Receiving Criticism—A Friend’s Wounding or an Enemy’s Kiss?

By Justin Honaker    |    May 8, 2023

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Whether it was The Shirelles, Van Morrison, or someone else that informed you, we all eventually learn that there will be days like this, days when all our best intentions seem to be mistaken for underhanded ways, days when wise decisions are questioned, and days when godly motivations seem to be a recipe for disaster. The truth about life and pastoral ministry, in particular, is this—it does not take long to experience the criticism unique to leaders. When I entered into pastoral ministry, I had a grand illusion that I would preach great sermons, people would follow Christ, the budget would always be balanced, and that ministry would be smooth sailing. Well, maybe I wasn’t quite that naïve, but I did have high hopes for a peaceful ministry, so long as it depended on me. However, what I found is that my people and I were not quite as sanctified as we like to pretend. And because of that, there have been more rocky moments than I had hoped for. Nonetheless, difficult moments are opportunities to rely on the Lord, to honestly evaluate criticism, and to grow in our trust of God. There will be days like this—we cannot argue that point. But the pastor’s response to criticism will determine whether “days like this” will be a catastrophe or a catalyst to growth in the Lord and his work.

Two Kinds of Criticism

As we think about criticism, at least two categories will be helpful to think through as we learn to process the pain and difficulty of criticism. The first category is that of faithful men and women who love you enough to let you know when you are doing things poorly. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” This category gives us space that allows for biblical correction, reproof, and rebuke. Though criticism from trusted Christians is always painful, it intends to heal. Ultimately, criticism in this category should be received with joy. However, the second type of criticism is the kind that comes not from a friend but from an enemy. Unfortunately, plenty of people attempt to gain control and power by tearing down the leaders that stand in the way. These are not faithful wounds of a friend but the stinging pain of an enemy’s kiss. Oftentimes, this criticism comes in the form of backhanded comments, divisive gossip and slander, or powerplays made behind closed doors. The intent is not healing but hurting. With these two categories in mind, a great difficulty of pastoral ministry is discerning between the two and responding appropriately.

How To Evaluate Criticism

Criticism always stings. We can try to act strong, but like venom, the sting of pain remains long after the bite marks have healed. And so, what do we do with these critical words that so often ring in our ears long after the words have been uttered (or emailed)? First, we must evaluate the criticism for what it is:

These questions and many more must be pondered and prayed through to evaluate criticism properly. Our immediate desire may be to dismiss or demean the person who brought it. However, as we will discuss in a moment, the Lord has great plans for our pain. Now, after evaluating the criticism personally and prayerfully, we need to seek appropriate counsel. This is a time to confer with our elders, be honest with our mentors, and receive the wisdom of others. Lastly, we lay everything down at the feet of Jesus, trusting that he will guide us in all truth as he has promised. Personally, Psalm 139:23–24 has been incredibly helpful as I seek to lead well and be faithful to the Lord. I often pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” At the end of it all, we need our Father to examine us and guide us in his way for our life. Our strength will fade, but the Lord’s strength is unending and ever-present. From here, let me finish by giving a final word of encouragement as we face criticism in pastoral ministry.

The pastor’s response to criticism will determine whether the result will be a catastrophe or a catalyst for growth in the Lord and his work.”

—Justin Honaker

Our God is the God who prunes (John 15) and the God who disciplines (Heb. 12), but he is not a God who condemns those whom He loves (Rom. 8). Therefore, the pathways of suffering that many find themselves in must be viewed through the framework of the Scriptures. Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:6–7, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” As we walk the corridor of criticism and various other means of suffering, we must learn to lean on Christ and rejoice through the trial. We look to Christ and see the Son of suffering, who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross. Walking the path of criticism, we remember that Jesus was rejected by His own people. The endurance of Christ and the promise of glory calls us to faithfulness in the moment of pain. We suffer well because Christ, our Savior and chief exemplar, suffered as a model for us. No criticism will eternally ring louder than the voice of our God, who will say to all who endure, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). Whether it is the wounds of the faithful or the kisses of an enemy, we endure for the glory of our God.

Justin Honaker

Justin Honaker is pastor of Lebanon Community Fellowship in Lebanon, Va.

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