Brian McLaren Thanks God for Enemies

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.

March 08, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 23 comments


April 24, 2007  9:35am

As a teaching layman, I thank God for critics who are knowledgable, kind and diplomatic. They are my friends.

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March 26, 2007  9:02am

I think a interesting exercise for all you great Christian thinkers, would be to find out what the Serbian Orthodox believe now...they don't tolerate anything outside their box.

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Alex Tang

March 25, 2007  1:14am

Hi all, Much has been said. However I will like to comment whether we are actually listening to what Brian is saying in the interview or not. I think his main points are: (1) criticism hurts (2) Nikolai Velimirovic's prayer helps him to process criticism directed against him. (3) his critics teach him humility (4) his friends help him to withstand criticisms. These are positive measures in which a Christian can learn to handle criticisms. I believe these are valuable lessons.

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Mike Reynolds

March 19, 2007  5:30pm

My take... Though I disagree with some of what McLaren is proposing, I have seldom seen a man who is as open to conversation and correction as he is. I've been in conferences where he has defused some pretty harsh attacks and because of his gracious spirit turned them into interesting discussions where the "attacker" turned into a conversant. In my experience, this is very rare. As pastors, we have to understand that when people attack what we say, write, how we live, the music we listen to, the way that we celebrate sacraments, the shows we watch, the way that we parent, and even the way that we play golf... part of us takes any attack, whether theological, cultural or practical and makes it personal. I do. When someone tells me that I shouldn't have seen Borat, I take it as a criticism of my personal walk with God, my interpretation of scripture, the job that I am doing as a pastor, my level of holiness, etc. It's totally different than when someone that any of us know goes to their office job and forgets to put the cover sheet on the TPS report. They can say: "Sorry, I got the memo, and I just forgot." Case closed. I know pastors that can take criticism and look at the criticizer and just think: "you're an idiot who just doesn't understand" and it rolls of their back. My guess is that McLaren, who because of his gracious and open spirit internalizes criticism the way many of us do finds comfort in prayers of patience, humility and grace. I get the feeling from his writing that some of the controversial issues that he writes and theorizes about are things that are not all completely settled in his own brain, but he feels a call to be honest spiritually and intellectually. I can guarantee you that he doesn't see his detractors as Nazi's and would probably rarely use the word enemy to describe any of them. You have to agree though that the main point of the prayer that God would use not only our friends but even the actions and words of our "enemies" or detractors to shape who He wants us to become is a humbling and challenging request for any of us to make of God. I am very challenged by it personally.

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March 12, 2007  7:35pm

To Mike Rucker: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to love you. For Jesus' sake, I really do. It doesn't bother me in the slightest that you won't "vote" for me; I never asked you to. And I agree with the words of Rodney King right after he beat up his girlfriend for the umpteenth time, "Whyee can't we all just get along?"

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March 12, 2007  1:44pm

I would disagree Phil. It is one thing to challenge people's popular beliefs and to get them to see another perspective. It's quite another to suffer ad hominems because one's opponents can't muster the intellectual acumen to point out what exactly their problem is with a presented thesis. However, I agree with the poster upthread who pointed out that there exists a potential of editorial liberties. I would caution Mr. McLaren, and Out of Ur editorial staff that there is a danger in donning the mantle of Victimhood. If Mr. McLaren wants to be taken seriously then he's going to have to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous accusations while fielding the concerns of those of us who are seriously inquiring of his thesis. An intellectual challenge does not equate to being communally ostracized, or marginalized as scholastically unpalatable. It's our way of "testing the spirits," if you will. We've all had to endure the ignomy of those whose social piety takes precendent over actual spiritual discipline, and there should be no expectation in Mr. McLarens mind that he is exempt from that as well. My consul is learn to differeniate between the two.

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Pastor Astor

March 12, 2007  1:20pm

I have experienced McLaren as very mild rather than provoking. Very pastoral rather than apologetic. I believe you read a bit more than intended into what he says if you label him a provocateur (unless if, of course, you are very provoked by people who dare to communicate something original for once), and claiming that he labels his enemies nazis because he uses a prayer written in a situation involving them is simply laughable. That is a pretty provocative rethoric.

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Darren King

March 12, 2007  12:06pm

To Leoskeo: I understand your point- and I appreciate your concern that things not be coined in an unnecessarily divisive way. I concur with your feeling there. However, I think that if you were to research some of the comments made by McLaren's critics, you would find that they often present themselves as if they are his enemies- and he, theirs. My guess is that is why Out of Ur chose the title they did for this article. Criticism is fine. I, you, and Brian would all agree with that. But unnecessarily cruel, personal, uncharitable criticism is not. I think the overall point of this article is that, even when critics are unnecessarily cruel and personal, one can still gain from the experience by choosing humility as a response. All the best, Brother.

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March 12, 2007  9:11am

"I believe the languafe {sic} of arms, arena and gauntlet are exactly the problem..." Perhaps you're right, Pastor Astor, although I did use the terms advisedly. But I was attempting to make the point that Rev. McLaren likes to write in, and appropriate for himself, very provocative language and metaphors. Those who disagree with him are "enemies" and (from the prayer he has appropriated for himself) "nazis" who hunt and persecute him like an animal. It is my assertion that Rev. McLaren, with his choice of language here and elsewhere does indeed regularly throw down rhetorical gauntlets. I think it disingenuous of him to play the provocateur, and then demure that he is shocked and hurt when others are provoked.

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Pastor Astor

March 10, 2007  12:57pm

I believe the languafe of arms, arena and gauntlet are exacly the problem. It gives the impression that discussion and exchange of ideas is some kind of battle. I know many times it is, but does it have to? Is there a more constructive way of dealing with differences? One that would be more in line with our calling to love God and one another? I'm glad i'm not in McLarens place. I have disagreed with fundamentalists on some issues, and was condemned to hell straight away. It is a good thing fundies are not really in charge of the judging department.

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