the shape of leadership

Overlooking an Offense

Know when to shake off criticism...and how

Warren D Bullock on January 27, 2016

An earnest young man made an appointment to see me. We had never met, and I was anxious to know who he was and why he wanted to talk to me. I learned that he had visited our church the previous Sunday for the first time. Even with that limited experience, when he came to my office he began to lambaste every aspect of the worship service—from the welcome, to the music, to the message.

I let him jabber on while I formed a sharp rebuttal in mind. This young fellow needed to be put in his place. Who was he to speak ill of our church? We had a healthy, growing congregation. What right did he have to criticize my preaching? I had been doing public speaking longer than this whippersnapper had been alive. How could he sit in judgment on us when he’d only attended one service? My anger was reaching a boiling point. I was confident that I had come to the kingdom for such a time as this. I could hardly wait for him to finish his critical diatribe so I could let him have it—all in Christian love, of course!

But the Holy Spirit had other ideas. As I sat there listening, stewing, and preparing my rebuttal, the Spirit gently reminded me of Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle (soft, KJV) answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” As that verse filtered through my mind and spirit I knew that I couldn’t respond as I had planned. The bottled-up anger quickly dissipated. Instead, I said words to this effect: “You’re probably right! We certainly can do things better than we’re doing them now. I’m sure our greeters and ushers can be more accommodating. Our music’s not perfect, and I can always improve in my speaking abilities. Thanks for bringing that to our attention.”

Overlooking an offense may be a  good response, or it may not be, depending on what the criticism is about and who offers it.

His reaction was quite remarkable, very much in keeping with the promise of the proverb. My soft response totally deflated and defused him. His animosity drained away. He didn’t know what to say next. He’d been hoping for an argument but instead got a gentle answer. The end result was a nice conversation that turned to his spiritual needs instead of the church’s deficiencies. Unfortunately, I never saw him again.

As I thought about it later, I recognized that my encounter with this young man provided a great lesson in how to overlook an offense. I also had to acknowledge that in similar situations I had not been as restrained or wise.

Overlooking an offense isn’t always the best response. It depends on both the criticism and the critic. Since the young man’s criticism was about rather minor issues, it didn’t warrant a stiff defense. And since he had no standing or reputation in our church, his unkind comments could be taken as inconsequential.

However, if the criticism had targeted my integrity, it would probably have required a rebuttal. Or if the criticism had come from a respected colleague, it necessarily would have been taken more seriously. So overlooking an offense may be a good response, or it may not be, depending on what the criticism is about and who offers it.

The term translated overlook means to go or pass over. These words conjure up an image in my mind of a car going or passing over a chuckhole in the road. You certainly know there is a chuckhole and that you hit it, but you just keep going. You don’t stop to examine the hole, or even repair the hole. You keep moving. The chuckhole may have some importance in the journey, but it’s more important that you get to your destination. Criticism is like that. Sometimes you have to pass over it to get where the Lord wants you to go.

The devotional The Word for You Today uses a different illustration: “Have you ever watched water run off a duck’s back? That’s how you should treat unkind comments.” Shake criticism off. Every criticism doesn’t need a response; it may need to be overlooked. But I need to wave some flags of caution.

Don’t Become Calloused
Callouses don’t appear overnight. If I work in the yard (which I try to avoid doing), and I consistently use a shovel, a hoe, or push a lawn mower, my hands begin to develop callouses. They grow on the parts of my hands that get the most pressure. To begin with they can be quite sore, but over time they harden. If I stop my landscaping activity, the callouses soften and eventually disappear.

After lengthy periods of persistent criticism, callouses can develop on our hearts. We can become desensitized to even our mildest critics. Over time we can become hardened and unfeeling. This callousness should never be classified as overlooking an offense. Rather it reveals a heart that is unfeeling, numb, and untouched by words, good or bad.

Hardness of heart in one area of our lives affects all the other areas. We may have steeled ourselves against the snarls of our critics, but in so doing we may become hardened, not only to the words people say, but to the people themselves. Those for whom we should have compassion, we reject because of what they say.

