It’s no secret that presidents age quickly while in office. President Obama looks at least a good 10 years older now than when he was sworn in. Experts say that is about normal though. On average, presidents appear to age 5 years for every actual human year. This is why George W. Bush went into the White House looking like the wide-eyed “son” of George Bush Sr., but he left office 8 years later looking like the weary-eyed grandfather of the country.
A number of factors obviously affect the aging of presidents in office. Sleep is minimal. Stress is high. I think there is an underlying cause to both of these problems though – constant criticism.
Frankly, I’m not entirely sure why anyone would want to be the president of the United States, or for that matter, famous in general. Name me one famous person who has not received their fair share of criticism or, at the very least, are in a prime position to receive criticism. Anytime you are in a position of leadership, fame, or status, you are an easy target for criticism.
As Christians, each and every one of us is called to be leaders in life. In our families, we each have various roles that we are to fill. In our churches, we each have unique gifts given by the Lord, designed for service in the body in a variety of positions of leadership. In our society, we are to be the salt of the earth, morally guiding the rest of the world and using that attention-grabbing light to direct others to Christ.
For Christians, leadership is not an option, but an inherent responsibility. There are many blessings that come with leadership, but an unfortunate byproduct is that we are wide open for criticism. Christian author Chuck Swindoll once wrote, “Unpleasant though it may sound, you haven’t really led until you have become familiar with the stinging barbs of the critic.”
Having recently had the opportunity to read through several thousand pages of commentary on the Old Testament book of Nehemiah for an upcoming paper, I’m struck by the skill Nehemiah had as a leader in fending of criticisms.
Just a little history: Under Cyrus the Great, Media-Persia came in and defeated the Babylonians in the Ancient Middle East. Cyrus allowed the Jews, who had been in captivity under the Babylonians since around 600 BC (so approximately 70 years), to return home to Jerusalem. 50,000 of them left, led by a man named Zerubabel. About 80 years later a new commander-in-chief/priest of the Jews, named Ezra, brought a second crew home. The new king in Persia at this time was named Artaxerxes. A Jew by the name of Nehemiah was this king’s cupbearer. It doesn’t sound like much, but, long story short, a cupbearer was the position of a man trusted perhaps more than any other by the king, and therefore was a position that wielded much political influence.
Nehemiah, a faithful and godly man learned that Jerusalem, despite the temple being rebuilt after captivity, was still largely in ruins 100 years after the original return. His heart was broken that God’s land was in such a state of disrepair. Jerusalem had no walls surrounding it – an essential to the protection of any ancient city. Moved to help, Nehemiah led the efforts to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. However, many did not like this. The rebuilding of walls, to neighboring peoples, meant another threat in the region. For awhile it seemed as though no one but God and Nehemiah wanted these walls rebuilt. Nehemiah faced tremendous danger and harsh criticism both from outsiders as well those within Jerusalem. But he pressed on. In doing so, Nehemiah taught us 3 very important things pertaining to criticism:
1) Criticizing others typically doesn’t motivate anyone
In 2:17 of his book, Nehemiah says these words, “You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.” Nehemiah had a great opportunity to really lay into these original returnees from captivity, lambasting them for having so little respect for the land that God had promised to them. After all, it wasn’t his fault the walls weren’t rebuilt. He’d been doing his job in Persia, and helping the Jewish people out there by holding such a prominent position in the king’s court. These people had been the ones who consistently demonstrated little desire to take care of God’s house or God’s city. Nonetheless, Nehemiah doesn’t criticize. He simply says, “WE are in a difficult situation. Let US do this together.” What does Nehemiah’s management style lead to? Well, he arrived in Jerusalem a solitary man seeking to overcome 100 years worth of apathy towards this project, enemy resistance, and the engineering challenge of building this wall. And within a short period of time, he had willing workers.
Criticism is absolutely appropriate and necessary at times. If you do it in a “holier than thou” manner though, it’s likely to return to you also in the form of criticism. However, when you can identify with those whose behavior needs correcting, that “we’re all together in the same boat this boat of mistakes”, you don’t give the impression that you’re trying to elevate yourself by knocking another down (something many people do).
