To be a critic, you have to have maybe three percent education, five percent
intelligence, two percent style, and ninety percent gall.
During my thirty-two years in the ministry, I’ve officiated at well over one hundred weddings. While I don’t remember most of them, I must tell you there are a few I’ll never forget. Like the one where the bride fell down . . . in the mud.
It was about an hour before the ceremony. The wedding party had gone outside with the photographer to find a pretty spot for some pictures. They found one, but it meant walking through a small depression made squishy by some early morning showers. Everyone stepped lightly and hiked up their pant legs and dresses, making it into position without incident.
It was the return trip that brought disaster.
The bride, walking on her tiptoes in shoes she wasn’t used to, turned her ankle when she tried to sidestep a small puddle. I doubt she would have yelped any louder if someone had dropped a frog down her dress. Her future husband, who had been looking the other way, turned around and grabbed her arm as she was going down. Thankfully, he kept her from landing on her face in the mud. But he wasn’t quick enough to save her dress. By the time she regained her balance and stepped clear of the mire, there were several splashes of brown on the glossy white fabric.
At this point, let me just say that you’ve never seen panic until you’ve seen a bride get mud on her dress an hour before her wedding. The poor girl burst into tears as her attendants rushed to her side. Chaos reigned as they all talked at the same time, some consoling her and others offering frantic suggestions. Finally, they whisked her inside to the ladies’ room where they soaped and rinsed the dirty spots as well as they could and held the fabric under a hand dryer. Later, when she walked down the aisle, the stains were less conspicuous, but still visible.
Unfortunately, that young woman is not the only mud-splattered bride I’ve known. The other is the church, the bride of Christ.
You may remember that John the Baptist called Jesus “the bridegroom” (John 3:29 NLT), and that Paul said marriage is “an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one” (Ephesians 5:32 NLT). In Revelation 21:9, the church is specifically called “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (NLT), and in Revelation 19:7–8, we even have a reference to their wedding reception:
“Let us be glad and rejoice and honor him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself. She is permitted to wear the finest white linen.” (Fine linen represents the good deeds done by the people of God.) (NLT)
It’s those last two sentences that spark my imagination.
I read recently about a movie star’s wedding dress that cost more than $3 million, and another that set a new world record with a 515-foot train. No doubt those were impressive gowns. But if, as this passage says, the church’s wedding dress is made of the accumulated good deeds she has performed throughout history, surely hers is the most sparkling and beautiful of them all.
Imagine, then, how upset the Lord must be when we sling mud on her. Consider how it must break His heart when we thoughtlessly besmirch the one He gave His life for with unbecoming words and actions. And think about how angry it must make Him when we do it again and again.
We fully expect the world to throw mud on the bride of Christ. Those who resent what the church stands for will never grow tired of castigating her. But it’s beyond tragic that God’s own people would be caught doing it. And we are, more often than you might think.
I’ve observed that four types of believers are responsible for most of the mud splatters on the bride of Christ.
Group number one would be the missing. Every church in the world has some members who have gone AWOL. They are the people who, for whatever reason, have left the church. They haven’t died or moved to another community. They’ve just stopped attending worship services and quit participating in activities. Sometimes they leave in a huff and other times they drift away gradually. But regardless of how they leave, sooner or later someone is going to notice and ask them why. At that point, they will have two choices: take responsibility or play the blame game. And if they choose the latter, you better duck because the mud is going to fly.
Awhile back, I talked to a couple of our AWOL members just a few days apart. The first gentleman engaged me in a lengthy conversation about his “frustrations” with our congregation, which, of course, were his reasons for dropping out. And, boy, did he have a long list of them! I sat and listened (and bit my tongue) while he hammered away. I remember thinking he couldn’t possibly be talking about the same church I had been pastoring for the last seventeen years. Almost nothing he said connected with my experience. In fact, some of his criticisms were so silly that I got the feeling he was making them up as he went along. Or maybe he was parroting what he’d heard other people say about other churches. In the end, only one of his complaints rang true.