Overlooking the offender is not the same as overlooking the offense. Having hardened our hearts against innuendo and verbal shots, we nevertheless cannot cut the people off who desperately need our love and ministry. Callousness about the criticism can develop into callousness toward the one who criticizes, and thus limits, if not destroys, any potential we may have to effectively minister to that person.

My Dad used to tell me, “A leader must have the hide of a rhinoceros, but maintain the heart of a child.” I’m sure he never thought I would remember his words, but they have stuck with me because they are true. My defense against criticism can’t grow into a callousness that impacts my life, my ministry, and my relationships with people. 

Don’t Be Touchy
Some who never become calloused face the opposite dilemma. They are hypersensitive. They take personally even the smallest criticism.

In World War II one of the oft-used weapons was mines. Aircraft placed the mines in the sea routes and harbors of the enemy with the goal of destroying their ships and boats. When an enemy ship hit a mine its explosive power blew a hole in the hull of the ship. There were various types of mines, one of which was the Daisy-chained mine. It was comprised of two moored, floating contact mines tethered together by a length of steel cable or chain. Each mine was situated approximately sixty feet away from its neighbor, and each floated several feet below the surface of the ocean. When the target ship hit the steel cable, the mines on either side were drawn down the side of the ship’s hull and exploded on contact. It was almost impossible for the target ship to pass safely between the two individually moored mines.

When I read about the Daisy-chained mines, this thought popped into my mind: “That reminds me of some people I know.” A direct hit is not required for them to explode. If you just touch their “cable,” the dark side of their personality manifests itself. Sometimes it’s a part of their personality you didn’t know existed.

We don’t want to be the kind of leader who easily takes offense, someone people have to tiptoe around.

Minor criticisms, even direct suggestions, can set them off. They go through life with their elbows out waiting for someone to bump into them. Their temper has a quick trigger, and their feelings get hurt easily. But you can't be an effective leader if you are hypersensitive.

When our kids were growing up and reached the dating age, we would often advise them, “Don’t marry someone you have to walk on eggs around—where you have to wonder what kind of mood they’re going to be in when they wake up in the morning. Marry someone who is even-tempered and lives on an even keel.” To their credit, they took our advice.

We don’t want to be the kind of leader who easily takes offense, someone people have to tiptoe around. When you are quick to be offended, it’s extremely hard to overlook that offense.

Don’t Repeat the Criticism
“He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Prov. 17:9).

When we rehearse the criticism in our minds or repeat it to other people, it means we haven’t overlooked it. We haven’t gotten past it. It’s still doing its negative work in our spirit. We haven’t passed over the chuckhole, but we’re stuck in it.

Repeating the criticism embeds it like a barb in the mind and spirit. Like a fisherman setting the hook in a fish’s mouth, repetition snags and hangs on to the criticism. The more we repeat it, either to ourselves or to others, the bigger it becomes to us. What started out as a small issue mushrooms into a major challenge.

If we go over and over it in our minds, we begin trying to find hidden meanings in the criticism. We think, What did they mean by that? What motivated it? What was left unsaid that they probably wanted to say? What else are they unhappy about? The imagination can concoct all sorts of scenarios, most of which have no roots in reality. Fresh interpretations distort what was said. Motives are impugned. Relationships are severed.

Stop the repetition!

Ask the Holy Spirit to expunge the criticism from your mind. Resist the temptation to tell somebody about it. Discipline your thinking so that it ceases to be at the forefront of your thought-life. Get out of the chuckhole and move on. Pass over the offense. 

Bury the Criticism in Love
Have you ever noticed how parents and grandparents tend to overlook the shenanigans of their kids, especially young kids? Their impish antics provide amusement for the family, and consternation for those outside the family. Onlookers shake their heads in wonderment at what some parents let their kids get away with. These little hellions can terrorize the neighbor kids but their parents classify it as “cute.” Or they’ll say, “He’s just like his dad!”

Outsiders wouldn’t put up with the kids’ misbehavior, and perhaps the parents shouldn’t either. But the big difference between the outsiders and the parents is—the parents love their children more than the outsiders do. Love softens the edges of hardcore conduct. Certainly love sometimes prompts discipline, but it also makes allowances because of relationship.

