Bricks for Building or Bricks for Throwing: On Critics and Chronic Complainers
Some years ago, I found this story in a devotional guide that was shared by a woman from Phoenix, Arizona. She wrote:
“When eyeglasses entered my life during elementary school, my popularity plummeted. No one sat with me at the lunch table; no one begged to come to my birthday party. On the playground, the other girls in my class would ‘vote’ on whether or not I could play with them. The answer was usually ‘no’ and every recess ached with loneliness.”
Ridicule works. It makes us doubt our selves and our endeavors.
Sanballat is presented in the Word of God as one who knew the effectiveness of ridicule and as one who attempted to use it against the Jewish folk in Jerusalem in 400 B.C. But instead of believing the lies and giving in to hopelessness, a man named Nehemiah turned to God. He refrained from responding to the naysayers, instead crying out, “Hear us, O God, for we are despised.” Nehemiah knew whose opinion counted and that God loves His people. This assurance allowed him to persevere despite the ridicule; it propelled him on to work “with all his heart.”
Today, I want to expose something that I’ll call Sanballatry: criticism and chronic complaining. Sanballats. We encounter them everywhere: mockers, ridiculers, bullies, tearing downers who speak with verbal knives, slicing with every word. Now while Sanballat was an opponent of Nehemiah from outside of God’s people, I’m going to use him and Tobiah to represent all those who use these tactics to bring down others.
On a national level, we see it when a person becomes the center of cruel attacks, when someone is picked apart for every aspect of his or her performance or appearance.
When life is so short, why are so many are so focused on hurting others? Where is the compassion and love? Why are so many so jealous of others? Why do some seem to use every opportunity to knock others down? Words are weapons and can hurt very deeply. One kind word from a stranger can give you strength and hope for days. But one cruel word can bring you to your knees and almost push you over the edge.
Why do people bully, ridicule and mock?
Some may do it because they enjoy the sense of power and think they can get away with it. Or they may have convinced themselves that the ones they’re attacking deserve the torment. Some, however, may have been badly treated themselves and try to deal with their own fears, their own perceived inadequacies, by frightening others or by trying to elevate themselves by demeaning others.
I found a word picture of a chronic critic and the description went like this: “These are individuals who engage in constant nit-picking, fault-finding and criticism of a trivial nature - the triviality, regularity and frequency betray bullying; often there is a grain of truth (but only a grain) in the criticism to fool you into believing the criticism has validity, which it does not; often, the criticism is based on distortion, misrepresentation or outright lies.” Sanballatry.
Nehemiah was a man who had been taken into exile to the country of Persia, where he was given the job of cupbearer for King Artaxerxes I. A cupbearer was actually a high rank within the court and Nehemiah had access to the king. One day, Nehemiah heard from a group of men from Judah that the rebuilding of Jerusalem was not going well; in fact, the walls of Jerusalem remained broken down and its gates were burned. The people were in trouble and disgraced.
God gave Nehemiah a vision to go and rebuild the walls and, because the gracious hand of God was upon him, Nehemiah was able to approach the king and the king granted Nehemiah’s requests. Artaxerxes provided letters of safe conduct to the governors of the lands through which Nehemiah would be traveling. He also wrote a letter commanding the keeper of the forest to provide enough lumber to make beams for the gates and the city wall. And the king sent along army officers and cavalry to travel with Nehemiah.
Word of this reached the governor Sanballat and his cronies including a man named Tobiah. These guys were really annoyed that someone had come from the Persian court to help the people. If Israel got back on its feet economically and militarily, this gang of thugs would lose control of the region.
Nehemiah made his way to the city and got the people working on rebuilding. Individuals and families from every walk of life united to build. And up again popped Sanballat, ridiculing and mocking, saying, “What are these feeble people doing?”
“Sanballat was thorough in his criticism. He left no stone unturned in his search for reasons why the wall would never be completed. He criticized the character of the builders. He questioned their ability. He challenged their commitment to finish what they started. And, to top it off, he questioned the feasibility of the entire project to begin with. Then his sidekick, Tobiah, chimed in. He described Nehemiah’s entire workforce as incompetent. Even if they were to finish the wall, the weight of a fox, he said, would cause it to crumble.
These scare tactics were intended to stop the work but Nehemiah’s response was to call on God. “Hear us, O God, for we are despised.” Why should he pray in this way? Because the enemies of God had insulted God’s people.
Likewise, today, while we pray for our enemies, we also ask for God’s protection when they seek to harm us. And, if the attacks become vicious, we can even ask God to stop our enemies in their tracks and suffer reversals in order that the work may go on. While Nehemiah prayed, his fellow Judeans continued to work on the wall until it reached half of its required height.
As we’ll see later on, when Sanballat and his buddies realized their ridicule hadn’t work, they plotted even more trouble but it got them no further than it had at the start.
Sanballats. Sanballats refuse to acknowledge you and your contributions and constantly attempt to undermine you and your position, your worth, your value, your potential. And, as I said at the outset today, Sanballats are everywhere.
Have you poured your heart into a job and had another tear you down to your boss or bosses or to your co-workers? Have you ever had another person steal your work and take credit for it? Ever had a co-worker or a boss humiliate you, demean you, shout at you or threaten you in front of others? Ever had your responsibility increased but your authority taken away? Sanballat.
Or in your home have you seen, can you see a Sanballat telling you you’re stupid, ugly, fat, hopeless, incompetent? Was there, is there, a Sanballat who tears you down or tore you down in front of friends or other family members?
At school, can you see the Sanballat, ridiculing others, bullying, mocking the way someone is dressed, stuffing someone in a locker, laughing at one who’s wet his pants or dropped her lunch tray?
