The Hurt of Criticism, Complaints, and Gossip

by Mary Somerville

One pastor's wife told me that criticism is her top struggle. Maybe it's yours. She said it is especially painful when it comes from a leader in the church. If you haven't experienced this, you will. It somehow helps to keep in mind that we all experience the same trials. We have common problems (1 Cor. 10:13). The criticism can be of our husbands, our children, our church, or us. It all hurts. Like me, you know how ungrounded criticism can sap the joy out of ministry if we allow it. 

The Apostle Paul experienced it when the self-styled false apostles in the Corinthian church assaulted his character. He wrote, "For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears. Nevertheless God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us." (2 Cor. 7:5,6).  He received God's comfort to go on.

Our husbands are usually the ones to receive the complaints, unless they are given to us to pass on to them. The service is too long. There aren't enough hymns, or not enough choruses. The drums are too loud, we shouldn't have drums. The carpets are worn out; nobody has invited us over. There aren't enough social events, or there are too many. There is not enough political involvement, or there is too much. There is too much emphasis on giving; the pastor is too explicit in talking about sin. The pastor's wife is too involved, or not involved enough. 

Being in the place of leadership is often unpopular because it is impossible to meet the desires of all the people all of the time. Tough decisions have to be made that not everyone appreciates. There will be misunderstandings.

A woman in their congregation told one dear pastor's wife that she and her husband reminded her of Barbie and Ken. Although their outward appearance always seemed to this person to be perfect, they were hurting inside. This ministry couple has a physically disabled son for whom they have cared for nearly 30 years. How could anyone who really took the time to get to know them think they have a storybook life?

My husband has chosen not to tell me most of the criticism that he receives because he doesn't want me to be hurt or take up an offense. He almost always bears it alone, but takes it right to the Lord. I have not always been happy about his decision in this area but it has been for the best.

 How do we come out victorious in this trying circumstance?  Let's look at some biblical principles:

Keep Loving Them

Think of the last three times that you were hurt by what you perceived to be unkind remarks. You can't think of any? If so, you passed the test!

"Love does not take into account a wrong suffered"  (1 Cor. 13:5). There will always be people who are not content with your husband's ministry or your part as his wife. If you are sensitive to criticism from the people in your church, and you hold onto these hurts, you need to ask God for His kind of love that doesn't hold onto wrongs suffered. 

When we are being criticized, we have to remind ourselves that God is the only One we have to please. Paul addressed this when he wrote the believers at Thessalonica: "We speak, not as pleasing men but Godnor do we seek glory from men, either from you or from others" (1 Thess. 2:4,6). If it weren't for God's grace we wouldn't be able to make any right decisions; but by His grace we can step out with confidence, knowing that He is directing. It doesn't matter if we please anybody if we are doing what is right.

As hard as it may be, we must pray for the love of Christ to flow through us so that we react in love when we're criticized. Paul wrote the believers at Corinth, some of whom had mistreated him and had been disloyal to him by not defending him against the false apostles, "Our heart is wide open" (2 Cor. 6:11).  He let them know that he still loved them and had room for them in his heart. What an example for us!

Overcome Evil with Good

Our assignment from God is to return good for evil as Paul admonishes us to "bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not."  "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.   If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:14,17-18,21).  We need to seek ways of doing good to those who hurt us. It may be to pray for God to bless them. It may be an act of kindness. This is what sets us apart as followers of Jesus Christ, who overcame the greatest evil that has ever been done by bringing salvation through it. When we act in love, it changes our feelings toward that person.

Forgive and Cover It Over

If you didn't pass the test of remembering wrongs suffered, ask God to help you forgive those who did the wrongs. Further, commit to not dwelling on it, nor bringing it up to them or others, unless you need to seek counsel on the matter or confront them about it.

 Jesus said, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14-15).  If you want a good dose of conviction, read the parable that Jesus tells about forgiveness and how God chastises His children severely for lack of it  (Matt. 18:21-35). 

You have no option.  You must forgive!  A root of bitterness can spring up if you do not forgive (Heb. 12:15). You must ask God to give you the grace to grant forgiveness to that person who hurt you.

