It’s Beirut, late 1980s, and Brian Keenan is blind-folded and imprisoned in a dark and dirty basement. He has no idea where he is, whether he’ll live another day, and if he’ll ever return to his Northern Island home and family.

Keenan went to Beirut to lecture in English at the American University. With civil war raging, friends urged him not to take the job. With typical Irish humour, he told them he wasn’t at all worried because, after all, he’d grown up in Belfast during the ‘Troubles’.

Just before 8.00 am, Keenan set out for the university and was kidnapped off the street by the Islamic Dawn. Little was known about his captors, other than that they were part of the militant Hezbollah movement. Now Keenan is a hostage.

Since his capture he’s been moved from location to location. He lies or sits blindfolded on stinking mattresses, sweating in Mediterranean summer heat and shivering in winter cold. His food is meagre, water never enough. He stinks because his accommodation is filthy. Again and again he’s beaten and tortured. His only comfort is being imprisoned with John McCarthy, a fellow hostage. Though very different in background, they bond together. Neither knows if they will ever be released, and yet, at times, they imagine that one day soon their captivity will end. Keenan later called such a time a ‘high ground of hope’.

Then one of their guards, Abed, comes in. He is unusually pleasant, and announces that today the men are both getting new clothes. John is exhilarated. This is surely the best of signs. Keenan, though, is flooded with depression and anger. The new clothes do not mean early release but exactly the opposite. He wrote later: ‘They plainly implied to me that we were staying for a much longer time than our hope had led us to believe’.[1]

I read those words nearly 20 years ago, and they’ve never left me. Keenan had been on his high ground of hope but new clothes told him no release was coming. With hope gone he collapsed into despair.

For those who want to know what eventually happened with Keenan, I’ve added a note at the foot of this blog.

Keenan needed hope. We all do. But why do we need hope, and how do we find it?

Hope generates a positive attitude    In my late teens I played rugby for a team called Cambuslang Athletic. But I should admit my rugby was played in their third team, made up mostly of people too unfit or unskilled for the better teams. Few of us came from Cambuslang (near Glasgow, Scotland), and absolutely none of us were athletic. We’d trot onto the rugby pitch, take one look at our opponents who were always giants capable of running right over us, and we knew we’d lose. The whistle would sound, the opposition would get the ball, and two minutes later they’d have a touch down and conversion. On a good day their second score wouldn’t happen for at least five minutes. And so the match would continue. We might be 30 points down before half-time, and wondering why we’d bothered to turn up. In the second half no-one on our side was running too much, or tackling too hard. Why exhaust yourself, and why risk injury when you know you won’t win? Every match was like that. Except one. On that day the near miracle happened and we got to half-time and the scores were tied. We weren’t winning but we weren’t losing. During the short break, we stood in a circle, sucking pieces of orange, and we all felt something previously unknown rise within us: hope. We could win this match. And driven by hope, we went into the second half with energy, optimism, determination, and we ran and tackled and pushed and jumped and kicked like we’d never done before. And that day – that one day – we won.

Hope carries us forward. Hope fuels positivity and banishes negativity. Hope is the parent of belief.

Hope keeps us looking forward    I walked to school every day, and often my mum would stand by our front gate watching as I walked off down the street toward school. She’d wave, and I’d wave back. And she’d wave again, and I’d wave back. I learned to walk backwards so I could wave more easily. Walking backwards was a bad idea. The back of my head met a very solid concrete lamppost. As my head cannoned off the lamppost, stars floated in front of my eyes, and I staggered around. After a few minutes I recovered and learned a lesson: look forward in life.  

Hope guarantees we do that. By its very nature, hope is forward-looking. It sees what doesn’t yet exist, what’s possible but not yet actual, what’s not in our grasp but could be, and pushes us forward toward goals we’d never reach otherwise.

Too many think their best days are past days. With rose-tinted glasses, they sentimentalise and idealise a previous place, or job, or feeling, or experience, or relationship, and cannot imagine anything ever being so good again. And – if they keep looking back – they’ll be right, because looking back fixes you in the past. Hope, however, turns us round, faces us to an even better future, and delivers a kick where it’s needed most to get us going.

