I like to lead things. As a former high school English teacher, I loved to sit down in the summer and map out my curriculum for the year. Although I had state standards and department guidelines, I had quite a bit of autonomy as far as how I wanted to arrange the texts and teach the content. The decisions about how I wanted to present the information and break down the concepts were very much up to me. And I liked it that way.
However, what I didn’t like so much about leadership was the pressure I felt to make the right decisions and the pressure I felt to appease others who critiqued me on the decisions I made. My last year teaching, the week before school began, I developed painful cold sores all of over my tongue. I was that stressed about a new course I was teaching. I did make it through that year — but not without any conflicts.
Though my teaching days are past, I am relearning again through heading a ministry that leadership is hard. It brings with it all sorts of problems and conflicts. Part of the reason I felt so much pressure my last year teaching is because I didn’t feel I was adequately skilled to teach that particular course. I felt that any criticism that came would most likely be valid. Similarly, I don’t feel skilled enough to be doing what I am doing now. Because my own self-confidence is so precarious, it can feel extra-debilitating when I get criticism.
A story that I have been gleaning much from as of late is the story of David. He provides some interesting lessons in dealing with conflict as a leader:
1. Sometimes criticism comes even when we’re doing the right thing.
As I mentioned in my previous post, David was unfairly criticized by his brother when he brought supplies to the battlefield. His brother confronted him and said, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle” (1 Samuel 17:28). David had been told by his father to go to the battle and had no bad motives. The scene highlights an example that I think will happen to all of us who decide to attempt to lead or put ourselves out there in some capacity: we will get criticized even when we are making the right decisions or do what God told us to do.
This idea that sometimes another person brings up a problem “just because” has been very freeing for me personally because I am the type of personality who over-analyzes things and hyperventilates when any sort of issue is brought to my attention: I immediately assume I did something wrong. My mind goes into overdrive, and I start feeling shame and all sorts of horrible feelings even if I made the right choice. My insecurity makes me tend to believe that the people around me and second-guess myself.
One thing I found really surprising when I told other people what I felt God called me to in ministry was that some people just did not believe me. I really have no idea why I thought everyone would be on the same page as me (but, I did think that), and I was very confused and rattled when I didn’t feel others’ support. The resistance I felt made me feel like I should just quit.
If we are in that place where a spouse, close friend or another acquaintance that we respect does not believe what we are saying, it can make us hesitate and doubt the calling God has given us. However, when God chooses us and calls us for a particular task, He makes it very clear. I had multiple confirmations — through sermons, books I read, prophetic words — and God speaking directly to me.
Sure, we need to listen to feedback and advice, but we also need to really look at the place and the person this criticism is coming from. We need to ask God, “What should I be taking away from this conversation?” And just know that although it’s good to listen to others and not put ourselves up on an unreachable pedestal — some criticism we just need to throw out.
2. Sometimes the biggest critic you need to silence is yourself.
Shortly after David’s conversation with Eliab, he walked out on the battlefield in shepherd’s clothes, and took the mighty Philistine down with a stone and a slingshot. David’s approach to Goliath was much different than Goliath’s approach to him. While Goliath trusted in his size, his impressive sword, spear, and javelin, David trusted in the Lord (1 Samuel 17:45).
David put his confidence not in outward things — but in He who was within him. He was confident that God had equipped him already, and he acted like it. Because I often feel acute self-doubt, the lie that I am often tempted to believe is that I would be better at what I do if I had this trait. Or if I were more like this person. Or if I were more impressive looking. Or if I were like Goliath and respected by everyone.
Because as much as I know that I have been equipped to do the work of God, I don’t always feel that way. I fall into a trap of trying to be impressive with my skills rather than in relying on God in all situations. Because of the comments or reactions of a few, I feel extra pressure to “prove” myself. Not only do I feel torn down from the outside, I have a critic inside my head that is louder than the voices outside.
In regards to writing for this ministry, I rarely meet my own standards. And it frustrates me. I often write several versions of a post. I tear apart what I’ve written. I worry about choosing the best words and making my articles really amazing. But that is not important to God. It’s vanity, really.
I came across a piece of writing by D.L. Moody, and he says this: “The message is more important than the messenger.” Moody argues:
If God has given you a message, go and give it to the people as God has given it to you. It is a stupid thing for a man to try to be eloquent. MAKE YOUR MESSAGE AND NOT YOURSELF, the most prominent thing. Set your heart on what God has called you to do, and don’t be so foolish as to let your own difficulties or you own abilities stand in the way.
I have to agree. I can get past that critic inside of my head when I make God’s message He wants to convey through me the most important — rather than the way I convey it. God’s servants don’t need impressive displays of skill or might — the One inside of us should be the most impressive thing about us.
3. Sometimes the best reaction to conflict is to wait for God.
After David had fought Goliath, he was utilized by King Saul and sent on many more military conquests — and David was successful in every one. So much so, that Saul became jealous of David and wanted to kill him. In one particular scene, David followed Saul out of a cave, cut off a piece of his robe and then thought better of it and refused to retaliate against the murderous Saul (1 Samuel 24:1-21).
Softened, Saul’s reaction was to return home. This was not the last time he tried to kill David, but we learn that David’s approach was very wise. He did cut off a piece of Saul’s robe, but he then restrained himself. Although his men urged David to kill Saul right then and there, David did not feel that the Lord had delivered Saul into his hands. Therefore, he chose to use self-control and put the situation in the Lord’s hands. And certainly, his self-control was called upon again as Saul pursued him one more time (1 Samuel 26:1-14). But in both instances, David respected that Saul was the Lord’s anointed and would not put a hand against him.
It’s tempting to retaliate when we get in situations where people don’t believe us or come against us. I know I have certainly felt the need to do that and have succumbed at times to launching counter-attacks.
However, once more we can learn from David here in his exchange from Saul. David never demanded that people recognize his God-anointing. He just accepted that God had appointed him and didn’t need any other commission. He treated Saul well even when Saul came against him. He was content to wait for God’s timing in his rise to kingship.
Not only that — he waited for the Lord’s vindication of his situation. Even though he had ample opportunity to “take matters into his own hands” and get rid of Saul and all of the conflict he caused, he waited instead for the Lord to take care of it.
While it can be very hurtful to not have the support we want moving into our ministry or call — and there are times we need to confront or have a discussion with a person, it is essential that we not repay “evil for evil” (Romans 12:17). We should wait for God to move. We should wait even when circumstances seem against us, and it appears that what God has said will not come to pass.
Dealing With Future Conflict and Criticism
Conflict is normal. As Brené Brown notes, we should reserve a chair for our critics in our arena. Rather than hope they don’t show up, we should just expect them to be there.
I told God a few years ago that I didn’t think it was “normal” how much conflict was in my life after I said “yes” to following him away from my former career. Not too long after that conversation, I “happened” to open my Bible to the story of Paul. I read about all the churches that had problems with him. Leaders who called him to trial for no other reason than he was testifying about Jesus. Conflicts he had with people just about everywhere he went.
I told God, “All right. I see your point.”
None of us should walk around with the attitude of “I am always right and you’re always wrong.” But it is freeing to know that there are times when conflict comes even when we are acting in ways we should.
In some cases, we should consider it an indication that we are right where we need to be.
Our strength doesn’t come from the support of others or our own abilities — the fact that He has asked us to do what we are doing should give us the confidence to face both critics outside and within. As Brown notes, we may not have a choice about the critics that show up — but we do have a choice as to the criticism we accept.