What story will be told ten years from today?
Early this morning I read a long document from seven years ago journaling the turmoil of God’s disruptive will in my life. At the time, I was recovering from cancer, and God was plowing up my heart and calling me into a blurry, fearful future. That three-page document details deep personal fears, weakness, and paralysis. It also details God’s direction and instruction.
Do you know what I see from this vantage point, years later?
I see lies that Satan was telling me. I see the danger I was in of potentially disobeying God and missing His best. I see how irrational my fear and hesitation really were, and how patient God was.
I see a Lordship struggle, and I remember Jesus asking me over and over, “Who is your Lord?”
From here, it’s all so clear. That once paralyzing fog is long gone. (Not to say there haven’t been foggy seasons since.) God has been extravagantly faithful. He has gone before us and made crooked places straight. He has proven Himself real, reliable, and loving.
He will do the same for you.
What Does All of This Have to Do with (un)Friendly Fire?
By “(un)friendly fire,” I’m referring to hurt or scorn from other Christians with no basis in biblical principle. In fact, it goes against biblical instruction. Whenever you follow Jesus, this scorn will follow in the form of dismissive, under-the-breath, “set at nought” statements (Romans 14:10) that seem to backhand you. These slights can be such a distraction and discouragement. Multiple times a week I converse with pastors or leaders facing (un)friendly fire.
I think it’s important to say I’ve been that critic. Regretfully, there have been moments when I misjudged, held an arrogant view or uninformed opinion, or simply parroted what someone else said about one of God’s good laborers. I’m grateful for the grace displayed when those I criticized actually responded mercifully with forgiveness.
To the pastor under fire—If you are following Jesus, someone is going to criticize you. Rather than understand or cheer, they will spin your obedience in some negative way and dismiss it. Someone is going to hurt you or cast you off. To use the Bible word, someone will despise you. Someone will warn a friend about you, whisper a half-truth, hijack the narrative of your ministry, and work it to their own benefit.
I’ve written a lot about criticism. It’s often helpful when rooted in biblical wisdom coming from multiple, loving, objective, godly, and close-knit relationships in your life. What I’m speaking about here is something else. (un)Friendly fire is from strangers, or so-called “friends,” who have unreasonably cast you aside. It is rooted in expedience and opinions and goes flatly against God’s word.
Do you know what this is, in reality? If you boil it down to its essence…
It’s a Lordship test.
Who do you most care to please? Who do you most fear? Who do you follow? Who will be granted the authority to direct your life, your ministry, your leadership?
The greatest control freak in your life is you. Self is your biggest battle. Jesus will wrestle control of your life and ministry out of your own hands first. (He does this with me every week.) But secondly, He will pry you and your ministry from the hands of others. The next greatest control threat of your life/ministry is other men. Fear of the rejection or passive-aggressive slander will hold you hostage from following Jesus. In one sense it’s a providential test—to whom will you bow? Who do you most fear?
Isolation Is Not the Answer; Real Friendships Are Possible.
An older pastor-friend of mine was a close friend of Lester Roloff’s. Six years ago, he shared what he called “the greatest advice Lester Roloff ever gave”: “Don’t ever let your ministry be held hostage by the opinions of other men.” That man urged me to follow Jesus, regardless of what it cost relationally or ministerially. Isn’t it strange that part of the cost of following Jesus is that other Christians will “cast you off.” That surprised me.
Now, I’m sure Lester Roloff was not implying that one should not have godly counselors or mentors. I’m sure he wasn’t denigrating biblical accountability or loving criticism. No wise leader allows himself to become isolated from godly counselors and mentors.
One of the great dangers of (un)friendly fire is that it makes you want to hide or quit. You will want to close up and retreat in shell-shocked fear of being hurt. Isolation is not the answer. It prevents healthy friendships and removes quality mentoring from your life. Every leader needs biblical, objective, non-self-serving friends and mentors who bring no private agenda into the relationship. Though He often leads us through barren seasons of “aloneness,” in time, God will bring these friends to you. These relationships are rare indeed!
I know many leaders that have been hurt or smacked down so many times, they just don’t want to take the risk of relationships with other leaders. I’ve attended pastor’s gatherings where some were afraid to speak transparently for fear of criticism or castigation. If they dare, every thought is couched in “disclaimers” for fear of ridicule. This has led some to believe that ministry makes authentic friendships impossible. What a sad, crippling lie.
When I transitioned to a secular, spiritually dark region to replant a dying church, I was naive to think that the opposition would be Satan and secularists. Actually, other Christians have proven to be the more unkind opposition. (To quantify—it’s not many. It’s a small number, but they are noisy and relentless.) I have been disappointed by the (un)friendly fire.
But I have not been disappointed by Jesus.
Why Write You This Letter?