Hope builds endurance    During my darkest days of depression I could see no good future. That’s a bad and dangerous place to be, especially when you believe everyone would be better off without you. Meaning well, some told me, ‘Don’t worry, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel’. But there wasn’t. Somehow I was inside a circular tunnel, going round and round with no escape, no end, and therefore no light. The people closest to me – my wife Alison and one or two others – were more careful about what they said. Mostly it was just one message: ‘this depression will not be for ever; it will come to an end; you will be able to move beyond it’. I might have written off those words too. I had no concept of how my depression would end. But I trusted these people. They loved me and would tell me the truth, so I couldn’t dismiss their message. Their words – that this depression would end – injected a glimmer of hope into my mind. Hope may just have flickered, but even the smallest hope has strength and it pulled me forward, week after week, and month after month. Life was still very hard, but I wasn’t stuck in my darkness. Hope dragged me through each tough day and night. Then, after two and a half years and with no warning, one day I stepped out of my circular tunnel and there was light and goodness and love and a life worth living for.

I was given the gift of hope. It was fragile but resilient. And it changed my life.

Hope needs wisdom as its companion    There are at least two reasons why hope must be guided by wisdom.

Hope can be directed to unwise or wrong ambitions. I imagine someone saying, ‘I hope to be Prime Minister (or President) soon’. If that ‘someone’ is a UK Member of Parliament (or a US Senator), that hope could be reasonable. But if those words are spoken by a janitor in the House of Commons (or US Congress building), their hope is fairly unrealistic, at least if the word ‘soon’ is in the sentence.

Hope needs wisdom to point it in sensible and good directions. Someone might hope to become a multi-millionaire by buying ten lottery tickets next week. Or, another person might watch a ‘How to paint’ YouTube video and hope to be recognised as a world famous artist by the end of the year. These ‘hopes’ are misdirected; they’re neither sensible nor good. We must be wise as well as hopeful.

We need to be careful when hoping for the most important things in our lives. I supported Mary while her little girl Sandra lay in intensive care because of a major brain injury. As Sandra’s life ebbed away Mary prayed and hoped against hope for a miracle. Not for one minute would she give up believing that Sandra would get well. But Sandra died, and Mary was devastated, wholly unprepared for her daughter’s death, experiencing grief that made her irrational and a danger to herself. Kate developed cancer. She and her husband Henry were in their thirties with three children. Though Kate’s cancer had spread through her body, it seemed wrong that someone young, beautiful and so loved and needed could die. They prayed constantly for healing. People told them God had promised Kate would get well, but they must believe for the healing and never doubt it. Special services were held, all-night prayer sessions took place. Kate got weaker but she and Henry still hoped, still believed for the miracle. I sat beside Henry as Kate’s brave battle ended. Later, Henry told me that it was only three weeks before Kate died that they’d talked about what death meant for her, how he would manage with the children, and she’d given him ‘permission’ to marry again. His one regret? That they hadn’t talked through these things months before. They hadn’t because they’d clung so strongly to their hope of healing that they didn’t dare admit it might not happen.

It seems strange to write these paragraphs, as if I’m undoing the positives about hope. I hope I haven’t done that. But I’ve included these stories because hope must be wisely managed. It’s exactly the same with love, ambition, care, loyalty (and more) – all good things, yet all needing wise stewardship.

How do we find hope?    Here I have to declare that I don’t know for sure where hope comes from. But I suspect hope is a gift of God, somehow wired into us.

I need to immediately add that hope can easily and quickly be suppressed. I’ve told the story before[2] of an evening walk with an Indian friend through the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata). I saw the flimsy shelters of families who lived on the sidewalks, and watched as parents wrapped their little children in sack-like material to insulate them from the cold before laying them down to sleep. I was shocked, and asked my friend how long before these families would have a home of their own. My friend was gracious, and gently explained that in the sense I meant it these families would never have a home. He said: ‘The parents – like their parents – were born here on the sidewalk, grew up here, as will their children. They will never have any other home.’ That night there was a thunderstorm, and those families had no way to escape being drenched.

