“Criticism and Humility”
Robert M. Thompson, Pastor
Corinth Reformed Church
150 Sixteenth Avenue NW
Hickory, North Carolina 28601
(© 2012 by Robert M. Thompson. Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright 2011 by New York International Bible Society.)
July 1, 2012
I have had a lot of people ask me this week how it went last Sunday. In case you didn’t know, we had a pulpit exchange with Morning Star First Baptist Church. Those of you who were here heard a very different style of preaching than you’re used to from my good friend, Rev. David Roberts. The source of your curiosity may have been the awareness that my preaching style would be very unusual for them.
Among the questions I’ve been asked is whether I let them out on time, since Rev. Roberts finished at noon here. One of the misconceptions about black churches is that their worship services are long because the sermons are long. That may be true in some congregations, but my experience is that the sermon length in a black church is about the same in most white churches – about 20-30 minutes. What takes longer is the unhurried worship experience – the music, the prayers, the announcements, the welcome. I began my sermon ten minutes after you all headed for the door.
As for the preaching itself, the congregation was very receptive. The deacons and ministers were very affirming. Rev. Dr. Webster Lytle, their Dr. Althouse who led the congregation for thirty years but is now wheelchair-bound after a stroke, managed to exclaim, “You can preach!” I felt your prayers and the energy of the congregation. The Holy Spirit took over in a surprising way. I never really felt nervous. My sermon was on “The Humble Church” – humble phrases that Christians think in church, like, “Yes, Sir” (to God) and “I’m here to serve.” Earlier Sunday morning, the Lord had given me the idea to get them to repeat these phrases after me at each point in the sermon outline. What surprised me in the moment as I was preaching was that each time I said each phrase, they would join me. For example, “Yes, Sir” was about being a prisoner of the Lord, the kind of person who listens to God speaking to your mind. I gave some examples, and each time I got to that phrase, they joined me in saying, “Yes, Sir.”
You hear God saying, “I need you to welcome that stranger over there into your midst.” “Yes, Sir.” “I want you to return to me at least 10% of what I have given you.” “Yes, Sir.” “I want you to give something extra this week so that child can go to camp.” “Yes, Sir.” “I want you to embrace the least of these and love the poor in my name.” “Yes, Sir.” I want you to forgive that brother who has offended you.” “Yes, Sir.”
Here’s one that wasn’t part of my sermon last Sunday. God says, “I want you to respond with humility to your critics.” You answer, “Yes, Sir.”
Every pastor, every leader deals with criticism. There are times when people tell me I did well. The overwhelming feedback is positive. Last Sunday was one of those. I love those times, I have to tell you. I’m human. You start thinking, “When can I get back there to those people who know how to stroke my ego?” They are not good for my humility.
My critics keep me humble. Just recently I’ve heard criticism that (1) my preaching isn’t centered enough on the Gospel, (2) I have not acted with proactive compassion toward my neighbor, and (3) I have no reached out with appropriate pastoral care to a family in need.
The point isn’t even whether the criticism is valid or constructive, or whether the hammer is padded with velvet. I learn the most and I grow the most through criticism. There are a number of people who are reading the early drafts of the chapters in my book on humility. I appreciate those who say, “This is great!” I learn humility from those who say, “I didn’t get your point” or “This is too complex.”
In Numbers 12, Moses models humility in criticism. I noted a few responses from this passage on how to handle criticism.
The criticism comes from a surprising source – Moses’ family. Or is it that surprising? Jesus’ family thought he was crazy (Mark 3:21) and second guessed his tactics because they didn’t believe in him (John 7:5). Miriam and Aaron are listed as co-complainants, but the instigator seems to be Miriam because (a) she’s listed first and (b) she’s the one who is later punished.
The text says “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses.” This interesting grammar seems to suggest that the criticism wasn’t just a single incident. It was more like a gossip that spread. Like almost every harmful attack, it probably started with a comment here or there that got a positive response, so its intensity and frequency grew.
The specific complaint is that Moses “had married a Cushite.” We can’t know for sure whether this is a reference to Zipporah, Moses’ first wife, or whether she had died and Moses had remarried. Some even suggest Moses had multiple wives. The point of the criticism, though, is that she was not only a foreigner, but a foreigner of African descent. Whether it was what we call racial prejudice or it was more a religious concern is hard to know. If it was the latter, the point was that just as Moses himself was giving God’s law that you should only marry an Israelite, he had married a Gentile.