You can choose to cover over the offense unless you need to confront the issue with the person in order to resolve it. "He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends" (Prov. 17:9). "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions" (Prov. 10:12). We have had all of our transgressions covered by the blood of Jesus, therefore, we can choose to cover other people's hurts against us and not even bring them up (James 5:20). Just as Jesus bore the cost, we can bear the pain and choose to cover it over.               

Have you often been sorry you just didn't cover over an offense? I have. When in defense of myself I speak something caustic or just display a know-it-all attitude, it just requires me to seek forgiveness of the person for my wrong response to what was done to me.

Don't Be Defensive

When confronted by criticism or complaints, the best course of action is to listen to the complaint and try to understand it from the other person's perspective. If we are doing what is right before God and our consciences, we need not be defensive if it is questioned. We can seek to learn from the other person's ideas and humbly ask God to change our thinking, if that is what is needed. Most of the things that we are criticized for are unimportant matters-not moral issues.

This whole issue of differences is addressed in Romans 14 and 15. The kingdom of God is more than eating and drinking-external things, non-essentials. It has more to do with holy, obedient living. Paul urged the believers to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please themselves. If Christ, the perfect Son of God, could bring sinners into His family, how much more should we as forgiven believers be willing to accept each other and lovingly overlook our differences over inconsequential matters? 

If someone prefers worship without drums, that is fine and you need not insist on thinking alike on such matters. But if your church has decided to include drums in the worship, and that person feels they can't worship with drums, he or she may need to go to a church where no drums are included in the worship service.

Keep a Sense of Humor

As in most situations, a sense of humor comes in handy when dealing with criticism and gossip. Below are some examples of complaints and gossip about us and others in ministry.  While it was important to address and clear up the issues, you can imagine the good laugh we had over them.

Word got back from the state committee who examines group homes that I, the pastor's wife of the Evangelical Free Will Baptist Church (the mistake with our church name was humorous in its own right) was telling the girls in my Bible study at a group home that they were adulteresses and that they had snakes in their stomachs!

A bit of gossip got back to us that a lady wouldn't go to our church because we make all the divorced people sit in the first three rows! How preposterous! 

One pastor friend we know received a letter of complaint that there was no cranberry sauce at the Thanksgiving dinner at the church. As petty as that seems, it turns out that the pastor's wife had even brought a cranberry dish to the dinner.

Praise and Thank God

Even when people are saying or doing hurtful things to us we can still praise God in the midst of it. In Jesus' sermon on the mount He taught us how to operate in His "backwards kingdom." He said, "Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me.  Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matt. 5:11,12). Add to that, "In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:18). 

We can praise and thank God that we are counted worthy to suffer shame for Jesus!  We can put our minds on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8). There are plenty of people who do appreciate what our husbands are doing. We can focus our minds on the faithful ones within our church-our "joy or crown of exultation." Let's keep the negatives in perspective. They are a minority. Let us revel in the inner thrill that God is using us in spite of all the opposition, criticism, and complaining that may be going on.

If Necessary, Confront

Sometimes, for the sake of unity in the church it is necessary to confront an individual. If so, we should go to that person in the spirit of Galatians 6:1-gently and humbly-talking about the matter without judging his or her motives. If my sister or brother and I are out of sorts with each other, our first order of business is to get that straightened out before coming to worship. Jesus said, "If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering" (Matt. 5:21-24).

When do I go? This has helped me remember: If I have had my toes run over by a bicycle (i.e., have been offended), "The one with the hurt toes goes, because she's the one who knows" (quote from Jay Adams). If I have been hurt, then I go, unless I choose to cover it over. It is crucial for the health of the Body to confront someone who is spreading gossip. Like cancer, it will eat away and cause untold damage if not confronted.

You might begin by saying, "I always want to believe the best about you, ____________.  Could you let me know just was said about __________? This is what I heard, ____________.  If this person wasn't the source of the gossip, track it down to the source.

When you have confronted and the Lord has brought about repentance on the person's part, or an understanding of what was meant and restoration of the relationship, you have brought Christ glory.

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