Anyone who has ever served in leadership will know that death and taxes are not the only two certainties in life. There is at least one other that we can add to the list: criticism. Leadership and criticism go hand in hand. The more public our leadership role, the more frequent, unfair, and unpleasant that criticism will be. It is, after all, the soldiers who lead the charge in battle who take not only the bulk of the enemy’s fire but its greatest intensity as well.
With that in mind, the question we need to answer is not, How can we avoid criticism?—because we cannot avoid it and still be faithful in serving the Lord with the gifts and abilities He has given us; rather, we should ask, How can we prepare ourselves for the criticism that will come? In this way, when it does come, we will know how to respond and how to keep it from destroying us and the work God has given us to do. I have personally found help in answering this question from Ecclesiastes 7:21–22: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.” This passage has helped me to see three things in particular.
First, we should “not take to heart all the things that people say” (emphasis added). Some of the criticism we receive needs to be ignored entirely. False accusations and malicious gossip fall into this category. We should not take these kinds of criticisms to heart, not even for a moment.
In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that we ought never respond to false accusations. Clearly, there are times when we need to protect the integrity of our work and to ensure that our leadership is not compromised. The Apostle Paul seems to have done that on several occasions—most especially in 2 Corinthians, when the integrity of his ministry was being attacked by a group of “super-apostles” (see, e.g., 2 Cor. 11:5–6; 12:11). On each of these occasions, Paul rose to the challenge and defended his ministry. So, I am not suggesting that we ought to sit idly by when false accusations are leveled at us. What I am saying is that we must not take these false accusations to heart; we must not allow them a platform to destroy us or to eat us up on the inside. Instead, we should try to ignore them and to act as though we never heard them.
Most criticism, however, is not entirely false. Most of it has at least some basis in the truth. But even when we face this kind of criticism, we need to be careful “not [to] take to heart all the things that people say” (emphasis added). That is because this kind of criticism is not usually constructive. It is not typically seasoned with grace and Christian charity but is instead characterized by a desire to tear down the other person rather than to build him up. Because of that, this kind of criticism is generally formulated from an overly critical attitude and expressed in ungracious language. While we ought always to look for the truth in this kind of criticism (something that we will talk about in more detail below), we ought never to take to heart the critical spirit and ungracious language with which that truth is conveyed. These things need to be ignored entirely as well.