When People Throw Stones
by David and Carolyn Roper
You may remember the good old days when you used to swagger off the playground and shout over your shoulders at your small critics, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It wasn’t true then and it still isn’t. Words can hurt worse than anything anyone ever hurls at us, and they’re especially hurtful when they’re thrown at those we love.
It’s a plain fact: If you’re in ministry you will be criticized. It’s the name of the game. And doesn’t it seem like criticism often comes when we least need it and when we least deserve it? People pile judgments on top of our other difficulties and seem to have no sensitivity to other areas of pain. King David lamented, “They kept confronting me in the day of my disaster” (Psa. 18:18).
The effect can be devastating. One ministry couple we know was subject to the most harsh criticism as they struggled with a rebellious teenager and were dealing with another family member’s serious illness. The elders of the church were aware of their pain, but chose that time to unload a series of complaints on the father. It was the proverbial straw that broke their backs. They resigned from that ministry and are currently in another profession.
Often, criticism seems to come from people who are least qualified to give it. Much of it is generated by people who don’t know the whole story. Some critics are themselves so sinfully flawed they have no right to speak, yet often they are the ones who raise the most serious attacks on our character and ministry.
Finally, criticism usually comes in a form that is least helpful. It’s hard to take criticism when it’s specific and given in love, but harder still when it’s vague and harsh. Critics often assail our character and motives as well. It would be great if our critics were gentle and redemptive, but that’s not always the case. They often say unkind things that hurt us and hurt our partners, so we need to have a plan to handle the pain, when people start throwing stones.
What to do for yourself
On a recent airline flight, we sat through another round of safety information, including how to secure our oxygen masks in case of an emergency. The flight attendant finished her instructions by saying, “If you are traveling with someone who needs assistance, you must secure your oxygen mask first, and then help the other person.”
So it is in ministry. In order to offer supportive help, you need to first take steps to be strong before you can help others bear up under criticism. Here are some ways to do that...
Examine Your Heart
Take time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings. Are you outraged and angry? Are you afraid that your future is in ruins? Do you wonder if your spouse will hold up well? Are you worried that the criticism is true? When you pinpoint your reactions, then you can know what areas to work on first.
Just as Jesus was honest before His Father as He faced the cross, you can tell your Heavenly Father how you feel and ask Him to give you His perspective. This comes from reflecting on His Word and praying. If you are struggling with resentment or pride, confess your sin and accept God’s forgiveness.
Don’t unload your initial reactions on your spouse. It may only drag him down or inflame strong feelings. Take your fears and pain to God first; let Him calm your heart. Remember that God is in control, not your spouse’s detractors. As Christian psychiatrist and author John White observed, “He has considered every angle.”
Find A Confidant
Look for someone safe with whom you can be honest, who will listen and pray with you, and keep confidences. This will relieve you of the need to continually review the matter with your spouse. (Long-distance friends can often meet this need.)
You don’t want to back up the truck and dump your concerns on your spouse. But with wisdom you may want to reveal how you’re affected by the criticism. The goal is twofold: to keep your spouse informed and to help him see you are not angry or disappointed in him.
During one period in our ministry when David was subjected to unrelenting, hurtful criticism, Carolyn found herself getting angry and weary from the attacks. Sometimes she withdrew or was on the edge of exploding. It helped David when Carolyn said, “Honey, I know I’ve been out of sorts today, but I want you to know it’s nothing you’ve done. It’s just that all this stuff is really getting to me, but I’m talking to God and trying to look at things His way. Please be patient with me.”
When is the proper time to open up? There are no easy answers or formulas to follow. God knows and He will let you know the proper time as you wait on Him. Certainly you want to open your heart if your inner struggle is adversely affecting your relationship with your spouse.
What to do for your spouse
As you gain perspective and strength from God, you will be better equipped to support the one you love. Here are some steps you can take...
Schedule times to talk and pray together about the criticism when both of you are not tired or exasperated, and when you won’t be interrupted. Limit your discussion about the criticism to those times so it won’t dominate your lives.
Ask your spouse what he thinks about the criticism. You don’t have to know all the details. Ask, and then listen without trying to “fix” your spouse or the situation. Listen not only for details about the criticism, but also for clues about how your partner is affected by it.
Ask your spouse what they need from you. Before giving advice, make sure it is welcome. As Dr. Louis McBurney of Marble Retreat said, “unsolicited advice is usually viewed as criticism.”
Be Honest If The Criticism Is Valid
Pray that God will open your partner’s heart to discern to see the truth. Pray that he will give you wisdom to know when you should talk to him and what words to use. Change is possible. Sin can be forgiven and mistakes can be corrected.
Queen Esther risked her life when she approached her husband, King Xerxes, to save the Jewish people from a royal decree ordering their death. With patience and carefully chosen words, Esther helped the king see the treachery of Haman, the palace official who plotted against the Jews, and how the king would commit a great crime if the decree were carried out. The Jews were spared because Esther had the courage to speak up – and the wisdom to know how to approach the king.
Express Your Care
Garrison Keillor tells about a man who was going through desperate times and had almost given up hope. His wife listened quietly as he unburdened his heart; then she reached out and touched his hand. “You know I care,” she said. “Sometimes,” Keillor mused, “that’s all a person needs to know.”
Let your spouse know that you will be there in the good times and the bad. He needs to know he has a loyal friend who will walk with him no matter what happens.
Provide Sincere Affirmation
Remind your spouse of God’s call to serve. Point out the unique spiritual gifts, experiences and qualities that equip him to minister. Remind him of specific ways God has used him in the past.
Be affirming, but be honest. The first time we watched our seven-year-old granddaughter play soccer, she instructed us, “Now don’t say I’m the best player on the team, ‘cause I’m not!” But she didn’t mind at all when we shouted, “Good effort, Sarah!” and cheered when she did score a goal. Sincere affirmation can be a solace to the soul.
Respect Your Spouse’s Integrity
Let your partner answer the criticism if it needs to be answered. This problem is not yours to solve. Let your partner deal with it before God and others. Know that with His help your spouse can get through this troublesome period and can become a better servant as a result.
Direct Critics To Your Spouse
If a critic comes to you and complains about your spouse (who knows nothing about the criticism) there may be no reason to pass it on. You can take the matter to God and leave it there.
If the issue is serious and needs to be addressed, however, ask the critic to go directly to your spouse, based on Jesus’ instructions: “If your brother sins against you, show him his fault” (Matt. 18:15).
Encourage Your Spouse To Find A Confidant
A minister needs to seek out a wise and discrete friend (other than you) with whom to discuss the criticism – someone who will listen, provide feedback and pray.
Hold On To Hope
Listen to Joseph when life’s lessons were drawing to a close: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).
Behind every difficulty, Joseph saw the good intention and guiding hand of his Father. So must we. God can use everything – even our critics – for our good. The stones they throw can be gathered and used to build a stronger relationship with Christ and a more enduring marriage and ministry.Our friend and mentor Elaine Stedman, who served with her husband, Ray, for more than 40 years, wrote, “Attacks on a pastor can solidify the spiritual bonding of husband and wife as a serving unit. Anything that drives us to our knees must be counted as a benefaction.”