How do you usually respond when someone throws criticism your way? Let it bounce off you? Send it someone else’s way? Duck and avoid it? Catch it and hang onto it? Slam it back at the person who threw it at you? Does your reaction change when criticism’s coming at you from more than one direction?
However you responded to that barrage of questions—which might have felt like criticism—how well does your approach usually work for you?
Last Monday, we explored how leadership involves change. And as we discovered, change can be tough, and not just for us. Whenever we try to introduce change, we’re almost certainly going to hit resistance. Even if we’ve done a good job of showing why change is a good thing, there will probably be some people who will be less than enthused about it. Some might have legitimate concerns that they still need to work though—they simply haven’t caught the vision yet. Some are gun-shy, because they’ve been burned before. Others will quietly (or not so quietly) drag their feet, hoping that you’ll change your mind. And still others might be openly critical, antagonistic, or even hostile.
Guess what? You’re still the leader. You still need to deal with it. And you need to deal with it in a way that honors God—and honors those people putting up the resistance. And you might have to do it even if they’re not honoring God, or you, with their attitudes and actions. “The primary tool in the devil’s box is the wedge,” as Greg Ogden says in his study Discipleship Essentials. So let’s talk through this one and see how God wants to equip us to grow in this area.
First, let’s start by putting ourselves in the shoes of those who might disagree with us. Because we’ve all been in their places at one time or another. When have you been in the role of outsider or critic? What finally “got you on board” (or would have, if you can’t think of a positive example)?
When you’re done chewing on that, take a look at this classic “case study” of conflict resolution from the Bible. As you read, take note of all the players in this conflict, and think about each person or group’s side of things:
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
things known from long ago.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:1-19, NIV).
• What kinds of reactions do we see in this passage? What motivated each of the players here?
• What steps were taken to resolve the conflict? What helped everyone come to a decision and move forward?
• It might be easy to simply point to the Pharisee Christians as “the bad guys.” But what’s a situation where you’d raise the red flag and say, “That’s wrong and I’m not going along with it”? What, if anything, could get you to change your mind about it?
A few more quotes to consider:
“Differences between us are exactly what make us beautiful and necessary; together we are more than we were apart… Church can be something bigger precisely because it’s the bringing together of so many people with so many reflections of the image of God.”—Brian Sanders, Life After God: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians
“We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those who opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”—Thomas Aquinas
“Those who honestly agree with you keep you sane. Those who honestly disagree with you… keep you honest.”—Carl Simmons
So, with that: Think of someone you regularly have trouble seeing eye-to-eye with. What’s one positive thing you could say to that person right now?
Better yet: What’s one thing that person brings to the table that you don’t? Say it out loud. Yes, right now.
Now, how can you create the opportunity to share what you just said with that person?
Besides issues being disagreed about, what else keeps us from finding common ground with others? How can we show love and respect to those people, even if we totally disagree with them?
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:12-13, NIV).
Some people simply need more understanding and attention. Others may never become your good friends, but you can still learn to work together. Other people go beyond what we’ve discussed today—for whatever reason, they’re hardened against you or what you’re trying to accomplish. No matter what the situation, it’s God’s to handle. So pray for God’s wisdom and grace to overwhelm both you and those you’re struggling with. And if it is a relentless situation where the other person is immovable and/or disrespectful, ask God for His strength in dealing with it. Ask God what He’s trying to teach you through this situation, and ask His help in keeping your eyes on that rather than on what’s going on right now.