April 12, 2006

Coping with Critics

Coping with Critics

it’s time, once again, to celebrate Presidents' Day--that great American holiday where we skip work and loaf around the house watching TV know-it-alls criticize the President. But carping on the Commander-in-Chief is nothing new.Abraham Lincoln, one of the Presidents we celebrate every third Monday of February, was skewered in his day by a noisy nation of critics.

Historian Stephen Oates, in his Lincoln biography titled With Malice Toward None, describes the dark day in American history when Lincoln learned that General Burnside of the Union army failed to penetrate the Confederate lines.He writes,

For days after the battle, Lincoln struggled with a severe depression.If there was a man out of perdition who suffered more than he, Lincoln pitied him.How gladly would he change places with the soldier who’d died out there with the army.And the country!What a fusillade of criticism he was getting now, as both friends and foes blamed Fredericksburg on him and his “weak and timorous” Cabinet.We have “a cowardly imbecile at the head of the Government,” a Cincinnati editor wrote Sumner.“Old Abe will do nothing decent till driven to it by a force which would save all the devils in hell.”“I am heartsick,” cried Fessenden of Maine, “when I think of the mismanagement of our army….The simple truth is, there never was such a shambling, half and half set of incapables collected in one government before or since the world began.”“Disgust with our present government is certainly universal,” observed another man.“Even Lincoln himself has gone down at last.Nobody believes in him any more.”1

For most of his life in public service, Lincoln lived under an unrelenting firestorm of criticism. From his story we can learn how to deal with critical people.

Got any critics in your life?Maybe you could never measure up to the expectations of your dad.Perhaps you live under the critical eye of a spouse.Maybe it’s a roommate who keeps condemning you.How do you cope with criticism?

Shimei: Critic of King David (2 Samuel 16:5-14)
Paralleling the story of Abraham Lincoln is a story in the Bible of another leader, King David.Consider the story in 2 Samuel 16:

As King David approached Bahurim, a man from the same clan as Saul's family came out from there. His name was Shimei son of Gera, and he cursed as he came out.  He pelted David and all the king's officials with stones, though all the troops and the special guard were on David's right and left (verses 5, 6).

Notice that David was surrounded by Secret Security; he was in the middle of an army.In other words, one snap of his fingers and David could have this clod-chucking madman taken out.But David doesn’t do that.

As he cursed, Shimei said, "Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel!  The LORD has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The LORD has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!" (verses 7, 8).

1505 haffnerAt this time, Absalom was sexually abusing his father’s concubines on the roof of the palace for the public to watch.David is running scared.Meanwhile, Shimei claims that Absalom deserves the kingdom more than David.Then we find Joab’s brother, Abishai, begging permission to knock off Shimei.

Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, "Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head." 

But the king said, "What do you and I have in common, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the LORD said to him, 'Curse David,' who can ask, 'Why do you do this?'" 

 David then said to Abishai and all his officials, "My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the LORD has told him to (verses 9-11).

David suggests that it might be the voice of God speaking through this madman.Listen to David:

 It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today."

So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted. And there he refreshed himself (verses 12-14).

Shimei is hoping that sticks and stones will break David’s bones and his words will also hurt him.But David doesn’t crumple.Instead, he models a textbook response on how to cope with critics.Notice the three principles that flow out of this story.

How to Cope with Critics
1. Listen. First, David listens to his critic.He could have had Shimei removed, but instead he listened to what this man throwing dirt clods at him had to say.

Abraham Lincoln used the same approach with those who were critical of him.In 1846 Lincoln ran for Congress against a formidable opponent: a raw-boned, circuit-riding Methodist preacher named Peter Cartwright.During his sixty-five years of riding the circuit, Cartwright baptized nearly ten thousand converts.

During the intense 1846 Congressional campaign, some of Cartwright's followers accused Lincoln of being an "infidel."In response, Lincoln decided to meet Cartwright on his own ground and attend one of his evangelistic rallies.

At the evangelistic meeting that night, Cartwright made this appeal: “All who desire to lead a new life, to give their hearts to God, and go to heaven, will stand.” A sprinkling of men, women, and children stood up.Then the preacher exhorted, “All who do not wish to go to hell will stand.”All stood up--except Lincoln. Cartwright replied, "I observe that many responded to the first invitation to give their hearts to God and go to heaven.And I further observe that all of you save one indicated that you did not desire to go to hell.The sole exception is Mr. Lincoln, who did not respond to either invitation.May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where are you going?”

