Many years ago I came across a quote from Martin Luther about personal criticism from unfriendly critics. Luther’s point was that no matter how bad the personal criticisms—no matter how accurate, or inaccurate, the accusations—there is more sin in each of our hearts than a critic could ever discover.
Luther’s humbling reminder has been useful when I have been criticized and accused of things that were simply not accurate (although to avoid any misunderstanding, there have been plenty of critics that were right in their observations, too).
Far too often, my initial impulse has been to dismiss the criticism and defend myself, not realizing that this response is simply an evidence of pride.
Luther’s words directly confront my temptation to a prideful response, because he reminds me that, even if the criticisms are inaccurate or exaggerated, there remain in my heart many other sins that go unnoticed by my critics. And had my critics been aware of these other sins, they surely would have put them to use in their cause!
Luther’s reminder of the depth of personal sin has served me on numerous occasions over the years. And recently Luther’s words have served my friend Carl Trueman, too.
Carl is the Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. And he has taught a course on John Owen in the Pastors College. Carl is a gifted, insightful, and witty writer (despite writing with just two fingers). I am a friend and a fan of Carl Trueman.
In his most recent online article, “Thank God for Bandit Country,” Carl explains how Luther’s words have served him in handling personal criticism. Listen as the words of Luther and the words of Trueman merge:
I have learned much (as elsewhere) from the master theologian, churchman, public figure, and normal Christian believer, Martin Luther. It is well-known that in his writings [and] in table conversation Luther would often refer to visits from the Devil, how the Devil would come to him and whisper in his ear, accusing him of all manner of filthy sin: “Martin, you are a liar, greedy, lecherous, a blasphemer, a hypocrite. You cannot stand before God.” To which Luther would respond: “Well, yes, I am. And, indeed, Satan, you do not know the half of it. I have done much worse than that and if you care to give me your full list, I can no doubt add to it and help make it more complete. But you know what? My Saviour has died for all my sins—those you mention, those I could add and, indeed, those I have committed but am so wicked that I am unaware of having done so. It does not change the fact that Christ has died for all of them; his blood is sufficient; and on the Day of Judgment I shall be exonerated because he has taken all my sins on himself and clothed me in his own perfect righteousness.”
Luther knew what temptation looked like; he knew his own wickedness; but he also knew the all-surpassing perfection and grace of Christ. So, in closing, I want to thank my blog critics, the crass, the colourful, the profane, and the plain old crazy, for helping me to understand better my sin and my Saviour. You think I'm arrogant? You should talk to my wife: she could fill you in on just how arrogant I really am. You think I'm ruthless and cold? Believe me, you don't know where half of the bodies are buried. You think I'm a weak and spineless girlyman? Hey, you don't know nearly the extent of my cowardice. You think I'm an inveterate street fighter? Bring it on. If someone will hold my coat, why go out onto the street? We can finish this right here and right now. But you know what? My Saviour knows the full depth of all my sleaziness, my sin, and my moral insanity, and has covered by his blood all these crimes you allege against me. Indeed, he has covered many more and much worse; and your reminders of my sinfulness and my need of him are most gratefully received.
Carl’s words, with Luther’s voice in the background, provide us with a humbling and helpful pattern to follow when encountering personal criticism. When we face criticism, the gospel provides us with an ever-present reminder of the depth of remaining sin in our hearts, the scale of our need for our Savior’s blood, and our unceasing need for God’s abundant grace each day.
Related post: "How to Help Your Husband When He's Criticized"
Welcome back to my interview with author and speaker Randy Alcorn. You can read part one here
and part two here
Randy, what single bit of counsel has made the most significant difference in your effective use of time?
In Charles Hummel’s booklet Tyranny of the Urgent
, which I read as a young Christian 35 years ago, he said that what is urgent is often not important, and what is important is typically not urgent. It’s not urgent to spend time with God, talk with your wife, or read to your kids, but it is extremely important. It may be urgent to return someone’s call, go speak at some event, or turn in a manuscript next Thursday, but not important. (The manuscript, for instance, will likely sit in your editor’s inbox three weeks before he has time to open it.)
Years ago I developed a response to the 99% of things I have to decline:
I have to say “no” to many good things, and even some great ones, in order to be able to say “yes” to those very few things God has called me to do.
I live by this, saying “no” unless there’s a compelling reason to say “yes.” My life is very full, but that way I am free to do some things I couldn’t otherwise do (including coaching teenagers, playing with my grandkids, and hanging out with my wife).
What single bit of counsel has made the most significant difference in your leadership?
No one said it in exactly this way, but several men have said what helped me come to this way of thinking: Care about people but don’t live to please them
. If you do, you’ll fail your Lord and you’ll fail people too.
