All of us have been in the cross-hairs of criticism. It may have come from a spouse, a parent, an adult child, or another family—all of which can be incredibly painful. It may have come in the form of gossip from fellow employees, or the biting comments of your supervisor. It may have come from those you were trying to serve spiritually—a small group, a class you taught, a volunteer slot in which you invested yourself.
When we find ourselves with a bull's-eye pinned to our backs, it's hard to know how to respond. Whatever we say can sound defensive. In this passage we're given some real help in how to respond to criticism, gossip, and slander. This is Paul's response to his own critics.
Paul writes 13 New Testament books and plays a central role in the planting of churches in the first century. But no one is immune to criticism and slander. In a number of passages we find Paul responding to these attacks. That's what Paul is doing in chapters 2 and 3 of this letter.
Let me put this in its context. On his second missionary journey, Paul goes to the influential city of Thessalonica. It is the capital of Macedonia. His brief mission there comes to an abrupt end. There is a public riot; serious legal charges are brought against Paul and his associate, Silas. And the believers there—to diffuse the situation—decide that Paul and Silas should leave the community immediately. And the two leave that night.
Paul's critics—who are unbelievers—take full advantage of Paul's sudden disappearance. They launch a malicious smear campaign. They want to undermine Paul's authority, as well as the gospel. I take it these attacks are effective. Criticism can—and does—undermine credibility. Apparently some of the new believers in Thessalonica weren't sure what they should think regarding Paul.
And in this section we have Paul's response. He begins by making two general observations: 1) The mission was successful. Verse 1: Our visit to you was not without results. Whatever else is said, the reality is that a church has been established in Thessalonica. The mission had been successful. 2) The mission involved great risk. Verse 2: Prior to coming to Thessalonica, Paul had been in the city of Philippi, in this same region. In Philippi, Paul and his associate Silas had been stripped, savagely beaten with rods, and held in prison in stocks. It was extremely painful, insulting, humiliating. They came to Thessalonica with their eyes open; they knew the risks. Nevertheless, they came and "dared" to communicate the gospel despite strong opposition. They spoke freely, openly, fearlessly. But this visit was no different than others. These missionary trips were extremely dangerous; they weren't done for selfish purposes.
Beginning in verse 3 Paul begins a more formal defense of his ministry. He will emphasize two things: The first is his methodology—how he did his work. The second is his motive—what drove him to do what he did.
The methodology of defense: integrity
Paul conducts himself with the highest integrity. I see that stated in both negative and positive terms.
Paul didn't come with his own message. He is not presenting some ideology or philosophy that he or his team devised. Look at verse 13. His message was the gospel. It is not something fabricated by humans. Contrary to what critics of the Bible say today, it wasn't put together by a church council meeting in a smoke-filled room hundreds of years after the fact. It is the Word of God. We saw last week, there is a supernatural power within the message. Paul: "It is even now transforming the lives of those who believe."
This term can be used for "ambition, pride, greed." But the word is normally translated "impurity" and refers to sexual immorality. It's used that way in Chapter 4. In Ephesians, Paul writes that for believers there shouldn't be even a hint of immorality or impurity (same word). Sexual immorality was common with secular traveling teachers. Apparently Paul's critics had accused him of this. It was absolutely not true.
In the original language the term is a noun and could be used for a fishing lure. A lure promises the fish one thing—a nice fly for lunch, but delivers something very different—(in our terms) a hook and death. The fish becomes the meal. Paul: "There was nothing deceptive about our message. We didn't try to manipulate conversions by playing games with you. We didn't conceal the very real cost of discipleship. We didn't promise you one thing and you received something else."
This term refers to flattery used to manipulate and gain influence over another individual. The old English word is "cajolery." Again, this is flattery used to control another individual.
Paul didn't take advantage of anyone financially. They didn't pretend to serve them, when their real purpose was to have them serve Paul and Silas. We live in a world where religious leaders routinely fleece vulnerable flocks. As believers we should give. But we need to do our homework, we need to know what we're giving to.
With God's approval
Verse 4a: The imagery is of a household steward in the first century—someone put in charge of a home or family business. The owner of the home/the owner of the business has done the background checks before he entrusts this individual with his business, his home, his family. He knows who the person is.
Paul acted with the highest integrity. Look at verse 10: If I can make a distinction in these terms: "holy"—integrity with God; "righteous"—integrity with believers; "blameless"—integrity with unbelievers.
Jesus Christ had given Paul unique authority. He's an apostle. It is one of the foundational roles for the church. Paul could have asserted himself over these new believers. The language that's used here can mean to pull rank. It can also mean to ask for financial support. In that world both would have been expected.
But again, Paul was driven by this desire to please God. And it profoundly affected how he treated the people he served. Verse 6b: The vast majority of manuscripts read "gentle."
Paul's relationship with his readers was one of humility, sensitivity, kindness.
Paul is a man's man. He's tough, masculine. But to describe his concern for these believers he uses the imagery of a nursing mother. Just like a mother feels compassion for her baby, Paul felt a deep love and concern for these spiritual newborns.
I don't know what it is like for a mother with a newborn. I do know what it was like for me. When my first son, Micah, was born, I came home from the hospital. It was early in the morning. I'm lying in bed; I can't sleep. I felt these feelings that I didn't know I had. I also felt this tremendous responsibility—overwhelming responsibility—for this new life that had been entrusted to me. What does this all mean? What do I need to do?
That was Paul with these new believers. Paul is saying, "We cared for you. We loved you; we put your needs first."