Why describe this? Well, the little children in those families might have hopes – a decent meal, one day a job – but early on in life they’d be told any really big hopes were pointless. Their circumstances – as with all those living with cruelty, hunger, imprisonment – repress the gift of hope in their lives. I wish it was not so, and I don’t believe the world must be that way, but for many that’s exactly how it is.

Hope can also be squashed in those with advantaged lives. A constant attitude of negativity does that. I’ve met people who, instead of believing every cloud must have a silver lining, believe every silver lining must have a cloud. A mind like that is an infertile field for hope. It cannot thrive there.

Others damage hope by arrogant over-confidence, perhaps borrowing thousands to start a business yet failing because they never researched whether that business was needed. I’ve seen that pattern repeat over and over and, eventually, these rash entrepreneurs become discouraged and lose hope. But hope goes only because they create their own failures.

And, for some, being hopeful is too risky. They can’t form a deep relationship in case it falls apart. They can’t accept promotion in case they fail with higher responsibilities. They can’t enter a competition in case they lose. Such fearful people damage their ability to hope.

But, with all those cautions, I still believe hope is a gift planted in all of us. When encouraged it grows and leads to a gloriously positive attitude to life. And hope can be passed on, just as Alison and very close friends did for me during my darkest days. Hope is infectious.

And hope lasts    One of the marvellous chapters in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 13, sometimes described as a passage in praise of love. As well as describing wonderful things about love, it mentions things that will one day pass away, including knowledge. But, three things will always remain ‘faith, hope and love’ (v.13). The Bible has plenty to say about faith and love, but hope is right up there between those two. Hope is important. Hope lasts. Hope is a forever thing.

Be hopeful today.


Note: how Brian Keenan’s captivity ended

After four a half years of captivity, on August 24, 1990, Keenan was bundled into a car, driven to Damascus, and passed to Syrian and then Irish authorities. He was free. He was met by his two sisters, and together they flew the next day to Northern Ireland. He was severely malnourished and physically weak, having lost 4 stone (56 pounds, 25.4 kg) during his imprisonment. For a long time after his return Keenan sought solitude, but in 1993 he married his wife, Audrey, and they have two sons.

John McCarthy remained a prisoner until 8 August 1991. The two men remain friends, though apparently rarely talk about their captivity.

In a 2016 interview, Keenan said: “I’ve come to an understanding. I have been given much in life. I look at what I have been given and it’s greater than what’s been taken from me.”  (Irish Post, April 12, 2016)

[1] Quoted from: Keenan, Brian (1993). An Evil Cradling. London: Vintage. p. 109. The book is a detailed account of Keenan’s captivity in Beirut. Inevitably it’s a gritty read, but brilliantly written and deeply moving.

[2] In the blog ‘Not the world as it was meant to be’ of August 29, 2021. See https://occasionallywise.com/2021/08/29/not-the-world-as-it-was-meant-to-be/


In less than six months the grumbles began about Pastor Frank. In less than a year the church fired him. Frank was devastated. He had sincerely believed God had called him to that church. At the service marking the beginning of his ministry, the whole congregation had stood and declared they also believed his appointment was God’s will. Frank felt affirmed. This was where he was meant to be. Now he was fired, leaving him shocked, distraught, self-esteem damaged, doubting his abilities and doubting his calling.

Of course, the church saw things differently. Their senior officer told me, ‘Frank is a good man, but he’s a terrible preacher. People were leaving. The church might have closed. What else were we to do?’ Had they not heard him preach before he was appointed? ‘He must have given his one good sermon,’ the leader replied.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that situation, Frank was crushed by the criticism and rejection he experienced. After months of agonising thought, he took another job. It was not as a pastor.

Many experience severe disappointment, and it comes in many guises.

George was madly in love with Wendy. They got engaged, discussed the wedding plans and everything they could think of about their future married life. Then for six months George went to Africa on a humanitarian mission. He and Wendy wrote constantly, but half way through his mission George noticed the warmth had gone from his fiancée’s  letters. When he was home, Wendy met with him only once, handed back the engagement ring, and told him they must go their separate ways. George never saw her again. ‘What did I do? Why did I deserve this?’ he asked. He never got answers. Everything he’d anticipated about his future was gone. All that was left was the deepest of deep disappointments.

