This post is adapted from a talk Dr. Doriani gave at The Gospel Coalition National Conference 2019. Part 1 looked at the five types of criticism pastors face and how Jesus’s example is a model for how we should be both tender and tough in our Christian lives. Part 2 explores some practical, biblical ways to respond to such criticism as we seek to follow our Lord in ministry.
A Better Way
As we’ve seen, the church often criticizes its pastors for failing to attain perfection. Why do we forget that Jesus alone is perfect, that Jesus alone redeems? To demand flawless skill, holiness, and ever-effective labor from any mere human is akin to idolatry. Grace-centered, Bible-believing churches must know this—but still idolize our pastors one day, then vilify them the next. Many pastors experiences this: one week you’re the best pastor ever, the next you suffer extreme criticism. Americans in particular don’t bear disappointment well, and certainly not in silence. On this point, many church members today act more like Americans than Christians.
It’s good to remember the message of Hebrews: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. . . . Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls. . . . Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:7, 17).
At the same time, the pattern of Jesus, who is both tender and tough, indicates that we can and should be strong even if we do not gain the respect we deserve. During his ministry, Jesus showed compassion and mercy to those who suffered and to those who made him suffer, those who reviled him and crucified him. As the Spirit works in us, we can have compassion and mercy on those who criticize or betray us.
In Christ, we also have the ability to be tough, as Jesus was. He demonstrated that when he finished the arduous work of redemption and when he died in great pain on the cross. From the cross he said, “It’s finished” (John 19:30). He was tough enough to finish his great but agonizing task. He waged war against the Satan, the opponent of God’s people, and he prevailed. He crushed the head of the serpent. Jesus is tough and that makes us heirs of his toughness. We can endure the hardships of ministry, not because we’re great but because we are united to Christ, the tough one, by faith. The Bible says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (see Joshua 1:9).
In short, pastoral ministry will bring challenges that echo, faintly at least, the opposition Jesus faced and endured. Beyond that, pastors and church leaders still have to face the common troubles of life. We get sick, our cars break down, and our children experience woes like everyone else. Thus, Paul reminds Timothy: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ. . . . An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hardworking farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops” (2 Tim. 2:3, 5–6). Endurance is arduous enough that we may be tempted to quit. When we are in the crucible and feel overwhelmed and anything but tough, the Lord has a resource for us – the psalms.
Lament with the Lord through the Psalms
During particularly trying times, we rightly turn to the Psalms for help. There are sixty psalms that wholly or substantially focus on lament. God has given them to us to show us how to pour out our sorrows before him. Psalm 13 is a short, classical example. It has three elements or movement.
Psalm 13 begins, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” Notice that the psalmist doesn’t ask if the Lord has forgotten him. He asserts that he has; he just wants to know how long God will continue to forget him: a week, a month, forever? The psalmist accuses God, yet Scripture has inspired this as the right way to express grief. God gives us permission to say, “Lord, life feels so bad that it seems you have abandoned me.”
The lament continues in 13:2, then takes a turn in 13:3 : “How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I . . . have sorrow in my heart all the day? . . . Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” We notice the change of tone, a second movement. After the lamentation, there is a plea for help: “Answer me . . . light up my eyes.” The psalmist shifts from “How long will you forget me?” to “Answer me.” That is, he believes again that the Lord does see and hear him. He says “I believe you do care and can act. So please do.” As bitter as he feels, he knows the Lord is still his God.
Between 13:4 and 13:5–6 there is another shift in tone. Some speculate that there is a time gap between 13:4 and 13:5. When we try to write a poem, song, or sermon, we may need to put it down and come back to it days or weeks later. When we return, our situation and mindset can be different; so it seems here, for the tone becomes almost triumphant: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Clearly, the psalmist’s tone has changed substantially. Did the Lord meet him in prayer in the tabernacle? Has his problem disappeared? Whatever the reason, the end of the psalm exults in God’s deliverance. This psalm, like many others, gives us language for times of languishing. We may express our anguish, state our prayers, then wait and, in time, rejoice.
Trust the Lord to be Tender with Our Weakness
Matthew 12 illustrates a second way to respond to hardship after he heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The Pharisees’ tradition forbade healings on the Sabbath unless a life were in danger. When Jesus explained that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” the Pharisees became angrier. Jesus then invoked Isaiah 12:18–21: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
The great puritan Richard Sibbes took the title of a book, The Bruised Reed, from this passage. He notes that even a perfect or healthy reed is very fragile, with limited value, and that a bruised reed is worthless. Why then will Jesus refuse break or snap off a bruised reed? Because he is gentle. This is vital because we are all bruised reeds. Sibbes next observes that Jesus often compares believers to something weak. Among the animals, we are sheep. Among the birds, we are doves. Among plants, we are bruised reeds. No matter what our accomplishments, dispositions, or aspirations, we are bruised reeds. We cannot rest in God’s grace until we see this. Jesus could crush us, make us nothing if he so chose, instead he is tender to bruised reeds, lest we despair.