I don’t recall the source of the story, but years ago I read about two fathers. One of them had a son who was incorrigible. He was always in trouble. One issue would get settled and he would soon be embroiled in another. Numerous times he was an unwelcome guest at the local jail. But his father always came to his rescue, and helped him when he could.

As the two fathers talked about this wayward boy, the one father said to the other, “If that were my boy, I’d just give up on him.” To which the second father said, “Well, if that were your boy, I’d give up on him too. But he’s my boy, and I’ll never give up on him or stop loving him.”

The apostle Peter reminds us of that kind of tenacious love: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Perhaps Peter was thinking about Proverbs 10:12: “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.” Proverbs 17:9 says much the same thing. “He who covers over an offense promotes love.” These verses reveal a direct link between covering over an offense, even criticism, because of love.

The context of Peter’s exhortation is important for us to note. He begins the paragraph with the overarching truth, “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7). That puts the offenses we may receive in proper perspective. Much criticism can be overlooked because life’s too short to carry offenses around.

Then Peter talks about—

  • Being clear minded and self-controlled, and how that attitude helps your prayer life
  • Gifts of the Spirit that have come to us through grace
  • Hospitality to one another
  • Speaking the words of God
  • Serving in God’s strength

But in the middle of all these wonderful truths, he says, “Above all . . .” More than any of these other important matters, before doing anything else, “love each other deeply.” Why? “Because love covers over a multitude of sins” (v. 8). That’s why we can overlook the offense of criticism. We love the critic so much.

Remember, we aren’t saying that every criticism should be overlooked and passed over. Some criticisms require a different response. But isn’t it also true that we sometimes harbor criticism that could easily be overlooked because we don’t love the critic as we should? Then it’s time for us to have a spiritual EKG, because we may need a transfusion of divine love. That kind of love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5).

I’ve done enough marital counseling to know that some husbands and wives have exceedingly long memories. A recent clash, upheaval, or argument triggers memories of what happened years ago. So one or the other will bolster their side of the story by dredging up old hurts, ancient offenses, and criticisms so old that they ought to be on The Antiques Roadshow! The couple may not be able to remember their spouse’s birthday, but they can recall some flare-up they had twenty years ago. Counseling is a good place for them to be, but it offers little hope if they continue to keep score of their wrongs. Marriage isn’t about winning, but loving. Their recollections and recounting of their spouse’s past transgressions reveal that as a married couple they have a critical love deficit.

It happens in churches, too. A former board member can’t remember his own phone number, but he can give you a blow-by-blow account of a dispute between him and the pastor in a board meeting years ago. His role in the argument is softened in his memory, but he can retell the pastor’s harsh retorts word for word. Loving one another deeply isn’t in the equation. Rather it’s all about keeping a record of wrongs.

The psalmist asked, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). Good question. Easy answer: no one could stand. We can all look back and see a pattern of sin in our past. So the psalmist adds, “But with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared” (Ps. 130:4). The record has been cleared by Jesus’ forgiveness.

If Jesus loved us enough to wipe the slate of our sin clean, how can we do less? When criticisms of little consequence begin to fester in our spirits, we possess the power of love that brings healing. That power enables us to overlook the criticism by burying it in love.

The Word tells us that God doesn’t remember our sins once they are forgiven. Isn’t that an amazing truth? “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isa. 43:25).

God is omniscient, all-knowing, so He doesn’t forget anything. If He did, He wouldn’t be omniscient. So when He says that He no longer remembers our sins, the meaning seems to be that He chooses not to remember. By a deliberate act of His will, He buries our transgressions in the vast expanse of His love. He knows where they are buried, but they will never be remembered or resurrected. He will never taunt us or bribe us with past sin. His choice to forget our sins means He will never use them against us.

We may not be able to forget past criticisms, but we can be like our heavenly Father and bury them in love, never to be brought up again.

Excerpted with permission from Warren D. Bullock, When Words Hurt: Helping Godly Leaders Respond Wisely to Criticism (Springfield, MO: Salubris Resources, 2015).

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