“…but don’t take it personally!”

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Have you ever had the experience of being verbally blasted, embarrassed, humiliated, or insulted and then placated with an absurd, “but don’t take it personally.”? Rarely is the phrase used unless in fact something very personal and probably painful has been said. Seldom are we told not to “take it personally” unless that is about the only way we can “take it”.

In actual fact though, despite the circumstances in which such an instruction is often given, Christians, and especially church leaders, can seldom afford to “take it personally.” Their responsibility is to respond in a genuinely Christ-like manner, mindful of the good shepherd’s perceptions and priorities. When he was abused, verbally or otherwise, he did not take it personally (1 Pet. 2:23, or Luke 13:10-17 for example). Never did Jesus say or imply, “how dare you say that to me?”, but always he dealt with the insults and objections of others as though they required a reasoned response and clear teaching, or else simple forgiveness recognizing that “they know not what they do.” Those who are his representatives in this world must likewise learn to respond to insult or injury without “taking it personally” whether or not it was in fact meant personally. Christians should rarely take offense at the words of others, whether brethren or otherwise, and should never respond in kind to hurtful remarks or unsympathetic criticisms. When we are consumed with a zeal to respond, we must be sure that it is “zeal for your house” (John 2:17) and not zeal for our own dignity or our own defense.

What is true of Christians in this regard is even more stringently demanded of appointed church leaders; evangelists, elders, and deacons. Of those who are “masters” or teachers, much is required, especially in the consideration of verbal responses (James 3). Paul directed Timothy to “gently instruct” those who oppose him (2 Tim. 2:24-26), in the hope that they would come to their senses and be saved. This becomes impossible when the evangelist, or the elder, has taken personal offense and let his own perceived dignity interfere with his Godly responsibility. In his other epistles, those to the churches, Paul never said to any of them, or of any of them, “I’ve been offended, I need an apology.” On the contrary, he labored to avoid having any perceived personal offence detract from the advancement of the gospel of Christ and the salvation of souls.

In his letters to the Corinthians Paul certainly had cause to blame them for personal offenses, had every reason to “take it personally” since they had in fact directed attacks against him personally. He could have taken offense for personal attacks, or for attacks on his God given office, but instead he saw the overriding need for explanation, for appeal, for encouragement to see things as God does. He was truly and deeply hurting because of the Corinthian situation (2 Cor. 2:4) but what he wanted to communicate to them was that his love for them survived, that it was his depth of love that caused the pain of concern for them, and not feelings of pride or anguish over being personally attacked. All who lead in the Lord’s church must aspire to handle offenses as Paul instructed, and as he demonstrated, which is to say, in imitation of Christ’s own behavior. The person who is thought to be a church leader, and yet “takes things personally”, becoming offended by the words or actions of others, needs to reexamine their own spiritual maturity and whether they are really capable of offering leadership to God’s people. One who is full of self-pity, wounded pride, or bitter recriminations can seldom accomplish the goals of eldership (Titus 1:9-11 or 1 Pet. 5:1-4), the mission of evangelism (1 Cor. 9:19-22) or the service of deaconing (Acts 6:1-7). There just is no room in the job descriptions of church leaders for “taking things personally”.

If church leaders (or maturing Christians in general) cannot “take things personally”, how can they learn to do otherwise? There are several answers that have merit, beginning with the need to get better acquainted with Jesus Christ and learn a new appreciation for what he came to do. Seeing people as he saw them, as sheep without a shepherd for example, and seeing the value of every individual human being, as he did, can help us a lot in overcoming the tendency to feel insulted. A realistic consideration of the weaknesses, strengths, values, and needs of other human beings will often put “personal insult” into the ridiculous category it belongs in. Our egos should be strong in Christ, not weak and fearful in ourselves. Furthermore, when we feel insulted or inclined to “take it personally” we should realistically consider whether we are not in fact afraid that some criticism or accusation may be true. Perhaps the real hurt and anger comes from within ourselves, and not from words or actions authored by someone else. Jesus had tremendous confidence (call it faith!) in his own standing with God and would not be easily thrown into a panic or a rage by the slander of others. Our own confidence (faith!) in God’s care and involvement in our lives is the best refuge against a rebellious ego feeling threatened by someone else’s words or actions.

If we are to grow up in Christ, each of us doing our part for the good of the whole body, then we must outgrow the natural tendency to “take things personally” and instead take things as children of God, secure in our relationship to Him, not needing to defend our dignity or require apologies. And those who lead, most of all, must lead as Christ led, dismissing insult and offense and getting on with the challenging job of saving and keeping souls in Christ. If we are to fear anything, let’s not fear criticism or disagreement (Prov. 9:8), but fear rather the potential harm of letting personal feelings govern our response to other people, people loved by God and needing a Godly response.

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