The second AWOL member I spoke to was a woman who didn’t attack the church at all. She simply apologized for her laziness. She made no excuses, offered no rationalizations, and hurled no barbs. She assured me that she loved the church and acknowledged that she needed to start hauling her sorry self out of bed a little earlier on Sunday mornings. I really appreciated her honesty, and told her so. It would have been very easy for her to try to take some heat off herself by doing what the man did.
Of course, I am not suggesting that churches are never guilty of driving people away. Everybody knows it happens. But we also know that every human being alive has a buck-passing gene that flares up every now and then. Since the beginning of time, people have been trying to deflect attention away from their own failures. Like Adam, who had the audacity to blame God for giving him the woman who enticed him to eat the forbidden fruit (see Genesis 3:12), the spiritually lazy can come up with some pretty outrageous (and groundless) accusations when they find themselves on the hot seat. And though they may not think about it at the time, those accusations stain the bride of Christ.
The second group of mudslingers would be the malcontents. Back in the early 1980s, a series of Saturday Night Live skits featured Joe Piscopo and Robin Duke as Doug and Wendy Whiner. The Whiners moaned and complained constantly, even when something good happened to them. In one episode, their coach-class airline tickets were unexpectedly upgraded to first class, but they complained because the seats were too roomy and the bubbles from the complimentary champagne tickled their noses.
Sadly, there are Doug and Wendy clones in every church. They’re the malcontents, the chronic complainers, the squeaky wheels that no amount of grease will ever silence. George Bernard Shaw once said that a drama critic is a person who leaves no turn unstoned. A church malcontent is a person who leaves no preacher or program unstoned. You can knock yourself out trying to make them happy (and a lot of preachers do), but it won’t matter. They will still find something to complain about.
The good news is that such people tend to discredit and isolate themselves over time. Dealing with them is like rubbing up against sandpaper, and positive people quickly realize it and back away. The bad news is that they are still mudslinging machines even though they have few friends. At the bank, the barbershop, the beauty parlor, the grocery store, and a host of other places, they will spew their caustic comments and make the bride of Christ sound like a tramp to those who don’t know her.
The third group of mudslingers would be the moochers. They’re the people who have somehow gotten the idea that the church exists for the sole purpose of meeting their needs. Consequently, they suck up everything the church has to offer but rarely, if ever, give anything in return. They have what I call the “motel mentality.” They walk in expecting everything to be perfectly prepared for their comfort and convenience, and walk out leaving the bed unmade and all their dirty towels piled up on the bathroom floor.
The problem, of course, is that the church isn’t a motel. The members aren’t guests, and the people on the church staff aren’t maids and bellhops. On the contrary, in the biblical church, if anything, everybody is a maid or a bellhop. We’re all supposed to be serving one another!
In John 13, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet. When He finished He made a statement that forever put to rest the notion that we come into the church to be served. He said, “And since I, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you” (John 13:14–15 NLT).
Nothing could be clearer, yet there are still people in every congregation who judge the church solely on the basis of the way it caters to their whims. And do they holler when it doesn’t! Complaints and criticisms fly, and, once again, Christ’s bride is splattered.
The fourth group of mudslingers would be the misbehavers. One of the best things about pastoring the same church for seventeen years is that you get to know so many people in the community. One of the worst things is that so many people get to know you. I often have people walk up to me at the mall, the supermarket, or in a restaurant and start talking to me as if we’re old friends, even though I have no idea who they are. That’s always a little disconcerting, especially when something they say knocks me off balance.
On one occasion, a woman I didn’t know struck up a conversation with me in a local hardware store. Our discussion would have qualified as nothing more than idle chitchat if it hadn’t taken this nasty turn:
Stranger: Doesn’t _________ _________ go to your church?
Me: Yes, he does.
Stranger: Well, you should be very proud.
Me: Why is that?
Stranger: Because he was in our office yesterday and threw a fit.
