Because everyone is flawed, everyone can also expect criticism from time to time. But these days, a carefully timed, well placed call-out can have the outsized effect of “canceling” someone socially, culturally, professionally, denominationally, or otherwise.
Even when a person’s history, accomplishments, and character are laudable, a critical word can swiftly reduce the person to a single, defining worst moment. A damning narrative doesn’t even have to be true to ruin a person’s good name. It simply needs to be told by someone with an audience. In a flash, that person’s voice is silenced, influence lost, and reputation destroyed.
In today’s court of public opinion, where it’s expected that people may be canceled for holding a unique view on certain issues, we can no longer assume we’ll be judged innocent until proven guilty. Rather, we expect to be judged guilty until proven innocent—and by then, it may be too late.
People who serve in the ministry can sometimes live in this fear of being slandered or canceled. As one colleague who has pastored for nearly 40 years said, “If I get behind a microphone and say just five poorly stated or misunderstood words, it could potentially ruin my entire ministry.”
As one colleague said, ‘If I get behind a microphone and say just five poorly stated or misunderstood words, it could potentially ruin my entire ministry.’
Making the Most of Criticism
I am not a fan of cancel culture at all. But I’ve come to appreciate how criticism, even the unfair and ill-intended kind, can contribute to my growth and intimacy with Christ. As Tim Keller once reminded me after someone twisted my words in what appeared to be an attempt to discredit and malign me personally—even wrongful criticism can lead us toward intimacy with Christ. This process isn’t fun, but it can also prove fruitful. Consider Tim’s words:
If the criticism comes from someone who doesn’t know you at all (and often this is the case on the internet) it is possible that the criticism is completely unwarranted and profoundly mistaken. I am often pilloried not only for views I do have, but also even more often for views (and motives) that I do not hold at all. When that happens, it is even easier to fall into a smugness and perhaps be tempted to laugh at how mistaken your critics are. “Pathetic . . .” you may be tempted to say. Don’t do it. Even if there is not the slightest kernel of truth in what the critic says, you should not mock them in your thoughts. First, remind yourself of examples of your own mistakes, foolishness, and cluelessness in the past, times in which you really got something wrong. Second, pray for the critic, that he or she grows in grace.
Wrestling with Pigs
A few years back, a man who visited our church called me out on Twitter, pointing out several things that, in his “humble opinion,” were wrong with my sermon. Feeling defensive and irritated, I foolishly retaliated with a criticism of my own, along with a Bible verse to justify. The man then posted five more messages, piling on criticism, taking my words out of context, putting words in my mouth that I did not say, and ascribing motives to me that I did not have. I responded a second time, again in a way that was not helpful.
At this point my longtime friend, encourager, and “big brother” mentor, pastor Scotty Smith, saw the exchange and swiftly sent me a text message: “Scott, my brother, you forgot that you’re not supposed to wrestle with pigs.”
Scotty’s text was not intended as an insult to the man on Twitter. Rather, “Don’t wrestle with pigs” is another way of saying that when people try to pick a fight or seem bent on antagonizing you, it’s usually best not to engage them. Why? Because when we wrestle with pigs, we risk becoming pigheaded ourselves, and everyone ends up getting mud on their faces. Only the pig enjoys this experience.
Looking to Christ
There is another cost to wrestling with pigs. When we strike back in retaliation instead of defusing a situation with a gentle answer, we risk conditioning ourselves to reject all criticism, even the kind that is in fact fair. When this occurs, we are playing the role of victim-martyr, listening to the twisted voice of self-righteousness instead of resting in and responding to the righteousness that is freely ours in Christ.
Secure in Christ’s righteousness, our aim is not ultimately to please other people, nor is it to gain an upper hand on our critics. Rather, our aim is to please Christ with lives of humility, faithfulness, and love. Our aim is to pursue a kind of character and humility that makes it difficult for others to accuse us, not for our own glory but for the glory of Christ. While there are times it’s important for a leader’s reputation to be defended from false, maligning statements (ideally, such a defense would come from fellow leaders in the church), retaliation by slinging more mud is never a good option.
Our starting point in this endeavor, which is also our ending point, is to remember that Christ himself was “canceled” for our sake. This was voluntary on his part. Dying in our place, he shielded us from the penalty of things that gave him the right to cancel us. How marvelous, and how wonderful, that he does not so much as consider doing that. Thanks be to God for his unfathomable grace.