faith in God, trusting that He will work out a difficult situation to His glory.

7. Finally, respond in love. Be a peacemaker. If you feel that you can't love the person who is causing problems, pray for them. Don't just pray that they will repent. Pray for the ability to love them and see beyond the criticism. Be kind and compassionate and forgive them. If you are tempted to think judgement on them, take that critical spirit to the Lord each time you think it. Meditate on verses like Ephesians 4:1-3 - As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 

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