Stranger: Yes. Oh, he was real friendly at first and even invited me to church. Then, after his meeting with my boss, he was furious. He said a few choice words and even told my boss to go to hell as he was walking out the door.
I cringed. And apologized. And said something to the effect that occasionally good people do things they later regret. I assured her that our church would never condone such behavior and then, feeling like an idiot, said that I hoped she would still come and worship with us sometime. She never has, as far as I know.
Ah, those misbehavers!
They don’t just sling mud on the bride of Christ. They pick up handfuls of it and smear it all over her. And then they haul off and punch her in the nose for good measure. It’s my belief that no one does more to make the church look like a bunch of hypocrites. The missing, the malcontents, and the moochers all put together probably don’t do as much damage to the kingdom.
Years ago I heard a powerful quote. I’ve long since forgotten who said it, but it surfaces in my mind every time a misbehaving brother or sister makes headlines:
He that gives good advice, builds with one hand. He that gives good advice and sets a good example, builds with both hands. But he that gives good advice and sets a bad example, builds with one hand and tears down with the other.
John 13 offers us a great way to ensure that we’re building with both hands. Jesus was spending His final hours with His disciples, which made it a very emotional time. They’d been through a lot together and were no doubt closer to one another at that point than they were to their own families. The very notion that something bad might be about to happen to Jesus was a heavy burden, but it was made even heavier by this nuclear bomb Jesus dropped into their conversation:
The Scriptures declare, “The one who shares my food has turned against me,” and this will soon come true . . . The truth is, one of you will betray me! (John 13:18, 21 NLT)
This comment jolted the disciples. Whispers erupted as they tried to make some sense of it. Jesus couldn’t possibly mean that one of them was a traitor, could He? But they knew He would never make such a statement if He didn’t mean it. Finally, Peter nodded to John, who happened to be sitting next to Jesus, prompting him to lean over and whisper into Jesus’ ear, “Lord, who is it?”
Right now, I hope this is your earnest prayer. In fact, I hope it will be your prayer as you move from chapter to chapter in this book. Please don’t assume that when I identify blundering believers, I must be talking about someone else. Have the courage to ask, “Lord, who is it? Am I the one who does these things?”
Again, guilt in these areas doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a terrible person. It doesn’t mean you don’t love the Lord. It doesn’t mean you aren’t going to heaven. It could simply mean that you’ve slipped into some bad habits. The important thing is to recognize the seriousness of the problem, and one way to do that is to think about the damage that’s being done.
There’s no way to measure how much damage is done to the kingdom when believers thoughtlessly sling mud on the bride of Christ, but I suspect it’s more than we realize. At the very least, we can safely make the following three statements:
FIRST, WHEN MUD IS SLUNG, THE DEVIL IS HANDED AN OPPORTUNITY. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul said, “For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms” (NLT).
When I read that passage, I can’t help picturing Satan as a military commander, pacing back and forth in a hi-tech control room. Banks of computers are gathering data from all around the world. Slimy creatures are hunched over computer keyboards, gathering and processing information. Suddenly, a siren begins to screech as one of them cries out, “We have a snide remark just confirmed!” Satan’s ugly head snaps around as the name of the speaker and the exact location on planet Earth are reported. “Bravo, Team Six, let’s do it!” he shouts, and dispatches a six-demon team of snide-remark specialists to the scene with orders to get as much mileage out of the comment as possible.
That scene, though fictitious, may not be as far from reality as you think. I believe that if we had any idea how the unseen forces of evil mobilize and try to exploit our negative words and actions, we’d be a lot more careful. There’s no doubt in my mind that Satan’s favorite believers are the missing, the malcontents, the moochers, and the misbehavers—for the simple reason that they create endless opportunities for him to make the church look bad.
SECOND, WHEN MUD IS SLUNG, THE LOST ARE HANDED AN EXCUSE. I know a man who resisted Christ for several years. His wife and children were Christians, and he seemed to have no particular aversion to attending church. I would see him there about half the time. He even participated in some of our activities with his family. But he always balked when I or anyone else tried to talk to him about accepting Jesus as his Savior.
