If you’re not being slandered, ridiculed, critiqued, or criticized, you’re probably not leading.
Good leaders are always judged positively by history. But in the moment, they’re simply judged. Consider, for instance, how Abraham Lincoln – one of America’s wisest and most courageous presidents – was evaluated by his contemporaries:
“[Lincoln] is universally an admitted failure, has no will, no courage, no executive capacity… and his spirit necessarily infuses itself downwards through all departments.” – Ohio Republican William M. Dickson, 1861
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” – a Pennsylvania newspaper reporting on Lincoln’s now-famous Gettysburg Address
[quoted in Mark Bowden, “Abraham Lincoln is an Idiot,” Atlantic, June 2013]
Likewise, Charles Spurgeon – one of modern history’s most revered Christian leaders – was well acquainted with slander:
“The more prominent you are in Christ’s service, the more certain are you to be the butt of calumny [slander]. I have long ago said farewell to my character. I lost it in the earlier days of my ministry by being a little more zealous than suited a slumbering age. And I have never been able to regain it except in the sight of him who judges all the earth, and in the hearts of those who love me for my work’s sake.”
If you’re a leader, you should expect to be criticized. And if you’re a Christian leader, you need the truths and promises of the gospel to help you deal with criticism in a godly way.
Ridicule tends to threaten two particular heart idols: approval and reputation. For leaders who struggle with approval idolatry (fear of man), criticism is threatening because someone doesn’t like them, someone doesn’t approve of their leadership, someone doesn’t accept them as a leader. Their fear often leads them to capitulate and make the wrong decision to placate opposition. On the other hand, for leaders who struggle with reputation idolatry, criticism is threatening because it challenges their status/reputation as a “good leader.” Their pride often leads them to entrench and become defensive and critical of their critics.
But the gospel is good news for leaders.
- The gospel means that God approves of me because I am in Christ. God’s love and acceptance of me can never be threatened due to Christ’s once-for-all finished work on the cross and the Holy Spirit’s application of that work to my heart by grace through faith. So when a hard leadership decision causes me to lose the approval of others, I can rest in the approval of God in Christ and rely on the Holy Spirit, who gives wisdom and enables me to stand firm without fear or capitulation.
- The gospel also means that my righteousness is in Christ. I am “right” by faith, not by my reputation. So when a hard leadership decision causes me to lose respect or to be seen as “wrong,” I can rest in Christ’s righteousness and depend on the Holy Spirit, who enables me love my critics, learn from their critiques, and forgive their harsh responses.
- Furthermore, the gospel is the good news that God’s kingdom has come and is coming (already-not yet). So I can “seek first His kingdom” and take a long-term view of leadership. When I make a wrong decision, I can acknowledge my fault and rest in God’s grace. When I make a right but unpopular decision, I can rest in the confidence that I’m not living for the praise of man today, but for the glory of God tomorrow. And when I make a right decision that’s praised and lauded, I can defer glory to God, knowing it’s His grace that’s bearing fruit in my leadership.
If you’re a leader, ridicule is coming. And you need the good news of the gospel to help you thrive and stand up under it.