by Scott Sauls, Christ Presbyterian Church
I hate it when people criticize me.
Recently, a man who was traveling through visited our church and then sent me a public criticism on Twitter, telling me all of the things that, in his “humble opinion,” were wrong about my sermon. Feeling defensive and irritated, I foolishly retaliated with a zinger or two of my own. The man then sent five more messages on Twitter, piling on more criticism, taking my words out of context, putting words in my mouth that I never said, and assigning motives to me that I never had. I then responded a second time, again in a way that was not helpful.
My unofficial “big brother,” Scotty Smith, saw this Twitter exchange and swiftly texted me a short message: “Scott, don’t wrestle with pigs.”
Scotty’s text was not intended to insult the man on Twitter. Rather, he was reminding me of a phrase that he and I had picked up from an article by Carey Nieuwhof about healthy leadership. “Don’t wrestle with pigs” is another way of saying that when people try to pick a fight with you or seem bent on criticizing you no matter what you say or do, it’s usually best simply not to engage them. Why? Because when leaders “wrestle with pigs,” we, too run the risk of becoming pig-headed in the process.
There is another disadvantage to “wrestling with pigs.” When we fight back—instead of seeking to defuse the situation by not responding or by answering gently—we condition ourselves to reject all criticism, even the kind that is fair. When we do this, we harm everyone including ourselves.
In each of us, there is potential for good and also for evil. We are, at the same time, both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, saints and transgressors, old man and new man, flesh, and spirit. We are, as Luther said, simul iustus et peccator—simultaneously righteous (in Christ) and sinner (in our flesh).
Throughout the pages of Scripture, God responds to our sin and foolishness with reassurance instead of shame, kindness instead of punishment, mercy instead of judgment, and love instead of abandonment. We are told that it is his kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). This being true, why would we ever consider not repenting of our sin as a viable option? Likewise, why would we continue to go to such great lengths to avoid all criticism?
Criticism that is constructive—whether directly from Scripture or from a person—is one of the ways God answers our prayer, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
This portion of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that all sin is absurd and futile and stupid—because sin is not just an act of rebellion against the law of God. Even worse, it is an act of hatred against the love of God.
This is why King David, reflecting on his adultery, murder, and abuse of power, wrote that his sins brought him no joy but instead crushed his bones and sapped his spirit of joy (Psalm 51:8, 12). Clinging to sin afflicted him, tormented his soul, blocked his vision, wearied him with grief, and wasted him physically (Psalm 31:6-10).
Whenever we sin against God, we also sin against ourselves. We cannot thrive outside the blessed boundaries of God’s law any more than a fish can thrive outside the water. As those created in God’s image, his law is our roadmap for how to “image” him. His law is our design and our most natural and life-giving habitat.
Eugene Peterson tells it true in The Message: “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself.”
Although the wisdom of adhering to our design may seem obvious, we still need help. Specifically, we need Scripture and truth-telling friends to anchor us daily in the things that are right, good, and true. Our hearts are deceptive and frail, and therefore capable of justifying even the worst thoughts and words and actions. Our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” We need frequent reminders that we have not arrived yet and that, as Luther uttered on his deathbed, “We are all beggars, this is true.”
Because we are not yet what we are meant to be, we need honest voices in our lives to help us see in ourselves the sin that we cannot see and to confront us when we need confronting.
In her excellent book, Hope Has Its Reasons, Rebecca Pippert wrote about how true love detests whatever destroys the people that we love:
Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys … The more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.
Bonhoeffer said something similar when he said “Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”
King David, ultimately, did not shield himself from critique. This is part of what made him such a great human being. When Nathan the prophet came to him and called him out for the evil in his life, David did not respond by saying, “Who do you think you are, Nathan? Do you know who it is that you are talking to? Where do you get off … ?”
Instead, David received Nathan’s confrontation humbly, repented of his sin, and sought to right the wrongs he had done. His story gives us one of the most comprehensive, historic confessions of sin ever offered:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight … Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart … wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow … Hide your face from my sins … Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit … (Psalm 51:1-19)
But David did not only confess his sin to God. He also turned and confessed to Nathan, saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Then he turned to Bathsheba, the widowed wife of the soldier that he had murdered, and became her husband.
Then, in an act of immense kindness, through Bathsheba God gave David a son whose name, Jedediah, means “Beloved of God.” This son was then given a second name, Solomon, which means “Peace.” This child, born from circumstances involving adultery, murder, and the abuse of power, would later be listed in the ancestry of Jesus as a picture of how long, wide, high, and deep the love of God travels:
David was the father of Solomon
by the wife of Uriah (Matthew 1:6).
Matthew goes out of his way to include that allusion to the unsavory circumstances surrounding Solomon’s birth. He could easily have left out the phrase or said “by Bathsheba” instead of “by the wife of Uriah.” Instead, he helps us see how God worked to redeem the sin that David committed and from which he later repented.
As if this weren’t enough grace for David, Jesus—the King of all Kings and Prince of Peace—would later identify himself as “the son of David” and would call David “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).
We can learn many things from David. There are many ways that we leaders especially can look to him for inspiration. But one of the most important things we must learn from him is the wisdom of positioning ourselves to invite constructive, redemptive critique from those around us—especially those who know us best, such as colleagues, friends, church leaders, and family members. Our pursuit of character must matter more to us than protecting our reputation. We must learn to love the light, even when it exposes the darkness in us, instead of using our power to run from and hide from the light.
This, in spite of his many faults, was where David shined. The aftermath of the Bathsheba scandal presents to us a portrait of greatness—not because David was perfect but because he was ready to own his imperfection and to do so publicly to those he had injured the most. His greatness was found in his readiness to humble himself. In this, we see evidence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within: a willingness to lose face when he could have easily saved face and a readiness to repent when he didn’t have to because he was the one holding all the power.
David could have done the same thing to Nathan that he had previously done to Uriah—finish the man off in order to save his own hide and reputation. But he did not. Instead, he chose to listen, humble himself, repent, and right his own wrongs.
Writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard wrote, “The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.” By this standard, David was a great human being.
By the mercies of God, may we, likewise, allow ourselves to become great.