Then one day he did it.
There was no warning, no fanfare, and no hesitation. He just walked forward one Sunday morning at invitation time, committed his life to Christ, and was baptized. He even caught his wife off guard. When I asked him why he suddenly changed his mind, he gave a telling answer. He said, “I guess I just ran out of excuses.”
I’ve never forgotten that incident and have used it many times to illustrate what I think is a powerful point. Some lost people will exhaust every excuse before they finally accept Christ. They’re like the four-year-old boy who doesn’t want to go to sleep. He needs a drink of water, has a tummy ache, hears a strange noise, has a headache, needs to go to the bathroom, and on and on until his parents are wondering what it was about having kids that ever made them think they’d like it. But then, just before they agree to put him up for adoption . . . silence! The little guy has run out of excuses. He’s lost his will to keep up the fight. More important, he’s grown so tired that sleep suddenly seems like a good thing.
Whether we like it or not (or even understand it), this is just the kind of process a lot of lost people go through before they accept the Lord. How disheartening it is to realize that we actually furnish them with excuses when we sling mud on the bride of Christ. Every splatter gives them yet another opportunity to rationalize and pushes them ever closer to a Christless eternity.
FINALLY, WHEN MUD IS SLUNG, THE LORD IS HANDED A HEARTACHE. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I enjoyed coaching Little League. One evening, some parents were sitting in the stands during one of our games, ripping me apart. They thought I had the wrong kid pitching, the wrong kid batting leadoff, the wrong kid batting cleanup, and so on. (Of course, they were really just mad because I hadn’t chosen their kids for those positions!) At any rate, the game didn’t go well. We fell further and further behind and, as we did, the parents grew more and more unhappy. Our eventual drubbing only confirmed in their minds that I was a complete idiot and knew nothing about baseball.
But here’s the kicker.
They didn’t know my wife and, therefore, didn’t realize she was sitting a few feet away.
She sat there throughout the entire game and listened to them criticize and mock me. Afterward, on the way home, she was completely distraught and told me everything she’d heard. When I asked why she didn’t just get up and move to another section of the bleachers, she said she couldn’t. She wanted to know what they were saying, even though it was killing her.
It’s always tough to listen to someone bash your spouse. America’s first lady, Laura Bush, has been quoted as saying that the hardest thing about being a politician’s wife is having to listen to the ugly things people say about your husband. Things you know are not true. And if we feel that way about our spouses, can’t we assume the Lord would feel the same about His? Listening to people callously ripping His bride must break His heart, especially when the ripping is being done by people who ought to know better.
Right now, the question you need to be asking is not whether you’ve ever slung mud on the bride of Christ. I’m sure you have. Just as I have, and every other Christian I know has. We’ve all had weak moments and bad days. We’ve all said and done things that reflected poorly on the Lord and His church. No, the question you need to be asking is whether you sling mud as a matter of habit or routine. That’s really the critical issue. And it may be a tougher question to answer than you think.
Years ago, I knew a man who peppered his speech with profanity. It embarrassed his wife, who was a new Christian, so she began pressuring him to break the habit. He never denied that he had a tendency to let a bad word fly every now and then, but he honestly felt she was overreacting. He said his language wasn’t nearly as bad as she made it out to be.
So she secretly recorded one of their conversations. She felt guilty doing it, but she knew it was the only way to convince him that he had a serious problem. And it worked. Before she played the tape, she asked him to estimate how many swearwords he had used. He guessed three or four. But when they replayed the tape, they counted a dozen. His swearing had become such a habit that his ears were becoming deaf to it.
Right now, I’m wondering if the same thing has happened to you. Have you been slinging mud on the bride of Christ for so long that you don’t even realize you’re doing it? Could it be that the people around you routinely cringe at your insensitive comments and questionable lifestyle choices, while you skip merrily along, oblivious to the effect you’re having? Is it possible that you have become more of a hindrance than a help to your church?