As a young pastor I cared too much what people thought. The best cure for this was 20 years ago when I was repeatedly arrested and went to jail for peaceful nonviolent civil disobedience at abortion clinics. I did it because I believed God wanted me to stand up for unborn children. But it was extremely unpopular, to say the least, in Oregon, and even many Christians, including some of our church folk, disapproved. I learned to accept that. We live out our lives before the Audience of One. In the end, his approval is the one that matters. If our goal is to hear others say “Well done,” we won’t do what we need to do to hear him say it.
Where in ministry are you most regularly tempted to discouragement?
When I was a pastor, my discouragements were with people who were going nowhere spiritually, neglecting the basic spiritual disciplines, and living unfruitful lives year after year. Then, of course, there were the always-critical or easily-hurt high-maintenance folk. It was discouraging because I wanted to mentor, disciple, and shepherd, not change diapers and listen to whiners. (You wanted me to be honest, right?)
As a director of a parachurch ministry, I’m seldom discouraged in the ministry, as our staff stays on task, has a Christ-centered work ethic, and gets along well. Because I often have to withdraw in order to do my writing (I have an office behind my home, they are at the ministry office seven miles away, where I come in only once a week for prayer, sharing and lunch), I feel like I let them down by not being available as much as I want to, and used to be.
As a writer, especially on the big books such as Money, Possessions and Eternity; Dominion; Heaven
; and this latest one, If God is Good
…; there have been nights at 3:00 a.m. when I’m asking God, “Is this really worth it?” I feel like giving up or not going the second mile in research or doing yet another revision and seeking further critique that will create still more work for me. Sometimes the big projects feel like they will never end. But God graciously empowers me and I sense his sweet presence with me in those otherwise lonely hours.
God usually encourages me by time with Nanci, our kids, grandchildren, and our close friends. And often he encourages me with the emails that come in from people who say God used my books to change their lives. Often they come at exactly the right time, causing me to weep and renew my determination to persevere with my current writing.
Join me next time for the fourth and final part of my interview with Randy Alcorn.
Welcome back to my interview with author and speaker Randy Alcorn. You can read part one here
Randy, apart from Scripture, what book do you most frequently re-read and why?
I do re-read some books, though there aren’t many I read more than two or three times. I’ve read Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy
several times, as I have Lewis’s Space Trilogy
and The Chronicles of Narnia
, as well as Mere Christianity
and The Screwtape Letters
. Another favorite is Francis Schaeffer’s He Is There and He Is Not Silent
. I’ve also gone back to Piper’s Desiring God
and Bridges' The Joy of Fearing God.
When you finish a book, what system have you developed in order to remember and reference that book in the future?
I underline copiously and scrawl in the margins. Sometimes I write notes in the front of the book, with page numbers. When doing research, I have a secretary who can read my hieroglyphic notations, type up my marginal notes, boldfacing, and yellow highlighting to distinguish from the text of the book I’ve underlined. Later in the research, I go through the file, copying and pasting possible citations, along with my notations. This becomes a very rough initial draft which I reorder as I go, cutting out the majority of both the citations and my notes. My original notes either disappear or get morphed, though sometimes they make their way as is into my final book. When I’m certain I want to quote from a source, I not only underline, but put an asterisk. To confirm bibliographic information later, I can search for the quote by key words.
If you could study under any theologian in church history (excluding those men in Scripture) who would it be and why?
I suppose Augustine or Calvin are obvious choices, but I would be more inclined toward Charles Spurgeon, giving honorable mention to John Newton. Some wouldn’t think of them as theologians per se, but their pastoral roles and life experiences brought a great deal to the table I would love to draw from.
What single piece of counsel (or constructive criticism) has most improved your preaching?
“It is impossible to make a balanced statement.”
You can spend all day qualifying what you’re saying and removing the punch from it. Jesus made many statements that have to be clarified by others (e.g. plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand, and hating your family). But it is a mistake to strip such statements of their power by immediately modifying them and saying what they don’t mean instead of what they do. I think we are free to make prophetic statements without always qualifying them.
What books on preaching, or examples of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
I don’t preach regularly, but speak on various subjects and texts from time to time, often related to writing I’ve done or am doing. It’s been many years since I’ve read a book on preaching, but I remember appreciating Stott’s Between Two Worlds
. I love reading the sermons of Charles Spurgeon, though I wouldn’t recommend his preaching methodology. He was one of a kind.
Join me next time for the third part of my interview with Randy Alcorn.
June 1, 2009 by C.J. Mahaney
My favorite blog has a new look—new format, new colors, new graphics, and a newly organized resource archive. Check out the new blog, and a picture of my granddaughter Caly, here.