First, I know how you feel. This stuff stings. It saddens the heart. It’s disillusioning. It can make you question your call, want to quit, or feel disoriented on the journey. (“…There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24)
Second, it’s a trap. It’s like sludge or quicksand on an otherwise great road. Satan wants you to get “stuck” in what others think or say so you lose the delightful joy of what God is doing around you! He wants it to get into your head. (“…Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” James 4:7)
Third, it’s an illusion. You are not alone. There are many who are cheering you on! You are not dismissed, discounted, or devalued to Jesus or His work. You are not “rejected” by your Lord. You are not who others say you are; you are who Jesus declares you to be. He knows the truth, and that is enough. (“…For he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Hebrews 13:5)
Fourth, it’s a distraction. The only real power your detractors have is the power you give to them. You don’t answer to them. They don’t stand in judgment over you. You will never bow before them. They have no authority. You have a Lord, a judge, a provider, and an authority—and your accountability to Him is real and weighty. Understanding Jesus’ loving authority in your life is both liberating and sobering, for it’s wonderful to follow Jesus, but it’s weighty to know that you answer ultimately to Him. (“And the LORD, he it is that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.” Deuteronomy 31:8)
Fifth, it’s not real. Distant opinions are deceptively meaningless. Do you know what’s real? The hurting family you love today. The lost soul to whom you give the gospel to today. The guest that will trust Jesus this Sunday. The gospel opportunity to which God has called you this moment is real. (“The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD shall be safe.” Proverbs 29:25)
Sixth, it will keep you from real relationships and real victories. The temptation to go underground is real. It seems easier. After all, who needs the risk? Who wants to constantly be pulling (un)friendly arrows out of their back? However, if the hurt silences you, what happens to those you would have loved or encouraged? What happens to the real friends, counselors, and mentors that God would have brought into your life? What happens to the victories Jesus had in mind when He said, “Follow me”? Don’t let bad actors keep you from experiencing true and edifying ministry relationships.
Advice from Your Future Self
All of my life I’ve been taught to trust and follow Jesus as Lord. It was strange to find out that actually doing that doesn’t make all Christians happy.
How I wish I could drop backward in time to speak to my younger self. I would say, “God has you—every detail of your life is in His hands. Trust Him; follow Him! Don’t fear men!”
So, I ask you again, “What story will be told ten years from today?”
What would your future self say to you? What beauty is God weaving in your life? What adventure is He taking you on that will work together for ultimate and eternal good?
Don’t miss it because you are focused on ducking or escaping (un)friendly fire.
The fog of this moment will lift. God will lead you forward and accomplish His purpose. Refuse to get caught in the political sludge. Refuse to be discouraged by hurtful Christians. Greater is He that is in you! (1 John 4:4)
Advice from Saul When Others Don’t “Get You”
It’s comforting to see that God uses (un)friendly fire to work His purposes. In Acts, Saul was a misfit in Jerusalem. James wasn’t. Somehow James managed to pastor a Christian church filled with Jewish people and navigate the cultural mix of Christian theology and Jewish tradition.
Saul was another story. Jerusalem could only take two weeks of him. They sent him away, ultimately back to Tarsus. He was traditionally Jewish, but culturally called to Gentiles. The Jews struggled to wrap their minds around this, and hence rejected him. The tension continued, on some level, for the duration of his ministry. His name change even speaks to it, as does his lifetime draw to mentor younger men outside of Israel. It’s not that Saul despised his Jewish traditions. It’s that God called him to a different culture and different relationships with the same message.
Barnabas was unusually gifted to relationally traverse both worlds—Jewish and Gentile. Though others rejected Saul, he kept reaching back out to help Saul find a place among Christians.
Amazingly, when the Jewish Christians were facing hard times (famine) it was the Gentile Christians (who they spurned) who actually received an offering for the Jews. Ironically, it was Saul (who they spurned, criticized, and sent away) and Barnabas who took the gift to Jerusalem as a ministry of grace. Wow! What a lesson on how to respond to (un)friendly fire.
The point is, being “unwanted” is not always a bad thing in God’s economy. Saul being unwanted in Jerusalem is the tension that that thrust him into the Gentile world with the gospel. John Mark being unwanted by Paul is the tension that thrust him down a road that eventually resulted in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has a way of blessing your obedience and fulfilling your joy, regardless of the fact that others have spurned you. He is especially honored when you bless those who curse you.
A graceless response merely justifies your critics. A grace response gives them the same space and time to grow that Jesus has given you.
Take Heart, Pastor “Under-Fire”
You are not alone, and this is nothing new. Surround yourself with loving friends and mentors who can speak biblical care into your life. Ask God to send you those people. At the same time, confidently refuse to engage slander that is merely born of envy or expedience.
Don’t scorn your scorners. But don’t feel badly for following Jesus away from them either.
Even more importantly, refuse to become the scorner of other believers. Don’t let your heart or your social media stream become vindictive. Love believes all things, hopes all things. Pray for the best blessings upon the heads of those who hurt you.
Ten years from now, you will not remember today’s (un)friendly fire. It will have been crushed by the fruitfulness and joy of following Jesus as your Lord.
Let Jesus win the Lordship struggle. No one else is worthy; and your future self, and those you loved, will someday thank you.
“I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron: And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.” Isaiah 45:2–3