Viv was probably the cleverest pupil in my high school class. If there were subjects in which she wasn’t first, she was at least second or third. Everyone knew she’d excel in her final exams, go on to university, then move into a fabulous career. None of that happened. Viv left school as soon as the law allowed, long before those final exams, and got a modest job in an office. Why? Viv left because she was mocked. She was less than five feet (1.5 metres) tall, and teased mercilessly by fellow pupils and even by some teachers. When Viv stood up in class, someone would shout ‘Stand up Viv’. At other times someone would ask ‘Is Viv not here today?’ when it was perfectly obvious she was present. As she left school for the final time, Viv left a message. It read, ‘I couldn’t take it any more…’

Criticism, mocking, rejection, and disappointment may not be the very worst experiences someone can have, but their cruelty eats away at our inner spirit, destroys confidence and injures us for years. Maybe forever.

So, how do we deal with disappointment and similar blows to our inner spirit? It’s easy to give trite answers, but they are always unsatisfactory. If anything I write seems like that, I apologise. I do understand that getting past deep disappointments is no easy matter.

Disappointment is normal

In 1975, the rising star of American golf, Tom Watson, arrived in Carnoustie, Scotland, to play for the first time in the Open Championship (one of the four golf ‘majors’). He was used to the soft, flat fairways of America, but he’d never played on a British links course.[1] Watson began a practice round, and hit a glorious drive straight down the first fairway. He strode after his ball, but couldn’t find it in the centre of the fairway, nor anywhere close by. After ten minutes he finally located it in the edge of the rough. His ball had hit a mound, and ricocheted sideways. Watson was not impressed. Feeling cheated, he said later: ‘I didn’t believe that was the way golf should be played’. But before the main tournament began he accepted that this is how links golf is played, and that bad bounces were normal. Watson not only won that 1975 Open Championship on his debut, but won the tournament again another four times.

The very biggest disappointments in life are not matters we just shrug off. But more moderate disappointments are normal. We fail a driving test, we scrape the car against a wall, we do poorly in an exam, we’re not picked for the football team, a friend breaks her promise, our pay rise never materialises, the special meal we planned becomes a burnt offering, and so the list could go on. Life is not a soft, flat fairway. It’s one with humps and hollows that throw us aside. This is normal. And it’s survivable, as you’ll see by reading on.

Disappointment develops resilience

To be resilient doesn’t mean you don’t get hurt or discouraged when things go wrong. But it does mean you’ve learned how to pick yourself up and move forward beyond those troubles. In fact, it’s the problems and disappointments in life that create and build resilience in our lives.

Here’s a very personal story. My mum died in her mid-50s, and dad remarried several years later. Anne, his second wife, was a lovely, kind lady, and for many years they enjoyed each other’s company, took short vacations, spent time with family, and pondered the mysteries of their newspaper’s daily crossword. Then Anne had a stroke, and was paralysed down one side of her body. Her speech wasn’t bad, but walking unaided was near impossible. Anne became depressed, and gave up on physiotherapy because she didn’t believe she could get better. I visited as often as I could and supported my dad as he cared for Anne. He and I talked about what more could be done for Anne, but it seemed all that could be done was being done. Anything more had to come from inside Anne. But dad told me Anne had never been ill in her whole life, never faced a difficult health issue, never had to fight for healing. Now, devastated by her stroke, it seemed she’d no inner resource of strength to draw on. Anne never recovered.

Years ago I read the story of a man watching a moth freeing itself from its chrysalis, the little cocoon in which it first grew. The man saw the moth push open a small opening in the chrysalis’ wall, then struggle to widen it. But the moth couldn’t seem to open the hole any further. So the man took fine scissors, cut the slit wider, and the moth flopped out. It lay free from its chrysalis and the man waited for it to stretch its wings and fly off. But the moth didn’t. It couldn’t. It just lay there, and, with dread, the man realised that the struggle to free itself was what gave strength to its wings. He’d taken away its struggle, and the result was that moth would never fly.