Literally we shared our "souls" with you. We invested ourselves in you emotionally, spiritually. We made ourselves available to you. We modeled truth for you. We talked last week regarding our need for mentors. We need believers in our lives who can show us what Christianity in action looks like. One of the great gifts to me has been those who modeled what it meant to be a husband, a father. I've seen individuals model what it is to serve, to give, to care for parents. I've had several model what it is to die as a believer.
Throughout this section we get a sense of Paul's transparency. What you see is what you get with Paul. Over and over again Paul reminds his readers that both they and God know what took place while he was in the city. See verses 1 ("you"=emphatic in the original text), 2, 5, 9, 10. There was no cover up, no deception. Everything we did was out in the open. You saw that.
With a willingness to work
We went out of our way not to take advantage of you. We worked hard at jobs during the day, and shared the gospel with you in the evenings. Paul was not only a rabbi, but he knew how to make tents. It was a demanding, but lucrative skill in the first century. That may have been what he did. We're not told. But again, "We went out of our way to make sure there was no financial burden to you."
With a desire to challenge
Paul changes his metaphor. He had been like a nursing mother. Now he was like a father with his own children.
As my sons grew, I urged them to excel. I challenged them; I encouraged them. Whether it was school, a sport, music—you can do this. When they brought me a report card I would say, "That's ok if that's all you can do. But I think you can do better in this subject—don't you?" I wanted to be there when they failed, when they were hurting. I wanted to help them back on their feet. But I wanted to challenge my children to grow and mature.
Paul: "I did that with you spiritually. I wanted you to succeed spiritually. I wanted to see you not only come to faith, but I wanted to see you grow and mature."
Paul not only tells us how he carried out his ministry. Tucked into this section, Paul gives us the why for what he did.
The motive of defense: pleasing God
Verse 4b: Paul was driven by a desire to please God, not men. Paul isn't playing to the crowds. He is not looking for the applause of others. Look at verse 6: We didn't seek praise from others. Again, Paul wasn't driven by a desire to please people. He was accountable to other believers. But ultimately he knew he was accountable to God. That drove him. That drove what he did. It drove how he served. My only motive was to honor God. You saw that; you know that. But in this section Paul is defending his ministry.
What should we do with this? Let me apply this in four different directions:
When criticized honestly evaluate yourself.
Make sure the gossip is unjust criticism. In Paul's case it is. But our rejection should not be because of our own failure, sin, misshapen personalities. If we've blown it, we need to address the issue honestly.
Dave Goetz is a writer, and he says,
On a fly-fishing trip, with still an hour in the truck before arriving home, my fishing buddy off-handedly observed that I was overly sensitive to criticism. He listed a couple of instances, including my response to some reviews of my writing. Suddenly, the truck felt cramped. I snapped back that simply debating what others say about me or what I do isn't being overly sensitive. I asked him to give more specific examples, which I debunked. Hurt, I withdrew from the conversation and nursed my new wound from an old friend. How could I be sensitive to criticism? In the years since, I've come, glacially, to another layer of insight: Not only am I oversensitive to criticism, I also like to play consultant to others …
We need to try to see if there is anything in the criticism. "Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold [i.e., something that has value, but also something that makes you more attractive] is a wise man's rebuke to a listening ear" (Proverbs 25:12).
Commit to using right methods and motives.
As Paul responds to his critics he also describes his own ministry—the use of his gifts. It is a description not only of how we should serve and use our gifts, but how we should do our work tomorrow, and live tomorrow within our homes. We are to be people of integrity.
Gene Getz suggests that we ask ourselves the following kinds of questions: Do I tell the truth? Again, am I honest, transparent? Am I motivated by any kind of immoral or illegitimate desires? We may need to step back and take another look at what's unfolding with some issue. Am I using any form of deception to achieve a goal? Do I use flattery to manipulate people? Am I using methods that hide greed or personal promotion? Is my motive to serve and honor God—or myself?
Don't let criticism paralyze you.
Paul doesn't hang it up. He doesn't go home. He completes his second missionary journey. He goes on a third extended journey—and apparently a fourth.
The cliché is true: The only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing. Even when there is a legitimate issue in our lives that we need to address, we may need to press on with the task that God has put in front of us.
John Piper says,
Very few dreams should go on hold while you improve the shortcomings of your life. To be sure, there are times when you need to stop what you are doing and focus on conquering a flaw. [There are some sins that must be addressed; we cannot go on until those are addressed.] But … all our advances are with a limp. If you wait till you are beyond criticism to pursue your dream, you will never do it. You won't marry or stay married. … You won't take your first job or keep it. You won't go into missions or stay there. Few things paralyze people more than their own imperfections. And there are always people around to remind you of your flaws and suggest you can't move forward until you're better.
When targeted with criticism, respond factually, not defensively.
That's what I see Paul doing. He's open, transparent. He patiently explains his methods, his motive.
In chapter 3, Paul goes into more detail. He explains his involuntary departure from the city, his inability to return, his sending of his associate Timothy to them, his determination to return to his readers as soon as possible.
Proverbs 26:4-5 is fascinating. On the surface these verses seem to be contradictory. "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him" (Proverbs 26:4). "Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes" (Proverbs 26:5).
What can those possibly mean? Don't answer the fool or the critic in the same manner. Don't answer gossip with gossip. Don't be defensive. But do give an answer: Factual, honest, positive.
That's what Paul does.
We follow a Savior who was himself the target of brutal criticism. It is a criticism far beyond anything we will face; his critics executed him. He understands; he has been there. He took the anger expressed in a cross, and used it to redeem us. If we know him, he can use whatever we experience in redeeming ways. He can use that criticism and hurt in ways we find very hard to grasp. He invites us to himself, to take hold of him. He meets us where we are.
Jim Nite is the pastor of Center Point Community church in Naples, FL.