At the Kid’s Health website, the story is told about 10-year-old Seth who each day asked his mom for more and more lunch money. Yet he seemed skinnier than ever and came home from school hungry. It turned out that Seth was handing his lunch money to a fifth-grader, who was threatening to beat him up if he didn't pay.
Kayla, 13, thought things were going well at her new school, since all the popular girls were being so nice to her. But then she found out that one of them had posted mean rumors about her on a website. Kayla cried herself to sleep that night and started going to the nurse's office complaining of a stomachache to avoid the girls in study hall.
Bullying can leave deep emotional scars that last for a lifetime. And in extreme situations, bullying can escalate in violent threats, property damage, or someone getting seriously hurt.
Some bullies use name-calling, threats, and mocking. Some bully by shunning others or spreading rumors about them.
But, as we’ve acknowledged today, Sanballats are nothing new. And we all have Sanballats in our lives. They’re the ones who often stand at a bit of a distance from you and chip away at what you’re building. They often don’t confront you directly; they talk behind your back and cause rumbles so that your foundation shakes.
Sanballats ordinarily are those who bring words of discouragement week after week, month after month, and they ordinarily don’t act alone. They have Tobiahs with them. They feed on each other’s destructive influence and they can create other Sanballats, more Tobiahs.
Are you a Sanballat or a Nehemiah? Are you about building up and encouraging or are you about tearing down, destroying and discouraging? Are you a critic, a chronic complainer? Can you even see that you are a Sanballat if you are a Sanballat?
Or…are you the one who allows the Sanballats to bring words of discouragement, offering no challenge to them? If people come to you again and again with words of tearing down, perhaps it’s because they know you’ll listen to them and be a Tobiah for them. Are you a Tobiah egging on a Sanballat, echoing words of mockery and criticism? Are you a Sanballat who finds the pettiest, most useless, things to gripe about? Or are you a Sanballat who, with a quick slice, cuts someone down with just a word?
We can all identify with the story of Nehemiah because if you or anyone you know has every pursued a vision of any magnitude, it’s been criticized. Perhaps the vision reminded someone of what they are not and of what they could and should be. And the only thing they know to do is criticize.
This is one reason new believers often face so much rejection from their non-Christian friends. The new believer catches a vision of what could be and should be for his or her life and it reflects poorly on those who are content with the ways things are. So they do what they can to discourage progress. They criticize.
When someone catches a vision for bettering himself educationally or financially, his vision is often met with criticism from the people closest to him. Why? Because those who have no such vision feel threatened by those who have decided to get up and do something for themselves.
A vision may cause someone around you to feel as if he or she is losing control. This is why unbelieving people are sometimes critical of their believing partners. Parents may criticize their children as a result of the same dynamic. When there’s a change, people may open fire to regain control or to bring you back down to their level.
Regardless of what drives your critics, if you let them get to you, your candle will go out. You will lose heart. You will give up. What could be and should be never will be -- at least not as a result of your labor. And when you let someone rob you of what could be and should be, a part of you dies as well.
So – notice Nehemiah’s first response when the vision was attacked. He prayed and what a prayer!
“Hear, O God, how we are despised! Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.”
Nehemiah was ticked off. He was tired. The builders were tired. And now this! He wanted justice. He wanted Sanballat and his crew out of his face. Was this an appropriate prayer? Sure. He was telling his God how he felt.
But, in this, don’t miss the first response to Sanballats. In a high-stakes, emotionally-charged environment, Nehemiah’s immediate response was prayer. Nehemiah moved from the criticism right into prayer. He immediately passed along everything he was thinking and feeling to the only One who could do anything about it. He didn’t sugarcoat it. He just unloaded and then he went back to work. He didn’t allow his critics to become the focus of his attention. He didn’t begin a dialogue with his critics or with those parroting their criticism.
This is one of the most important lessons in responding to critics. Don’t let your focus shift. Instead of being vision-centered, we can slowly become critic-centered.
Criticism strikes an emotional chord in us. That emotion has to go somewhere. To reflect it back on our critics is to play their game. To bottle it up inside can result in depression or some other illness. Another option is to dump it out on someone completely unrelated to the situation: your spouse, your friends, your employees, your children. That only complicates things.
The only healthy and profitable thing to do is to pour out your heart to your heavenly Father. After all, He knows what’s in your heart anyway. He can handle the venting. He wants us to take our deepest frustrations and hurts to Him. That kind of honest communication is necessary if you’re going to develop or deepen intimacy with God. Now there are other steps Nehemiah took after that initial lifting of prayer but we’ll save a review of those for another time.
So, wrapping up, if you’re a Sanballat, chipping away at what others are building, chronically criticizing, talking behind the backs of others, bringing words of discouragement, always nit-picking, always picking a fight, pray today for the Lord to transform you into a Nehemiah. Don’t let another day go by with that junk in your soul, looking always for what’s wrong and not for what’s right, tearing down and building nothing.
If you’re a Tobiah, egging on the Sanballat, echoing words of mockery or criticism, you need to repent as well and pray for the Lord to make of you a Nehemiah.
May we all seek after God’s vision and will for our lives, remain vision-focused, not critic-focused. And remember prayer puts criticism in its proper context. When you evaluate the words of the critic in light of your own finite resources, it can be overwhelming. But when criticism is held up against the backdrop of our Father’s infinite resources, criticism loses its power. Your passion is rekindled and you will find the strength to put your hands to the good work. Prayer puts you in a better position to respond to your critics and, having vented to the One who knows your heart, you will eventually find it easier to address your critics with grace.