by Dr. James Merritt
One of the most difficult aspects of pastoring is the fact that you will never get rid of critics. Regardless of where you pastor, who you pastor, or how long you pastor, criticism is inevitable. The temptation will always be to react to critics instead of responding to critics when necessary. As a pastor and leader, you must become skilled in handling critics, so that they don’t end up handling you. Indeed, over every criticism should be this label: Handle with care.
Moses is one leader who can teach us a lot about dealing with critics. Called by God to deliver the Children of Israel out of Egypt, he had to endure criticism from the very people God had called him to lead. His harshest critics, much like many of ours, were the people who should have been his biggest supporters. Exodus 15:22-27 records Moses’ account of dealing with critics and serves as a model for all pastors and leaders dealing with critics today.
Three days after Moses miraculously led his people across the Red Sea, the storm clouds of criticism began to gather. The Israelites found themselves in the wilderness of Shur and wandered three days, looking for water. When they finally reached the oasis known as “Marah”– just when the people thought they would die of thirst– they found that the water was bitter and undrinkable. The Israelites immediately became upset with Moses and asked, “What are we supposed to drink?” They should have remembered that every difficulty is an opportunity to see the hand of God move; instead, they complained.
As leaders, we will experience difficult situations where God must show up or life’s circumstances will be bitter. Such times will reveal what you and your followers are made of. Up until Marah, the Israelites had been eating the fat of the land and drinking sweet water. There was a time when God fed them Manna, parted the Red Sea, and destroyed the Egyptian armies. God had handed them everything on a silver platter and they had eaten it with a silver spoon. But now the people were literally experiencing a bitter situation and suddenly they went from gratitude to grumbling. They had forgotten that God specializes in dealing with difficulty.
Perceived bitter moments will certainly bring out the harshest of critics. As a pastor and leader, you should not be surprised when bitter situations arise and the critics come out in full force. Bitter moments are part of the experience of leadership, and we must face the reality that they will arise. Jesus said in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” The brutal truth for leaders is that you will face bitter moments. . . and you will encounter critics during these times. Never mistake the bitter moments or the criticism you experience as proof that God has forsaken you. Bitter moments are opportunities for you to further place your trust in God and depend on His guidance to handle the critics. God is using every trouble to test your focus and your faithfulness.
Bitter moments are part of the experience of leadership, and we must face the reality that they will arise.
When bitter moments arise and the critics show up, one of two things is going to happen. You will either get better as a leader and trust in God or you will become as bitter as the critics. God will test you and those you lead to see if you are truly ready for all that He has promised you. The people who were with Moses had failed the test miserably, but Moses rose to the occasion and proved his ability to lead.
The Israelites were guilty of two things – fickle criticism and faithfulness cynicism. Notice that they harshly criticized Moses. In just three days he had gone from being a hero (for leading them across the Red Sea) to a zero (for leading them to bitter water). I have served as a pastor for quite some time now and I have learned that no matter the successes you have experienced, your critics will suddenly develop amnesia and forget those successes totally whenever they perceive failure on your part. All they will see is what they think you have done wrong.
I remember when I went to my second little country church while I was in the seminary. Some of the people came up to the seminary with their pickup trucks and helped load our furniture and moved my wife and me down to our new church home. One of the deacons came up to me that very first Sunday and said, “Pastor, I didn’t come to help you move in, but you can make sure that I will be there to help you move out.” There are people like that in every church. That is why it is so important that we all remember one thing. We’re not put on earth to please people; we’re put on earth to please God. If they criticized Jesus, they’re going to criticize you and me.
Never internalize criticism, because criticism of a leader is often criticism of the Lord. Moses had led the people to Marah, but God had led Moses. That’s why Moses said in chapter 16, verse 8, “Your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord.” Whenever people complain about their circumstances, they are really complaining about the Lord who led them into those circumstances. The real problem plaguing these people was not drought, it was doubt. The real threat was not a lack of water; it was a lack of faith.
Moses shows us how to respond to critics. Verse 25 says, “So he cried out to the Lord.” The first thing Moses did was to pray. Great leaders understand that responding to critics is a fruitless venture, but praying to God brings about the answers you need. Every Pastor and leader should keep a sign over the door of his heart that reads, In case of an emergency—pray! Too often prayer is our last resort, rather than our first option. It was not until Moses prayed about the problem that God showed him the solution. You will discover in life that many times the only place you will ever be able to find a solution to a problem or a comfort for a hurt is on your knees behind closed doors.
After Moses prayed at Marah, God showed him exactly what to do in order to solve that bitter situation. Verse 25 says that the Lord showed Moses a tree, and he threw it into the water. After he did, the water became sweet. The tree was there all the time, but Moses didn’t know its significance until he called upon the Lord. It wasn’t that the tree was hidden; Moses just had to put his focus on the Lord. Moses’ greatness is seen in his ability to seek God and see God’s plan even when the critics raised their voices.
It is interesting to note that after Moses prayed, we no longer hear anything from the critics during their stay at Mara. Had the Israelites stopped complaining? Had the critics all gone home? Absolutely not. But when leaders focus on God’s voice, the critics’ voices fade into the background and their complaints become ineffective. The truth is that you will never silence your critics, but you can certainly discount their voices and disconnect from their influence when you focus on God.
Moses not only acknowledged the solution God showed him, but he followed through with obedience. God’s said to throw the tree into the water. It required a great amount of faith for Moses to do this, since the solution was not rational or scientific. Yet Moses was willing to obey and, as a result, he solved the bitter situation. There will be times when God clearly shows you what to do in order to solve some bitter situation. Others may not understand the solution, but if God said it – do it in faith!
In my years as a pastor, I have experienced critical people in countless bitter situations. Many times, God’s solution went against conventional wisdom, but I learned to trust and obey in these circumstances. Have I gotten it right one hundred percent of the time? Absolutely not, but when I trust God, in faith, He rewards my faithfulness and fulfills His word. Never let the critics become water on the fire of your faith. Rather, let God use them to become fuel for your faith. For them it is “drought and doubt,” but for you it is “trust or bust!”
James Merritt is the Lead Pastor of Cross Pointe Church. He was born and raised in Oakwood, Georgia and surrendered his life to Christ as a 9-year-old boy. At age 21, he committed to full-time Christian ministry, and went on to pastor five churches. He has preached around the world to hundreds of thousands of people through television and radio.
A popular Bible teacher and respected voice of the Christian faith, James has been interviewed by media outlets including 60 Minutes, The New York Times, ABC World News Tonight, Time Magazine, and Hannity and Colmes. Each week, Merritt’s messages are broadcast in all 50 states and 122 countries around the world through Touching Lives, a television and media ministry.
Dr. Merritt has published several books including How to Impact and Influence Anybody, God, I’ve Got a Question, Still Standing, What God Wants Every Dad to Know and 52 Weeks with Jesus with Harvest House publishers. His heart for pastors has also resulted in PastorsEdge.com, a ministry resource, and Impact1 Men’s Conferences.