February 22, 2011 by C.J. Mahaney
Where has John Newton been all my life?
Newton has recently become a mentor for me. He is a rare embodiment of pastoral humility, compassion, wisdom, and courage, and is always theologically informed and gospel centered.
I see his compelling pastoral example particularly in the words of his letters, first written to inquirers and later published for broad readership. Those letters have had a significant effect on my soul and life, and made a huge difference in how I view and respond to criticism. This is especially true of his letter titled “On Controversy.”
In this letter Newton explains how to humbly respond to an opponent when engaged in a potentially heated theological debate. The context is obviously different from personal criticism, but you will see that Newton’s instruction is relevant to pastors who experience the sting of personal criticism.
In his letter, Newton makes three particularly important points:
1. Pray for your critic.
As to your opponent, I wish, that, before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord's teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him.
In reality, it is difficult for me to sinfully judge—or even indefinitely dislike—someone I am consistently praying for.
2. If your critic is a believer, count them your brother or sister in Christ.
If you account [your opponent] a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake” [2 Samuel 18:5]. The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
“Dearer to me than the nearest friend.” How is that possible? It is possible in light of eternity, and it is possible because he is a brother for whom Christ also died (Romans 14:15).
Please read Newton’s words again (they cannot possibly be digested in one quick read). This paragraph is full of convicting wisdom. I have read it many, many times and I plan to return to it again, particularly when I am being criticized. This perspective will transform your attitude toward your critic.
3. Or, if your critic is not a believer, show them compassion as an unbeliever who needs Christ.
But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper subject of your compassion then of your anger.*
Newton’s three points are invaluable for the pastor:
- Pray for those who criticize you—this will soften your heart toward them.
- Know that your fiercest critic—if he is a Christian—will one day be closer to you than your closest friend is now.
- Have pity on your critics who appear to be yet unbelievers, for they need God’s converting grace above all else.
To be honest, I feel as if this 250-year old letter was written to me. The letter has personally guided and directed my heart in times of criticism and the temptations that soon follow.
If you expect personal criticism to be directed your way at some point in your life (and you should), keep Newton’s letter close. It will offer you a divine perspective on your critic, a perspective that can transform your perception of them, inform your prayers for them, and alter your attitude toward them.
* John Newton, The Works of John Newton (London: 1820), 1:268–269.