Have you ever heard of Nikolai Velimirovic? I hadn't either until Brian McLaren introduced me to a prayer written by the Serbian Orthodox bishop. McLaren credits the bishop with helping him process the increasing criticism he's received in recent years. In this interview, McLaren shares his thoughts about the blessing of having both friends and enemies.
How do you handle criticism? Did your years as a pastor prepare you for what you're now experiencing?
As you know, I have people writing books and saying very critical things about me, but in some ways it's no harder then being a pastor was. In fact, it might even be easier. Many pastors know what it's like to have people they've cared for - people they've married, and baptized, and counseled - come up and say, "You're not meeting our needs anymore, and we're leaving." It's wounding. It's very, very hard.
When we hear criticism, it can echo in our minds for days. On one hand, we can't stop beating ourselves up and second-guessing. On the other, we're tempted to get revenge. We torture ourselves. What I found I need to do is retrain my instinct to defend myself. Of course that is what Jesus was talking about when he says to turn the other cheek.
The second thing I've learned is to process the criticism with God. The prayer by the Serbian bishop has helped me do this. The bishop was taken to a concentration camp for speaking out against the Nazis. His own people betrayed him. But in his prayer he asks the Lord to bless his enemies, and he recognized how they actually help him. That has been incredibly helpful for me.
How do you think your critics have helped you?
We all want people to think we're better than we actually are. I want people to think I'm more holy than I actually am, more knowledgeable than I actually am. Well, a critic comes along, and they don't give me a chance to inflate my image. And in that way, if I can learn to live with a lower image through criticism, then maybe I won't be so prone to inflate my image in other circumstances. Critics teach us humility.
If we should thank God for our enemies, what about our friends? How do they help us grow?
I think we all need non-utilitarian friendships. In ministry it's easy for us to use people - to see them as a way of advancing our ministry or our agenda. And there are many ways people want to use us. A non-utilitarian friendship is where we build a relationship because I like the person and I'm not trying to use them for my success, and they're not trying to use me.
C.S. Lewis talked about this in idea in The Four Loves. These kinds of friends are not looking at each other. They stand side by side looking at the world because with that friend they have someone who loves the same things they love. It's about companionship. That's what I mean by a non-utilitarian friendship.
When I was a young Christian I went through a period of doubt. I just wasn't sure I believed anything anymore. I shared this with a good friend and mentor and he said to me, "I just want to assure you, Brian, I'll be your friend even if you become an atheist." That helped me believe in God more, because I felt the unconditional love of God through him. If he'd threatened me or put a lot of pressure on me, that would have made it harder to believe in God. To me there is something about unconditional friendship that demonstrates the grace of God.