The struggles of life build our strength. Yes, they’re painful, and yes, we wish they never happened, but they create in us the resilience we need to get through life.[2]

Disappointment can be an opportunity for something new

One of the most common things said by employers to someone being fired is: ‘This might be a really good thing in your life’. Not one person being fired ever agrees. And I could agree only by emphasising that word might – yes, it might be good, but it isn’t automatic.

When might disappointment be good? It depends on things like these:

  • What you’re leaving – such as getting out of a job in which you were not succeeding, or out of a relationship that would never work out well.
  • What new opportunity opens up – some of the best outcomes I’ve known following career disappointment have come when someone retrained for a high demand job.
  • What attitude you take about your future – being numbed by what you’ve lost means missing out on what you could gain.

My pastor friend Murray strove for years to save a dying church. It had been declining for years before Murray became pastor, but he’d believed he could turn things round. He gave his best but the problems were deep-rooted in attitudes and personalities, and numbers kept dwindling. So did Murray’s spirits. I met with him many times, and watched optimism turn to pessimism, and brightness drift into depression. ‘Murray,’ I said, ‘it’s time to move somewhere else’. He wouldn’t listen, saying ‘A captain goes down with his ship’. Yet, strangely but very timely, soon after that another church asked him to consider becoming their pastor, and Murray accepted. He left the failing church with a heavy heart, but poured himself into his new work. And, wonderfully, Murray flourished and so did that church. He’d been desperately disappointed he couldn’t save the first church, but its problems were probably more than any pastor could solve. Freed from those issues, Murray’s gifts were exactly what the new church needed. It grew and Murray’s self-confidence as a minister grew. And he had a great ministry.

There are new opportunities after deep disappointment, providing we’re open to them.

Disappointment with how we’re treated needn’t be passive

I told a little of Viv’s story earlier. To this day it makes me sad that teasing and bullying stopped her completing her school education and pursuing her career dreams. As far as I know she never complained to a teacher or the school’s head teacher. I understand that. A 14 or 15-year-old feels powerless. But I wish she had. I wish she’d got her parents banging on the head teacher’s door, demanding action to stop anyone giving their daughter a hard time. I never teased Viv – honestly I didn’t – but I wish I’d realised how hurt she felt about what others said, and that I’d done something to protect and encourage her. People like Viv need allies. It might have helped.

Unfairness, prejudice, bullying must be called out for the wrong they are. Some things in life that hurt and disappoint us can’t be changed and we must accept them (as I’ll write in a moment). But we can’t and shouldn’t accept everything. There are times when such a wrong is being done we must push back.

Disappointment with ourselves is especially difficult

The Greek word akrasia means ‘weakness of will’, ‘acting against our own considered judgment’. Philosophers debate how we can choose to do what is not in our interests to do.

Whatever conclusions philosophers reach, akrasia is a reality for all of us. We do things we know aren’t right or helpful.

Everyone has their own list of akrasia experiences. For some it’s when they didn’t try their hardest. Or betrayed a confidence. Or failed to keep a promise. Or did something morally or legally dreadful.

What disappoints us about akrasia failures is that we knew we were doing wrong. We could and should have acted differently. That makes it hard to excuse ourselves.

But what we can’t excuse we can forgive. I missed sociology lectures when I was first at university, not because I disliked the subject but because the lectures were too early in the morning so I stayed in my bed. I was disappointed in myself, but instead of holding on to that disappointment, I chose to change. I bought a loud alarm clock, went to bed earlier, and rolled out of bed as soon as the alarm sounded. But none of that would have happened if I hadn’t forgiven myself. Regretting about yesterday stops us rejoicing in what today brings.

Disappointment sometimes has to be met with acceptance

If disappointment is a normal human experience, it can’t always be avoided. We’ll feel it whenever what we hope for doesn’t happen, or what we’ve dreaded does happen. Disappointment is an inevitable emotion, a right emotion. And, in a healthy sense, we should accept it. ‘This is how I should feel given what’s happened.’