2) Christians don’t take non-Christian criticism too seriously
When someone who loves and worships the same Lord that I do offers a criticism of something I’m doing, I take it seriously. Several times in my life I recall different individuals coming to me and asking my about something I’d said or done that they sought clarification on. My natural human reaction: self-preserving defensiveness. How dare someone whose mistakes I’d known well have the audacity to criticize me! Once I had the opportunity to calm down though, at least on several occasions, I knew they were right. They loved me enough to guide me to repentance, forgiveness, and new life.
However, if someone (and we’ll call this someone “the world”) criticizes what I do, how I do it, or what I believe….I deliberately choose not to care. Why should I care what society thinks of me? It has different morals than me, different priorities than me, and a different worldview than me. I’m in a different camp. It’s naturally going to be critical at times. This shouldn’t bother me as a Christian at all. If anything, the world questioning my decisions regarding morality, time and money and energy put into church, and my rejection of all belief systems as equal gateways to truth, this is a reminder to me that I am indeed in this world, but not of this world.
I’d also like to add here that when I say “the world”, I mean the criticisms of the unbelieving world OR criticisms of the believing world regarding things that clearly don’t directly pertain to faith. We Christians unfortunately slip into this sort of pettiness as well. (SIDE NOTE: When Christians are critical of things that don’t directly pertain to faith, it often ends up in drawing lines where God has placed freedom, which both suffocates the church and confuses the rest of the world about the spirit of Christianity.)
Nehemiah didn’t allow the criticisms of the world to affect him. In Nehemiah 2:19, we read, “But when Sanballat the Horhonite, and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it (that the Israelites were rebuilding the city walls), they mocked us and despised us…” These guys were the enemy neighbors to the Jews. These same jerks continued to taunt and oppose Nehemiah and company until the entire project was done. But Nehemiah refused to listen to those who actively opposed God’s will. Likewise, some of Nehemiah’s criticism came from discouraged or doubtful insiders. Although they were on his side, Nehemiah didn’t listen to their criticism either, because it opposed God’s will.
Today, the church at large takes a great deal of criticism from the world. “The church” was one of the victims of the Baby Boomers’ crusade against institutions. Consequently, the church has been portrayed by Hollywood and the media as an organization full of closed-minded, brain-washing hypocrites that divide the world and hinder peace. I could spend every minute of every day defending the church to people, but that would prohibit me from time spent on proclaiming the saving message of the church – the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of 24 hour/day apologetics then, sometimes Christians just say, “The world can say what they want. If I’m right with God, that’s all the approval I need.”
3) Prayer is essential in the fight against criticism
Almost every good leader shares the trait of being strong-willed. You have to have this in order to fend off natural fears of failure, change, and criticism. However, sometimes a strong-willed nature moves first to retaliation when attacked.
Nehemiah didn’t fall victim to the thirst of revenge though. His secret: he allowed the divine justice of the Lord to take it’s course, giving his heart to God in prayer. In chapter 4, Nehemiah offers a pretty feisty prayer to God concerning his enemies. He knows God won’t allow wickedness to continue forever. And sure enough, God wards off Nehemiah’s oppressors.
When a Christian is criticized, he doesn’t exact retribution, but allows God’s scales of justice to tip in favor of God’s children. Further encouragement towards commending justice to God’s hands is found in the wisdom literature of Proverbs: “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil. The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:28-29). Why should I try to accomplish something that God informs me is clearly his job – justice. I don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do as good of a job as God can, so why should I bother? It’s NOT my job, but a job that I leave to the Lord in prayer.
In many ways, Nehemiah foreshadows the ministry of Jesus himself. Both gave up high positions to identify with the predicament of their people; both come with a difficult mission yet succeed; both face a great deal of opposition; both engage in prayer to demonstrate dependence on God. And what a fascinating ministry Jesus had. Jesus did not swing a fist, but turned a cheek. He did not cast down lightning bolts upon his critics, but pleaded with God to forgive them. He humbly dealt with 100% unwarranted criticisms. Quite a leader!
So…..when someone passes a disparaging glance at the way we parent, offers a discouraging remark over what we’re doing with our lives, questions our motives, or in general simply chooses not to like us for whatever reason……that’s their problem. In Christ-like (and Nehemiah-like) fashion, Christians will seek to not sink to the critic’s level, will not waste time and energy worrying about what the world thinks, and will seek God in prayer, asking him to correct anything that may need correction and leaving the justice of critics in God’s hands.
The world can call me whatever names it wants. As long as God calls me “child”, I’m okay.