As I said, this is a tough question to answer. It’s so terribly hard to see ourselves as we really are. So I want to offer you some help. I’m going to ask four questions that will serve as a spiritual mirror for you . . . if you can find the courage to answer them honestly.
QUESTION #1: WHEN YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH YOUR CHURCH, DO YOU APPROACH YOUR LEADERS, OR DO YOU JUST START BLABBING ABOUT IT TO ANYONE WHO WILL LISTEN? Every church has some sort of leadership team: a pastor, elders, deacons, etc. There is a chain of command that exists for the very purpose of solving problems and keeping the church vibrant and healthy. Most church leaders are happy to hear about the members’ concerns and to address them. Of course, some complaints are not legitimate and some problems are not fixable. But when they are, the majority of church leaders will act in good faith.
Yet, many unhappy church members never go to the leadership with their complaints. Amazingly, they never do the one thing that offers them the best chance of finding satisfaction. Instead, they immediately start venting their frustrations to their friends and neighbors and coworkers—all the people who aren’t in a position to help, but certainly are in a position to fan the flames and spread those criticisms throughout the community.
What about you? Have you ever made an appointment to talk to your pastor or your elders about a complaint? Have you ever given them the courtesy of hearing about it and having a chance to deal with it before you began spreading it throughout the community? If not, let me encourage you to do just that.
If a complaint is boiling inside you right now, go to the person on your church’s leadership team whom you feel the most connected to and share your thoughts in a calm and courteous manner. Then listen with an open mind. It’s very likely that the leader you’re talking to will have a perspective on the situation you haven’t thought of or information you aren’t aware of. It’s absolutely critical that you be ready to process new information because you’re probably going to get some. But whether you do or not, be ready to show some patience. Few problems are solved overnight, so you must be willing to give your leaders time to think, pray, and act. And while they’re thinking, praying, and acting, keep quiet!
QUESTION #2: WHAT IS YOUR CHURCH CONTENTMENT QUOTIENT? This is a little mathematical equation I came up with that can be very revealing. Simply subtract the number of communities you’ve lived in from the number of churches you’ve attended. For example, if you’ve lived in the same community for the last ten years, but have attended three different churches, then your Church Contentment Quotient would be 2 for that period.
Obviously, the perfect CCQ would be 0. It would mean you’ve attended the same church for the entire time you’ve lived in your community. It would also likely indicate that you’re not a malcontent. Malcontents generally have high CCQ’s. I know one fellow who’s worked his way up to a 4! He’s lived at the same address since I’ve known him, but he’s currently attending his fifth church! The church where I preach was number three. (Yes, he got upset with us and marched out the door slinging mud right and left.) Recently, I spoke to the pastor of the man’s current church. Imagine my shock when I learned that he’s now upset with them!
Of course, there are good reasons for changing churches. If the Word of God is compromised or people are mistreated, you’d probably be making a mistake if you didn’t move on to a different congregation. But let’s face it. People who bounce from church to church every couple of years simply because they get bent out of shape are generally malcontents. And, as we’ve already seen, malcontent is just another name for mudslinger.
So do the math. What’s your CCQ?
QUESTION #3: DO YOU HAVE ANY HABITS OR ENJOY ANY ACTIVITIES THAT YOU WOULD HATE FOR YOUR CHURCH LEADERS TO FIND OUT ABOUT? Recently, I went into a local Italian restaurant to buy a gift card for a friend. The hostess at the front door directed me to the bar because the bartender was designated to handle all gift card transactions. I wasn’t crazy about bellying up to the bar, even if it was just for a gift card. But since that particular restaurant is one of my friend’s favorites, I set out in that direction.
I wish I hadn’t.
Sitting at the bar with both hands wrapped around a half-empty mug of beer was someone I knew from church. I could tell he was deeply embarrassed when he looked up and saw me standing there. I said hello and tried to act as though it was no big deal, but he had been a Christian long enough to know it was. He even mumbled something about getting busted. It was one of those awkward situations that all preachers hate, but that we blindly walk into from time to time.