We can’t figure all of that out. What we know is that Moses is being criticized, and the humble response to criticism is to listen. It’s not a matter of whether the complaint is justified or spoken kindly. At first, just listen.
As it turns out, the surface complaint was not the real concern. Verse 2 tells us that Miriam and Aaron are really challenging Moses’ leadership. The siblings ask, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” They were really jealous of Moses’ status.
I find that often a spoken criticism is not the real issue. A young engaged couple came to me this week for counseling because they had an argument over which church to attend. He likes this one; she likes the church she was raised in. I listened for a few minutes and then said, “This argument is not really about which church you will attend when you’re married.” They seemed surprised. “It isn’t?”
“No,” I answered. “It’s about having a place where the 4-year-old one of you is bringing into the marriage will have the best spiritual nurture. It’s about a sense of loyalty to those who have cared for you spiritually. It’s about leadership and submission – who’s going to make which decisions and whether one of you feels you are being controlled by the other. It’s about how you deal with conflict.” Once they realized some of the underlying issues they were better able to move forward.
I love the five words at the end of verse 2. “And the LORD heard this.” One of the criticisms I received recently had to do with these sermons on humility. Someone said when I preach on humility there’s too much horizontal humility and not enough vertical. I’m paraphrasing the criticism, but the basic point was that I teach people how to get along and don’t focus enough on God’s holiness, our sinfulness and Christ’s atonement. That kind of criticism is good; it is a gut check on why I do what I do.
Vertical humility is prior and foundational. I need to see myself as a finite, sinful creature. Whether I am on the giving or receiving end of criticism, I need to remember, “The Lord hears this.” That vertical humility will affect the horizontal.
You’ve also gotta love verse 3. Another name for the first five books of the Bible are the “books of Moses,” so many people believe Moses wrote most or all of what we read here. There probably had to be at least some editing by someone else, since Deuteronomy includes a record of Moses’ death. Of course, a lot of people also believe Moses wrote very little of what’s in these books.
Any way you look at those issues, verse 3 is intriguing, and is the reason this passage found its way into a sermon series on humility. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” That’s quite a statement, all the more if Moses himself wrote it.
It raises a couple of key questions for me. What does it mean to be “humble?” What does is it mean to be “more humble than anyone else”? And are you humble if you call yourself humble?
I don’t know that I can answer all those questions. Sermons, at least in my view, are not designed to help you understanding everything about the text. They should point you to God and his Word to help you through the struggle.
The word “humble” here is a little different than elsewhere in the Bible. This word is usually translated “miserable” or “afflicted” or “helpless.” In other words, it’s a condition, not an attitude. It’s vertical humility, not horizontal. Moses may be the leader of these people, but he sees himself as being needy. Maybe it’s because he has grown older and more feeble; after all, he’s about 80 years old by now. Maybe it’s because he has learned something of the fear of God by watching the plagues in Egypt and the miracles in the desert, and by 40 days on the mountain with God. Maybe he’s very aware of his own spiritual flaws, and this line is comparable to the Apostle Paul’s “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). But what I see is that Moses is more aware before God than anyone else of the gap between himself and God.
St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century renounced his worldly possessions, lived a simple life, and served in the leper colony. He also became the founder and leader of an order that still exists today – the Franciscans. During his lifetime he once made the statement that he considered himself the “chief of sinners.” A follower asked him how that could possibly be, since he had given up so much for Christ. Francis answered that he was aware more than anyone else of the gifts he had been given by God, and it was the gap between those gifts and his life that made him the chief of sinners.
I think Moses is saying something like that. When his sister and brother murmur privately and then attack publicly, they are essentially saying, “You don’t deserve this any more than we do.” Moses does a humility check and realizes, “You are right. The gap between who God is and who I am is wider than anyone on the face of the earth. I am the most miserable, the most helpless, the most afflicted. I know even more than you do what dwells in my heart, and it humbles me. That’s how I read verse 3.
Criticism should always prompt a humility check. Sometimes you won’t come up with the same answer Moses did. Sometimes you’ll find that you are not being humble at all.
Moses may think, “I’m more humble and spiritually needy than anyone,” but apparently he says nothing. He is silent. He lets God speak for him.
