A solid seminary training warns prospective pastors that they’re far likelier to be run out of a church due to interpersonal conflict than due to theological disagreement. Still, we see a surge of pastors so worn down by interpersonal conflict that they’re ready to initiate their own exits.
Though I’m blessed to lead a congregation that’s been overwhelmingly gracious and encouraging toward their new pastor as I’ve stumbled my way through this season of leadership, I’m nonetheless in the same minefield as many other pastors. Exposed to potential criticism from so many directions—response to COVID, response to racial injustice, response to the election—it can be exhausting to have to make so many potentially unpopular decisions in such a condensed period of time.
With each “troubled” email, with each request for a meeting with a “concerned” congregant, we pastors are one short-tempered reply away from bringing disgrace to the Lord’s name. As such, it’s worth a refresher on God’s good purposes in criticism—lest we waste it.
David and Shimei
In 2 Samuel 16:5–14, David has experienced shame heaped on shame: deposed from the kingship by his son, forced to flee from Jerusalem barefoot, reduced to tears. Just when it seems he’s reached rock bottom, a man from Saul’s family named Shimei begins throwing rocks at David, hurling insults and claiming that this humiliation is David’s own fault.
This passage finally points us to the true and better David’s bearing of our shame to silence the ultimate Shimei. David’s decision not to stop Shimei may not be the proper course of action in every situation (as this discussion helpfully explores). Still, while the criticizing a pastor ought not be conflated with criticizing God’s anointed king, David’s encounter with Shimei points us to three questions we might ask ourselves when criticized.
1. What is the kernel of truth in this criticism?
In even the most unfair criticism we receive, there’s often something true being said. In David’s case, plenty of Shimei’s caustic words are untrue and unfair. However, when Shimei calls David a “man of blood,” it sounds somewhat like God’s own words to David when explaining why David was not qualified to build the temple (1 Chron. 22:8).
Though we don’t have any indication in 2 Samuel 16 that David reflected on the kernel of truth in Shimei’s words, David consistently shows himself to be more concerned with the sin he commits against others than he is with the sin committed against him by those around him.
In even the most unfair criticism we receive, there’s almost always something true being said.
Pastors do well to imitate this attitude by sifting through critical words to find something valid. Perhaps I am in danger of adopting worldly thinking in a certain area; perhaps I am being too one-sided; perhaps I have spoken in generalizations without appropriate nuance. To the extent that I find something true buried amid even unfair accusation, it is an opportunity for me to confess and repent.
2. What if God sent this person to criticize?
Why does David rebuke the sons of Zeruiah for wanting to kill Shimei? Because it’s possible God sent Shimei to curse the king (2 Sam. 16:10). In fact, he speaks with even more certainty in the next verse: “Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the LORD has told him to” (2 Sam. 16:11).
Despite the sin involved in Shimei’s behavior, David understands the cursing to fall within God’s sovereign will, just as Peter and John understand that those who (sinfully) executed Jesus were doing what God had determined in advance should take place (Acts 4:27–28).
That’s an important reminder for us as pastors. Although someone’s unfair criticism may be sinful, it falls within God’s plan for us. When critics lash out, the God who works all things together has good purposes he intends to achieve through their words.
Although someone’s unfair criticism may be sinful, it falls within God’s plan for us.
God has used criticism to humble me. He has given me, in responding to critics, an opportunity to embody the gospel message I preach. He has used criticism to renew my dependence on him. Harsh criticism may not be God’s best for our critics, but if it comes, we can be sure it’s part of his plan for us.
3. How will I be vindicated?
Sometimes, even more hurtful than the unfair words of a critic is the silence of people we expected to rise to our defense. It is natural to want to be vindicated publicly and to want to vindicate ourselves. How many of the psalms cry out for such exoneration? Indeed, the Bible frames much of our future hope not just on being on the right side of history. We’ll be seen to be on the right side of history (Col. 3:4; 1 Pet. 1:5).
Vindication was on David’s mind on the road out of Jerusalem as well: “It may be that the LORD will look on the wrong done to me, and that the LORD will repay me with good for [Shimei’s] cursing today” (2 Sam. 16:12). And God did repay David with good, restoring him to his throne and vanquishing his enemies.
One day, like David, we too will be vindicated. If the critique directed our way is unjust, then either our critics will be won over by our gracious response or they will be held accountable by God for their careless words. For Shimei, it was the latter (1 Kgs. 2). Regardless of when our vindication comes, the Judge of all the earth will do right.
More Criticism Coming
As many of us enter the worst of a new “wave” of COVID cases and shepherd people through the aftermath of a contentious election, there will be another round of difficult pastoral decisions—and, with those decisions, another round of criticism.
While we take comfort in the God who sees our pain in response to accusation, may we not waste the opportunity criticism presents to glorify God and be conformed to the image of Christ.