We accept it because life is a place of hard knocks. One of the times the Commonwealth Games[3] was staged in Edinburgh, I helped out in the Games’ Village. One evening I noticed a young athlete sitting alone, looking seriously sad. We began to talk, and I learned she was a Welsh sprinter who’d been eliminated in the first heat of the only event in which she was entered. She’d dedicated her life to preparing for these Games, and in seconds her part was all over. She was very disappointed. Of course she was. In that one conversation, there was nothing I could say to ease her pain. But my hope is that before too long she understood that this was one blow in her life, and beyond it lay many good things.

We all have to do that. Every dream can’t be fulfilled. I had a flatmate who wrote letters to at least twenty senior football clubs across Britain asking for a trial. They replied. Not one club offered him a trial. He was disappointed. But clearly not everyone can be a top soccer player, or an operatic star, or a princess, or a fighter pilot, or climb Everest, or break a world record, or become prime minister or president. We have to come to terms with disappointment.

Thankfully there’s more to life than the things which disappoint us. There’s a saying ‘When God closes a door, he opens a window’. A door closing isn’t the end of opportunities. Whether or not we see those opportunities as God’s better plan for our lives, there always exists a new way which is still a good way.

Recognise that disappointments will occur throughout life. Learn from them, and let them make you stronger. Move forward, confident that beyond disappointment lies something good and fulfilling.

[1] In the UK, a links course is one built on the land lying between the sea and agricultural land, hence the name ‘links’. That land would originally have been undulating and likely unsuitable for farming.

[2] For one of the most remarkable stories of perseverance in the face of many disappointments, you should read the account I gave of one man’s life in an earlier blog. See https://occasionallywise.com/2021/05/01/when-your-car-number-plate-really-matters/

[3] The 2022 Commonwealth Games will be held in Birmingham, England, from 28 July to 8 August. Background information about the Commonwealth Games is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonwealth_Games

Unfair criticism

The conference speaker asked: ‘Why are the diaries, the personal calendars, of leaders so overcrowded?’ His answer: ‘When you’re constantly criticised, opposed or thwarted, the one thing that props up your self-esteem is your packed calendar because it proves you’re needed’. His message: we use busy-ness to counter criticism.

The pastor of a flourishing church told me people often talked about his harmonious, committed, and loving congregation, and how good it must be to lead that church. ‘If only that was true,’ he said with a wry smile. ‘The reality is that when a church is growing, there’s also a pastor who is hurting.’ In other words, his church wasn’t so ‘harmonious’ he didn’t have critics.

Criticism has been around for as long as people have been around. Probably one early cave dweller criticised the cooking smells from the neighbour’s cave. And the next door cave dweller criticised the rowdy children he heard squabbling through the stone wall. Criticism has always been a fact of life.

But if criticism is inevitable, there can be only one of three responses:

  1. Stop it. That’s a nice idea, and we may be able to silence specific criticisms or super-critical people. But new critics and criticisms will always emerge.
  2. Soften it. Maybe we can improve someone’s situation. Or we accept their comments and we change. But neither of those can happen when the criticism is unfair.
  3. Survive it. Usually all we can do is live with criticism. We can’t resolve every person’s issues, gripes, or preferences. We can’t satisfy everyone’s preferences or be the leader each critic would like us to be. Either we get out or we get on.

Many times I wanted to ‘get out’. I was the pastor of a lively and engaged congregation of people with great faith and gifts. They were good folk but with strong opinions about what the church should be doing. I encouraged them to share their ideas, and they didn’t hold back. ‘More evangelism’ ‘More social care in the community’ ‘More emphasis on young people’ ‘More attention on older people’ ‘More time for worship’ ‘Less time for sermons’ ‘More comfortable pews’ ‘Less money spent on the church building’. And the inevitable, ‘Better toilets’.

People had every right to express their ideas, grumbles and views. What I hadn’t expected was that they’d direct them all at me. They thought the senior pastor was responsible for everything, so they bombarded me with innumerable visions and grievances. They assumed their pastor would listen, agree, and bring about change. Well, I could listen, but I couldn’t always agree. Nor did I have the power to effect every change someone wanted. Some proposals were simply bad. Others could go ahead only by tearing up someone else’s wish list. So, not everyone got what they wanted and I got the blame.