Again, what about you? Could you have been the guy on that barstool? Is there something going on in your life that you would be embarrassed for your pastor or other church friends to find out about? Are there times when your behavior simply doesn’t square with your profession of faith?
If so, you are taking an awful risk. What’s hidden in some dark corner of your life at this moment could be exposed to the whole world before the sun rises tomorrow morning. You may think it could never happen. You may have worked hard to design and construct a foolproof system for indulging your guilty pleasure on the sly. But trust me. There are millions of people walking around who will be happy to tell you all about how their own supposedly foolproof systems collapsed on them like a Chicago Cubs pennant drive. My guess is that yours will, too, sooner or later. And when it does, you will have soiled a whole lot more than just your own reputation. You will have muddied the bride of Christ.
QUESTION #4: HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN SINCE YOU BRAGGED ABOUT YOUR CHURCH? I know bragging isn’t generally thought of as a virtue. But in this case I think we have an exception to the rule. In a world where mud is slung at the least provocation, there’s just something refreshing about hearing someone speak in glowing terms about his church.
Several years ago, the teacher of one of our children’s classes asked her students to finish the sentence “I love my church because . . .” Then she encouraged them to put their sentences on colorful posters that could be used to decorate their classroom. I was alone one day when I walked around the room looking at them. Before I finished, I found myself both grinning and getting a little misty-eyed. Here are some examples of the children’s completed sentences:
• “I love my church because Jesus lives there.”
• “I love my church because nobody here yells at me.”
• “I love my church because I love being with my friends.”
• “I love my church because my teacher is nice.”
• “I love my church because my little brother is in a different class.”
After our Wednesday evening services, I often walk through the education area of our building. I stick my head into classrooms, greet the teachers, and talk to some of the children. It never ceases to amaze me how much joy and positive energy is in the air. Everywhere I turn I see smiles and hear giggles. I get waves and hugs and high fives. It’s truly one of the highlights of my week.
But it makes me wonder.
Why do so many of us start out as children loving the bride of Christ so much, and end up just a few years later slinging mud on her? How is it that we can skip merrily through the halls singing “Jesus Loves Me” when we’re eight, but by the time we’re thirty-eight, all we can think about is how somebody in the youth department ought to keep those noisy brats quiet?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that it’s wonderful to hear someone brag about his church. How long has it been since you did?
I realize that if you’ve answered these questions honestly, you may now be feeling like a heel. You may be staring at your hands in horror, seeing mud stains for the first time. You may be digging at the grime under your fingernails and wondering how in the world you’re ever going to get rid of it.
To answer that question, let me take you to the book of Job.
Throughout most of the book of Job, God keeps quiet and lets Job and his friends do all the talking. Or shall I say, the complaining. At one point, Job is so distraught that he starts slinging some serious mud. He says, “I cry to you, O God, but you don’t answer me. I stand before you, and you don’t bother to look. You have become cruel toward me. You persecute me with your great power” (30:20–21 NLT). But in chapter 38, God breaks His silence with an amazing speech that includes a penetrating question aimed right at Job. He ultimately says, “You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (40:2 NLT).
That had to sting.
Yet, to Job’s everlasting credit, he offers the perfect response. He says, “I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers? I will put my hand over my mouth in silence. I have said too much already. I have nothing more to say” (40:4–5 NLT).
Something tells me that the question God asked Job is awfully close to the one He would ask of mudslingers everywhere: “You’re the church’s critic. You have no trouble enumerating her problems. But do you have the answers?”
Further, I have a feeling that the only appropriate response a mudslinger could ever offer is the one Job gave: “I’m sorry. I’ve said too much. I’ll keep my mouth shut from now on.”
An answer like that can come only from an enlightened, repentant heart. When you can offer it and really mean it, you will have taken the first step toward your new life as a recovering mudslinger.