Lincoln rose.He spoke slowly and deliberately.“I came here as a respectful listener.I did not know that I was to be singled out by Brother Cartwright.I believe in treating religious matters with due solemnity.I admit that the questions propounded by Brother Cartwright are of great importance.I did not feel called upon to answer as the rest did. Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going.I desire to reply with equal directness: I am going to Congress.”

Lincoln came as a “respectful listener;” he left … and went to congress!2

When criticism comes, be a respectful listener. Listen to what your critic has to say before you respond.

2. Learn. Next, it’s important to learn what you can from your critic.David believed that Shimei had something to teach him.

Abraham Lincoln was a master at learning from his critics.One of his most vocal and mean-spirited critics was Edwin M. Stanton of Pittsburgh.In 1855 Lincoln was involved in the celebrated McCormick Reaper case tried in Cincinnati, where Lincoln was supposed to serve as co-counsel with Stanton.As it turned out, Stanton snubbed Lincoln, referring to him as a “giraffe” and a “hick” and “the creature from Illinois.”Stanton refused to dine with Lincoln or to consult the extensive brief he had prepared.

Stephen Oates writes: “Though he’d never been so mortified in his life, Lincoln remained in the courtroom as an observer and learned a great deal from the eminent Eastern attorney who conducted the case.”3

Not only did Lincoln learn from Stanton in that case, years later when he became President, Lincoln appointed Stanton to one of the most powerful positions in government--Secretary of War.

Stanton was confident he could do the job.But he was…astonished that Lincoln had appointed him Secretary of War.After all, Stanton had humiliated Lincoln back in the McCormick Reaper case.And in Washington this past year, Stanton had so vilified this ‘imbecilic’ President, this ‘original gorilla,’ that [everyone] winced at his language.But Lincoln made it clear that he bore Stanton no ill will.If the McCormick Reaper episode had been one of the most humiliating episodes of his life, Lincoln had put that aside now.He never carried a grudge, he said later, because it didn’t pay.Stanton had exceptional skill and that alone was why Lincoln had promoted him.4

3. Leave judgment to God. David demonstrates great spiritual maturity when he declares “It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today” (2 Samuel 16:14). In other words, he is content to leave the judgment of Shimei up to God.

Abraham Lincoln traveled the same high road his critics. He was not one to judge others.In fact, many people criticized Lincoln because he was not willing to judge others.

During the Civil War, critics kept circulating reports of Ulysses Grant’s drunken sprees.He was the only Union general who was scoring decisive victories, and yet many thought that he should be fired because of his drinking.They maligned Lincoln for not acting in judgment against Grant.Historians point out that there is no conclusive evidence that Grant was the chronic drunk his foes made him out to be.Still, a delegation of politicians marched into the White House and demanded that Lincoln fire Grant.

As the story goes (although some historians claim it is exaggerated), Lincoln replied that if they could find out Grant’s brand of whiskey, he would “send every general in the field a barrel of it.”Whatever Grant was drinking seemed to work on the battle field.Lincoln refused to condemn the general.He trusted God to judge.

Abraham Lincoln’s response to his critics has stood the test of time. The influential London Times was one of Lincoln's fiercest European critics during the Civil War.After he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, he was condemned by the paper as “a sort of moral American pope,” destined to be “Lincoln the Last.”Lincoln did not bother to defend himself to the author at the newspaper.But three years later, after Lincoln's assassination, the paper realized his greatness, eulogizing, “Abraham Lincoln was as little a tyrant as any man who ever lived.He could have been a tyrant if he pleased, but he never uttered so much as an ill-natured speech.”5

Remember that the next time you’re criticized.Listen to your critics.Learn what you can.And leave the judgment to God.

Oh … and have a happy President’s Day.

1Reference: Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper Books, 1994) p. 327.
2 "The Untold Story of Christianity & The Civil War," Christian History, no. 33, as quoted from http://preachingtoday.com/illustrations/article_print.html?id=22419.
3 Stephen B. Oates, p. 103.
4 Stephen B. Oates, p. 278.
Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today; source: Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy, The American Pageant, ninth edition as quoted from www.preachingtoday.com.

Karl Haffner is pastor of the Walla Walla College Church of Seventh-day Adventists in College Place, Washington.