That happens in every kind of organisation. A constant stream of disappointed or disapproving people guarantees a constant stream of criticism. It’s unfair to pile their angst and anger on leaders, but it happens. And it wears leaders down.

It wore me down. I remember joking that I knew work was going better when I considered resigning only three times a day. It used to be ten. Except that wasn’t really a joke. When your whole purpose is to serve people, it’s hard to listen to constant criticism and not be discouraged.

How did I deal with that? Honestly, not always very well. Somehow the weight of a criticism is heavier than the weight of a thank-you.

But Alison, my wife, would share wise words with me. ‘Remember,’ she’d say, ‘if you resign you don’t just leave your critics behind, you also leave the far greater number who deeply appreciate what you do and are helped by it’. Those words – spoken many times – kept me going.

Leaders can’t stop criticism happening. But criticism – especially unfair criticism – is survivable. Here are five measures that have helped me.

One  As well as assessing a criticism, consider who it’s coming from

I always thought carefully about a problem or criticism brought to me. Rejecting all complaints would imply the organisation was perfect and there couldn’t be any faults.

But I learned to think carefully about who was raising the complaint, and especially about ‘frequent flyer’ complainers.

I encountered at least five categories of constant complainers and critics.

  • Those who could never be pleased. Two church members lived together, and anytime I visited or met them they had fresh complaints about the direction the church was going and how I went about my ministry. They told me the church was at its best 55 years earlier which, it turned out, was when they joined. Changes since then were always bad.
  • Those who thought their way was the only right way. Some colleagues knew exactly how the organisation’s finances should be presented, or the publicity should be done, or which new staff positions should be created – which was remarkable since they had no qualifications in financial management, or marketing, or human resources. But lack of experience or credentials never hindered them. They believed passionately in their own opinions, and never hesitated to express them.
  • Those with a bottomless pit of opinions. Some people can think of ten ways to make a simple task complicated. They share every one of those ideas, causing confusion and slowing progress. These people aren’t arrogant or bad. It’s just that their inventive minds are in constant overdrive, and their barrage of suggestions creates cluttered thinking.
  • Those who think an opposing view should always be considered. The leaders meeting would reach a consensus, ready to vote, and then Martin would propose an alternative course of action. Martin would have said nothing earlier, but at the last moment present his different view. When working with volunteers, you can’t tell someone you won’t listen to their idea. So, back we’d go through the issue, reconsidering everything from Martin’s point of view. We’d finish back with the original proposal, I’d put it to the vote, and everyone would vote for it, including Martin. After the meeting I’d ask him why he’d brought out his alternative idea so late on, and why he’d then supported the initial proposal. His answer: ‘Well, I didn’t believe in the alternative, but I thought we should discuss it’. I kept my cool, but Martin continued making late interventions, which was infuriating for everyone. He and I talked. In Martin’s mind he wasn’t criticising, just ensuring a more complete discussion took place. I told him that was fine, but he must bring forward his ideas early on, and never right at the end. Mostly that worked.
  • Those with an insatiable need for attention. Some people need to be noticed, especially by the person ‘at the top’. And one way to get noticed is to criticise, especially if you do it in a large meeting because then everyone’s attention is on you. There are remedies for an attention-seeking child to ensure they get healthy attention. I have yet to find the complete remedy for an attention-seeking adult. But over the years I did get increasingly firm with people like that to stop them stealing time and support from people with far greater needs than theirs.

I haven’t tried to give quick-fix answers for these constant critics because there aren’t any. However, here are two suggestions:

Recognise what’s motivating them. For example, identify who can never be pleased, or who simply wants attention. Knowing why people criticise changes how you respond.

Don’t be overly gentle. In church life some people think they can criticise as harshly as they like, and the pastor and other leaders will simply absorb their rudeness. Leaders shouldn’t. Let’s be clear: unjust and harsh criticism is wrong. It’s a sin. Even done once, it’s bad. Done repeatedly, it’s unacceptable. Identify unfair criticism for what it is, and exercise discipline as appropriate in your circumstances.

