One of the greatest tests in the Christian life is how to respond to criticism. If you are going to be a leader, then criticism is part of the job description. There is no such thing as going forward for God without opposition. Moses faced criticism, John the Baptist faced criticism, and our Lord Jesus Christ faced criticism. If you are going to lead—you are going to be criticized. There is a very real sense in which you cannot serve effectively until you know how to handle criticism. Nehemiah was a leader who was tested, criticized, attacked, and betrayed, yet he rose above it all to serve God effectively. Let us look at four principles found in the book of Nehemiah.
1. Do Not Be Overly Sensitive to Criticism
“Sanballat was very angry when he learned that we were rebuilding the wall. He flew into a rage and mocked the Jews” (Nehemiah 4:1-2)
In the verses above, we discover the first principle: Don’t be overly sensitive to criticism. Expect it. It is guaranteed that no matter what decision you make and what actions you take, you will be criticized. It’s just a fact. There is not a person in the Bible that did anything for God who was not criticized. Why will you be criticized? For one thing, vision and zeal are very easy to criticize. It is easy to poke holes in good ideas, it is easy to criticize. It is easier to tear down than to build up. Nehemiah had a God-given vision and vision attracts criticism. To make it worse, vision is very difficult to defend against criticism. A cynic will always be able to poke holes in spiritual vision— even a God-given vision. Sadly, in many cases, criticism does impede many good efforts. This serves to emphasize an important fact in the Christian life: you can always count on at least 5-10% opposing you no matter what you do.
2. Do Not React Too Quickly to Criticism
It does not take long before a serious Christian meets those who oppose his efforts. Soon after Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he encountered Sanballat and Tobiah, both of whom would be his most vocal critics. Who were Sanballat and Tobiah? They were enemies of Israel and enemies of God. Since they opposed God, it would be understandable that they would criticize Nehemiah. Do not respond too quickly to criticism. When you do act, act calmly and fairly, motivated by godly desires. Knowing the source of the criticism and the character of the critic is very important in handling criticism correctly. Learn to recognize that some people are naturally critical. However, we should watch that we don’t disregard criticism simply because it comes from a disagreeable person. Occasionally, the critic may be correct in what he says. Every church will have its critics. With every critic that moves on, there seems to be another that comes to replace him or her. Don’t allow criticism to derail the work of God. Remember that the source of criticism will often tell you more than the criticism itself.
3. When There Is Criticism— Try to Resolve It
“I prayed, ‘Hear us, O our God, for we are being mocked’” (Neh. 4:4).
The first step in resolving criticism is prayer. Twice in this wider passage, Nehemiah prays. Nehemiah, frankly was very upset. When he prayed, he didn’t hold back how he really felt. He was very transparent with the Lord. Notice also that no time elapsed between the criticism and the prayer. A good leader knows his weaknesses and his limitations. Why is it so important to pray when you are criticized? For one thing, it is usually better to tell God how you really feel than to tell your critic. God can provide the wisdom you need amid your frustrations, your hurts, your wounds. In prayer, God can strengthen you for the battle ahead.
The second step is to discern if the criticism has any validity. Ask God for His verdict. Allow God to make you sensitive to any truth that may be in the criticism, and help you to ignore the rest. It’s only when God makes the truth known that one’s own sense of pride is subdued. Ask God in prayer, “What can I learn from this criticism?”
The third step toward resolution is to make sure that your primary goal is to please God alone. If we are honest about it, most of us are “people pleasers.” We all love others to love us. Nehemiah wasn’t serving for the applause of people; he was serving for the applause of God and God alone. Your real goal in life and in ministry should not be to please other people. J. C. Ryle, the godly expositor of Scripture once wrote:
“We must give up the vain idea of trying to please everyone. The thing is impossible, and the attempt is a mere waste of time. We must be content to walk in Christ’s steps, and let the world say what it likes. Do what we will, we will never satisfy it or silence its ill-natured remarks.” 1
You should play to an audience of one. Your aim is to please God and God alone.
4. Forgive, Forget, and Keep on Working
Nehemiah had three choices when he was peppered with rumors, resistance, and ridicule. He could: 1) Give up; 2) Leave the wall and execute a preemptive strike; or 3) Keep on working. What did Nehemiah choose? In Nehemiah 4:6 we read, “At last the wall was completed to half its original height around the entire city, for the people had worked very hard.” He chose to forgive, forget, and continue to work. By responding this way, Nehemiah avoided a common mistake associated with criticism. He didn’t allow his enemies to become the focus of his attention. He defended himself, yes, but he remained steadfast in his vision.
When we are criticized, how do we normally respond? We are usually tempted to begin a dialogue with our critics, or even with those who are simply parroting their criticism. We waste time, energy, and thought trying to answer questions for people who really are not interested in answers. Without realizing it, we shift our attention away from the work God has given us and allow ourselves to become critic-centered. We should never leave the wall to fight the enemy. We could spend all our time putting out fires and never get the job done. We could spend all our time applying oil to the squeaking wheel (the critic, the complainer) and never succeed in what God has called you to do.
Don’t let criticism distract you. Learn to expect it. Learn to pray about it, to learn if it is valid, and most of all, to work through it. Persistence is the ultimate test of leadership; it is the acid test. How do you handle criticism when the going gets tough? The secret of success is to simply outlast your critics. There is nothing the devil would rather do than to stall you, stop you, and move you into neutral. Believer resist this temptation and keep on living for Him.
1. J. C. Ryle, Commentary of Luke, Vol. 1, (Banner of Truth: Carlisle, PA, 1986), p. 320