Are you Stoning Your Prophets? Part 3

Are you Stoning Your Prophets? Part 3

 

 

I decided to write one more post on handling criticism and praise. My wife noted an omission in my last two posts: any discussion on how to guard our hearts when praised or criticised. So this is that.

Both praise and criticism can damage us. Praise can swell our head, criticism poison our heart. Praise can lull us into vanity and complacency. Criticism can waylay us with resentment and defeat. I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had seasons when so many people were applauding me, I became entitled and smug. And I’ve had seasons (why do they seem so much longer?) when so many people found fault with me, I became testy and sullen.

I call it the criminal/god syndrome: one minute, people treat you as sub-human, the next they hail you as super-human, with hardly a pause in between to see that you’re only human.

The Apostle Paul’s suffered the criminal/god syndrome, and gives us a model of how to deal with it. Two stories from Acts illustrate. One is in Acts 14:8-20. Paul, with Barnabas, is in Lystra and heals a man born lame. The crowd goes wild. They hail them as gods, and try to sacrifice burnt offerings to them. They protest vigorously but barely restrain the crowd from worshipping them. But that soon changes. Some of Paul’s enemies show up and persuade the crowd that he’s really a scoundrel. Next thing, the crowd stones Paul, drags him outside the city, and leaves him for dead.

He goes from god to criminal in a breath.

The other story is in Acts 28:1-6. Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Malta. A poisonous snake slithers from the brushwood and bites him: “When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:4-6).

He goes from criminal to god in a blink.

No one is immune to this syndrome, especially leaders. The more you try to make a difference in the world, the more liable you are to be seen as one or the other, a criminal or a god: one minute a hero, the next a villain; one minute a sage, the next a fool; one minute worthy of swooning adulation, the next deserving brutal rejection.

How did Paul handle it?

Simply and profoundly, he knew his identity in Christ. He knew his role and value in the eyes of God. He took his deepest cues from his Father in heaven. Whether treated as a criminal or a god, Paul remained rooted in his true identity: a servant of the Most High God, and a servant of others.

He best sums it up in 1 Corinthians, to people who had swung from lionizing him to vilifying him. He writes to them:

This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).

Herein lies a whole spirituality of dealing with the criminal/god syndrome, of handling praise and criticism. Here are the key points:

  •  Know your identity in Christ and your call in God. Paul knows he’s a servant of Christ – his identity- and that he’s entrusted with the mysteries of God – his call. He is bound to this, not to anyone else’s expectations or demands.
  • Be unswervingly faithful to that identity and call. Paul lives, neither to win man’s applause nor to avoid man’s criticism, but for one thing alone: to hear God’s “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He plays to an audience of One.
  • Care very little what others think of you. Paul simply refuses to give much weight to anyone who does not acknowledge his identity and purpose in Christ. The Greek for “I care very little” carries the sense, “your opinion is the least of my concerns.” Again, I emphasize that Paul is dealing here with those trying to pressure him to compromise his God-given identity and call. He is not deaf to honest critique: he’s just deaf to useless distraction.
  • Care very little what you think of you. Paul refuses even to judge himself. He knows how warped and skewed, how self-serving or self-defeating, our own self-assessments can be. So he avoids passing final verdict on himself.
  • Be able to look God in the eyes. Paul says his conscience is clear. How I apply this: Can I look God in the eyes? Am I confident that I can stand before God and, without shame, tell him what I’ve done and why?
  • Don’t assume you’re right. Even still, Paul does not pronounce himself innocent. It’s possible, he acknowledges, that he’s wrong. The jury’s still out, and so he denies himself any self-righteous posturing.
  • Trust God to judge finally and rightly. Paul knows that God in his time will render a perfect verdict – vindication, or condemnation. At that point, no earthly court’s verdict matters a whit. No human opinion, our own or another’s, means a thing. God deals with the real stuff – the motives of our heart – and gives a true, just and final judgement. It’s the only one that matters. Wait for it.
  • Live in such a way that you anticipate God’s praise. Paul anticipates that he will receive God’s praise. He lives for it. He endures brutal opposition in the hope of it. He never compromises his identity or his call, because he knows that man’s praise without God’s praise is nothing, but God’s praise, with or without man’s praise, is everything. The only prize he sets his sights on is God’s praise.

 

Who sees you as a criminal? A god? If that is messing with you, apply Paul’s remedy. I’d love to hear about it.

Are You Stoning Your Prophets? Part 2

Last week, I wrote about handling criticism. I promised a second installment. Here it is.

Years ago I read a story, the source of which I’ve now forgotten, about a young acolyte who approaches an old saint and asks how he can be made perfect. The old man says, “Tomorrow, go down to the graveyard, choose any burial plot, and spend the say praising whoever lies beneath.”

So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”

“Tomorrow,” the old man says, “return to the same grave, only this time spend the day cursing whoever lies beneath.”

So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”

“The first day you stood over the grave and gushed praised, did the grave’s inhabitant respond?”

“No.”

“And today, when you spewed curses over the same grave, did he respond?”

“No.”

“My son, when you can do likewise with the praises and curses of man, you shall be perfect.”

I only half agree.

Frankly, I’m not dead yet, and the praises and curses of man stir in me strong emotion, and immediate reaction. I think for all of us, while breath remains in us, we will find it so. Until our dying day, our emotions, to some extent, will ride the waves of what others think of us. Maturity consists, not in being dead to others’ opinions, but in shaping our response to their praise and curses so that we gain maximum benefit from both, and do minimum damage.

But here’s what I’m tempted to do: to cancel one with the other. I tend to use praise to cancel criticism, or (especially when I’m raw and vulnerable) criticism to cancel praise. In the first scenario, I think, “All my critics are wrong, because all my fans say I’m wonderful.” Or, alternately, I think, “All my supporters are wrong, because all my critics say I’m horrible.”

Neither is true.

I have formula I use:

Discount by at least 20% the praises of a supporter, and discount by at least 80% the curses of an enemy.

Both your fans and your foes have a skewed perception of you. You supporters, by definition, over-estimate your wisdom, goodness, insight, prowess, and the like. Your enemies, by definition, underestimate these things. The top layer of a supporter’s praise is usually pure flattery. The bottom layer of an enemy’s criticism is always thick bile.

But there are two voices you should especially pay attention to:

1)      A compliment from someone who routinely criticizes you

2)      A criticism from someone who routinely encourages you

When a chronic critic says “Thanks” or “Well done,” I pay attention. And when a habitual exhorter says “What was that?” or “That’s not up to par,” I pay attention. I think both these voices approach something close to true reality.

Two quick stories to illustrate.

In my first church, the person who least wanted me to be their pastor – who voted against my coming, who came out guns blazing on every idea I proposed, who muttered and griped about my preaching – stood up as I announced my resignation, confessed to all that he never wanted me as his pastor, but wanted to be the first to say he wished I would stay.

That had my full attention.

On the other side, when a friend who’s always exhorted and defended me recently said he was disappointed in me, that got my full attention.

I’m not dead yet, and not yet made perfect. But between now and then, I want to get the most benefit out of both praise and criticism, and do the least damage.

 

How have you handled both praise and criticism? Does my formula – discount a supporter’s praise by at least 20%, and an enemy’s curses by at least 80% – sound accurate to you? What percentages would you use?