Even the most tough-minded pastor must recognize that he is a bruised reed and give thanks for the Lord’s tenderness with us, even when our church is not be tender with us, even when life feels most difficult. He will not snuff out a smoldering wick; he gives us time to recover our strength.
Learn to be Tough and Tender in the School of Christ
Jesus’s tenderness and toughness go together. Hebrews 2:14 says that Jesus took flesh and blood “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, even the devil.” Here we say Jesus is tough in adversity, but Hebrews immediately shifts to his tenderness in 2:17–18: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Later, in Hebrews 4:15–16, we read: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” So we can be tender and tough because Jesus has been tender and tough for us. We learn how this works by living life in Christ.
The tough-minded person should look for opportunities to learn godly tenderness. For example, as parents, we see our own weaknesses and flaws when we falter and guide our children imperfectly. We also feel weak when our children suffer and we are powerless to help them. This should make us tender. Pastors see their powerlessness when our people suddenly encounter a disaster or even die suddenly. Then we can do nothing but sit with the survivors and grieve with them. We learn tenderness from our inability to stave off trouble.
Let me share a story from a time when I needed to be both tender and tough. One year, I spoke at a conference for a small, conservative Christian denomination that was debating the roles of women in ministry. They chose outsiders to present the complementarian and egalitarian perspectives, and I was the designated complementarian. The invitation noted that the denomination was strongly complementarian, but when I arrived, I found that almost everyone at this meeting was egalitarian. Obviously, this required shifts in my presentation: I would need to keep the core of my presentation intact while adding material that would head off the egalitarian objections for my view and set up answers to the sharp questions I would surely face after the talk. Further, the practical applications would need to shift from “Here is how we must implement our complementarian position while helping women flourish” to “Here is why we need to resist cultural pressures and hold fast to biblical teaching.”
Unfortunately, a dense schedule and the need to respond to the speaker who preceded me, gave me perhaps thirty minutes to make my adjustments. I also knew I had to present my points in ways that clearly presented the biblical evidence (toughness) while showing tenderness that would keep my audience from dismissing me. Following the conventions of rhetoric, I decided to assume that the audience would grant that I had competence in my field and to focus instead on personal connections, leavened with a bit of humor. This seemed feasible because my wife and daughters do so many wonderful things that readily become crowd-pleasing stories. In a word, I had to be theologically tough and rhetorically tender. More than that, I prayed that the Lord would help my tough-minded hearers listen tenderly. At breakfast, I had felt the problem: A woman seated beside me had turned her back to me, without a word and permanently, when she learned that I was the complementarian speaker. So I prayed, as I normally do when speaking to strangers, “Lord, I don’t know these people and probably never will, but help me love them even as I speak, and let them sense your love as I teach, whether they agree with me or not.” Again, I prayed for toughness in content and tenderness in communication, so that people would feel God’s love and perhaps even mine, as I spoke.
After my talk, I happened to go through the lunch line with the same woman. With a thousand people at the event, this seemed like a singular providence. This time she looked me in the eye and spoke, “This sounds strange, but it seemed, as you spoke, that you actually care about us.” I replied, “I do because we’re brothers and sisters in Christ.” She said, “Yes, but I also felt that you actually love us.” I said, “I do. Even though we disagree on this issue, I do.”
I took a couple of lessons from the conference and the various people I met there. While we disagreed sharply on the question of the day, and I inevitably registered as a theological foe for most of the people at the conference, the majority were tough and tender toward me even as I aimed to be tough and tender with them. It isn’t easy to get this right and we often miss our goal. In particular, when we feel vulnerable, we tend to lead with toughness that is self-preserving yet ultimately damaging. This will be a struggle until the day when the Lord makes all things new. Till then, we can pray, “Lord, you are strong and gentle, so make me tough and tender, like you.” With God’s favor, this may help us resist our culture’s proclivity for harshness, criticism, and condemnation. Lord willing, we can become examples of the community of love that the church is meant to be—a light shining brightly and drawing many to the ways of our tough but tender Savior.
Dr. Dan Doriani is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Vice President at Large at Covenant Theological Seminary.
This post was adapted from a talk Dr. Doriani gave at The Gospel Coalition National Conference 2019. You can find the full audio of his talk here.