In verses 4-9, God calls Aaron and Miriam to join Moses at the Tent of Meeting, another name for the Tabernacle, a temporary sanctuary in the desert. With Moses silent, God rebukes Aaron and Miriam. He speaks of “my servant Moses” (7), with whom “I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles” (8). Moses has had the privilege to be in the presence of God, literally (8). God asks Moses’ siblings, “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (8) God gets angrier as he talks, and he leaves the tent (9), which means the cloud that represented God’s presence dissipated. As it did, Miriam’s skin turned white like leprosy (10). This is not necessarily Hansen’s Disease, but it is a skin disease that must have been frightening.
Moses never had to say a word in his own defense. God spoke up for him.
If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “I could be humble too if God would speak up for me once in a while when my critics attack me.”
That misses the point. The Bible never promises God will do it for you in the same way he does it for others. Over and over again in the Bible’s Honesty Handbook, the book of Psalms, the songwriter asks God to vindicate him. Sometimes it’s clear he wants it to happen in this life, but in Psalm 17:15 he’s content if the vindication happens after death: “I will be vindicated when I see your face.” I’m not saying it’s never right to defend yourself. I am saying that criticism is a great chance to demonstrate that your ultimate hope for defense is what God thinks, not your critics.
Aaron, who has been uncharacteristically silent through all this (remember, he was Moses’ spokesman before Pharaoh), speaks up when he sees Miriam’s leprosy. He says, “Please, Moses, he says, don’t hold this sin against us.” Verse 12 is pretty graphic. In the period before modern medicine could induce premature labor, a woman might carry a stillborn infant long enough for the baby to decay before it was expelled from the womb. “Don’t let her flesh rot with leprosy,” Aaron pleads.
Moses intercedes for Miriam in verse 13: “Oh God, please heal her!” Prayer is an act of humility. Pray for your enemies, as Jesus taught us to do in Matthew 5:44. Mother Teresa said, “Bless those who curse you…they might be right!”
Many of the psalms include a different kind of prayer for enemies. The writer prays a curse on his enemies. These psalms are often labeled “non-Christian.” What I notice is that, with one or two notable exceptions, the curse is not the end of the psalm. For example, in Psalm 139, the writer says, “Do I not hate those who hate you?....I count them my enemies.” Then he adds, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
There’s something about praying for my enemies that changes me. If I’m angry and my prayer is hateful, I think, “Did those terrible words just come out of my mouth? God, that’s not who I want to be! Search me, and change me.” God can handle your honesty, but he wants that honesty to transform you.
Here we see the humble Moses pleading with God, as he does on many occasions, to have mercy on his enemies.
This story ends well, with restoration of Miriam to the camp, and then the Israelites move on (v. 16). But first Miriam endures a mandatory one week exile from the camp. Let’s not forget that Miriam was the offender here.
Sin, even when forgiven, has consequences. Sometimes we forgive too quickly. I wish I could give you a magic formula to know how soon is too soon. I can’t. It’s case by case and requires waiting on the Lord, discernment, and often the counsel of others. If you forgive too quickly it’s too easy for the offender to go back to his ways. If you wait too long, you risk destroying his soul and yours through bitterness. Ask a pastor or godly counselor to help you work through the issues.
You want to move on. I want you to move on. But if you move on too fast, you’re moving backward, not forward. I’ve seen it happen, tragically, far too often. You want to move on when you are sure that moving on is what you’re doing.
Maybe it’s just my own self-centered focus that makes me think pastors deal with more criticism than most. Politicians probably are the most consistent targets. But it really doesn’t matter whether it’s a constant barrage or an occasional barb. Criticism hurts, and it should. If it doesn’t, you have encased yourself with an unhealthy armor.
The key is to let criticism do its proper work. Sometimes it just uncovers an elephant everyone had swept under the rug. I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but I used it on purpose. Sometimes we act exactly like that with issues no one wants to deal with. There’s an elephant in the room, so we cover him up with a rug and pretend he’s not there. Come on. At some point some harsh words in the form of criticism will erupt from someone. As painful as that is, it’s necessary.
Otherwise criticism’s proper work is to humble us. God graciously puts people into our lives to remind us we need his grace. The critic might be someone in the family, or it might be an enemy. The source is irrelevant. The blame game is unhelpful. It’s not “Lord, why did you let this happen to such a great person like me?” It’s “Lord, what do I need to learn from this?” That’s the humble response to criticism. Amen.