Two  To cope with unfair criticism you need good friends

Strong leaders suffer two disadvantages when it comes to criticism. One is that critics assume they have to be extra forceful to ‘get through’. Unless their words are loud and harsh, they suppose leaders won’t listen. Second, critics often assume their verbal blows bounce off a strong leader, as if leaders are immune to hurt. We are not immune. Sometimes I wanted to shout ‘I bleed too!’ Unjust criticism hurts short-term and long-term.

So, how do we survive? My number one answer is that we need good friends. And they are of two types.

First, you need encouragers, people who’ll reassure you that you’re a good person doing good things, or that your faultfinder is a known critic of almost everyone and everything. Earlier, in the never pleased category, I mentioned two ‘always-critical’ church members. Their criticising was well known, including by Will. He was a delightful older church member who’d been a leader and confidant of every minister for 50 years. Will called me, named the two awkward people, and asked: ‘Are these two getting you down? Are they being difficult about your work as pastor?’ I told him I was okay, but certainly nothing I did seemed to please them. ‘Well, don’t be discouraged,’ Will said. ‘The pair of them have complained about every pastor the church has ever had. One of your predecessors told me he could wallpaper his rooms with their letters of criticism. They are the problem, not you.’ If Will hadn’t been on the phone I’d have hugged him. His concern for me meant a lot, and his ‘wallpaper’ comment has helped many times since. We need encouragers like Will.

Second, we need loving friends who are also honest friends. Friends like that care so much they won’t only tell you what you want to hear, they’ll also tell you what you don’t want to hear. But they do it lovingly. We don’t always say or do the right things. And we can be blind to our mistakes. So sometimes people are upset with us for legitimate reasons. We need a friend loving and honest enough to tell us we were wrong. And we’ll listen because the only motive that friend has is to help us. My loving and honest friends saved me many times. Sometimes I didn’t like what they said, perhaps even argued back, but in the end I had enough wisdom to listen, apologise and change.

Three  Accept that criticism goes with the territory

I used to dream of the day all problems were solved and all critics silenced, because then I could forge ahead with the real work. That day never came, and never could come. Why never? One reason is that problems, and critics, are part of the work. The second reason is that we deal with people. I’ve kept a quote by Anatole France[1] on my desk for many years. It begins ‘He who undertakes to guide men must never lose sight of the fact that they are malicious monkeys…’ There’s humour there, but France is actually making a serious point. The human race is made up of flawed people (including us), who, alongside many virtues, have weaknesses, vices, eccentricities and problems. So it was, and is, and forever shall be. Therefore there will always be criticism, including unfair criticism.

Four  Even unfair criticism comes from people with good hearts

How do we react to unfair criticism? Argue back? Get angry? Dislike our critic? Those reactions are common because our instinct is to defend ourselves. But that just hardens attitudes. A soft response is usually the better response. There’s wisdom in the biblical command to bless and not curse those who persecute you, and, as far as it depends on you, to live at peace with everyone.[2] Even if we can’t bless our critics, let’s respect them. Most critics are sincere people, perhaps misguided in what they say, but they’re not our enemy.

Five  Ultimately you are your own judge

Only you know whether a criticism is fair or unfair. And only you can decide how to react. We tend to one of two responses: a) reject the criticism; or b) condemn ourselves for our failings. Each of those can lack wisdom. Dismissing criticism is a protective, emotional reaction. It’s understandable but means we learn nothing from the experience. Self-condemnation is also understandable, but it often goes too far and lasts too long.

Instead, be your own judge and be a kind judge. You may decide there’s no truth in someone’s criticism, so don’t let their opinion hold you back. Or you may realise there is some truth in what’s been said. You got something wrong. So, learn and change, and don’t condemn yourself. Being at fault is not being a failure. After all, did you think you were perfect? Hopefully not. Now, by recognising and learning from your error, you can be a better person than before.

There is no route through life that avoids unfair criticism. It happens. But it’s not awful, and not a reason to give up. Plenty are grateful for what you do. Never forget that.

[1] French poet, journalist and novelist, winner of the 1921 Nobel prize in Literature. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatole_France

[2] Romans 12: 14, 18