If you want to avoid hate mail, simply avoid any public leadership role. Yes, pastors receive their “fair share” of hate mail, but so also do politicians, business owners, teachers, and many others.
That said, there are seasons when pastors receive more hate mail than normal, and now is probably one of them, when churches and pastors are taking courageous yet unpopular stands on numerous moral issues. So what should we do when the haters start hating?
Let’s first recognize the difference between hate mail and appropriate criticism. Hate mail is motivated by hate, a desire to harm and hurt. It is usually insensitive in tone and content, and intends to discourage, damage, dishearten, and demoralize.Appropriate criticism is motivated by love, by a desire to help and grow a person. It is expressed with kindness, wisdom, and balance. Unless we have a particularly thin skin, or have developed a martyr complex, it’s usually quite easy to distinguish hate mail from constructive criticism.
Anonymous Hate Mail
Second, let’s distinguish anonymous from signed hate mail. My practice used to be that if there was no identifying name on the envelope or letter, that I would trash it once I had read enough to recognize it as hate mail (usually the first couple of sentences was enough to identify the characteristic abusive and threatening language).
I still recommend reading no further than necessary to discern the hostile nature of the communication; there’s no point in letting the author achieve his or her aim of upsetting or frightening you at no cost to themselves. However, instead of trashing them, I now suggest giving any such letters to an experienced Christian in your congregation, probably to an elder, and ask him to read them and keep them secure.
The advantage of this approach is that someone who is not the target of the hate can read the letters more objectively to see if there is any personal safety issue involved, and also to find out if one person is doing this repeatedly. If there are threats to personal safety, or if the letters are repeatedly coming from the same unidentified author, it may eventually be necessary to put them in the hands of the police.
Signed Hate Mail
But let’s leave anonymous communications and look now at how to deal with hate mail where the authors identify themselves but you do not know them personally. If you can find out a bit more about them, that should help you decide if it’s worth replying in a constructive way. Sometimes I have attempted to start a constructive dialogue—usually without success.
Most of the time, I decide that I just have too much important work to do than to give any time to modern-day Sanballats (Neh. 6:3). Usually I follow Hezekiah’s model of prayerfully placing the letter or e-mail before the Lord and ask for guidance as to whether or how to reply (2 Kings 19:14-16). I also ask the Lord to help me not to be intimidated or distracted and that the language and threats would not linger with me to disturb my peace.
The most difficult of all is signed hate mail from someone you know in your congregation. That’s not something you can ignore or dismiss. You will probably want to ask an elder or trusted Christian friend to read the letter with you in a more dispassionate and objective way and to give counsel about how to reply in a way that will maximize the hope of peacemaking.
Unless the letters are coming regularly from one source, I’m not for reporting them to the church leadership, as people can often fire off a letter in a bad temper and come to regret it later. There’s no point in damaging a person’s reputation or relationships with everyone else due to one foolish mistake.
When deciding how to respond, ask the following questions:
- Is it true? Is it even slightly true? Try to find a grain of truth in it if you can and acknowledge that in any reply.
- Is it proportionate? Is the writer blowing a small matter into a huge issue? Is this making a mountain out of a molehill?
- Is it specific? Is it addressing one issue or is it shooting buckshot at everything?
- Is it a godly Christian? If it is a mature and faithful Christian, then you will pay much more attention to it than to someone who is not a Christian, or who is an immature or unstable Christian.
- Is there something else behind the criticism? Could there be stress or trouble at home or at work that’s making someone lash out?
There’s often debate over the next step—how to communicate your response. Should you write a letter, e-mail, phone, or visit the person? I usually write briefly back noting receipt of the letter, and expressing a desire to meet soon to discuss its contents. I then let that sit for a couple of days before making contact by phone to arrange a meeting. I don’t recommend turning up on the person’s doorstep unannounced, nor do I recommend a phone call or e-mail as a first response. If the person’s emotions are still on the boil, then beware the potential for catastrophic confrontation. A letter, ideally handwritten, communicates that you are taking the criticism seriously but also allows feelings time to moderate.
Love Your Enemies
Pray for your haters, ask God to help you love them, and take every opportunity to do them good. Don’t avoid them and don’t take sneaky swipes at them from the pulpit. One of the wonders of the gospel is that God can make the worst of enemies the best of friends. View this as a massive opportunity to display the power of the gospel.
And even if the person remains hostile, we still have opportunity to enter into the sufferings of Christ (John 15:18-25) and to demonstrate the love of Christ (1 Peter 2:20-23). Let your haters drive you to the Lover.
This article first appeared at The Gospel Coalition.
Research shows that gratitude is a powerful force for creating positive changes in individuals, families, and organizations. In fact, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a research professor of psychology, “The expression of gratitude is a kind of metastrategy for achieving happiness.” Some of the more detailed findings, published in books like The Happiness Advantage,Flourish, and Optimal Functioning, are:
- Consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely.
- When researchers pick random volunteers and train them to be more grateful over a period of a few weeks, they become happier and more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better quality sleep, and even experience fewer headaches than control groups.
- By noticing more kindness you’ll experience more of it in your life. Counting kindness interventions involve taking daily tallies (mental or physical) of kind acts committed and witnessed, and have been shown to increase people’s levels of positivity.
- Gratitude encourages moral behavior and helps people cope with stress, trauma, and adversity.
- It also inhibits negative comparisons with others and pushes out and replaces negative emotions.
- When we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them.
- Studies show that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives
- Thankful people feel more physically healthy and spend more time exercising.
In The Happiness Project, the best-selling biographical experiment in positive psychology, Gretchen Rubin explains the benefits of increased thankfulness in her own life:
Gratitude brings freedom from envy, because when you’re grateful for what you have, you’re not consumed with wanting something different or something more. That, in turn, makes it easier to live within your means and also to be generous to others. Gratitude fosters forbearance – it’s harder to feel disappointed with someone when you’re feeling grateful toward him or her. Gratitude also connects you to the natural world, because one of the easiest things to feel grateful for is the beauty of nature.
We can increase gratitude in our lives by intensifying the feeling of it for each positive event, by increasing the frequency of it throughout the day, by widening the number of things we’re grateful for, and by expressing gratitude to more people. Some positive psychologists, like Jessica Colman, also encourage the practice of “savoring” which has three phases:
- Anticipation: Generating positive feelings before an event occurs.
- Present enjoyment: Generating positive feelings in the present by intensifying or prolonging them through thoughts and behaviors.
- Reminiscence: Generating positive feelings by looking back on an event in a way that re-kindles positive emotion.
In Flourish, Martin Seligman identified four kinds of savoring:
- Basking: Reveling in or making the most of praise or congratulations.
- Thanksgiving: Experiencing or expressing gratitude.
- Marveling: Being filled with wonder, astonishment, or awe.
- Luxuriating: Delighting in the experience of the senses.
Some more practical activities for increasing gratitude are explained in Optimal Functioning:
- Gratitude Journal: Write down what you are grateful for each day, and describe in detail why each good thing happened. This draws the attention to the precursors of good events and helps people become aware of more things to be grateful for, deepening the experience.
- Gratitude Essay or Letter: Write an essay about, or a letter to someone to whom you feel grateful. Explain why you feel grateful in detail. If you write a letter it is not necessary to deliver it, but delivering it can produce even more positive emotion for the writer and the receiver.
- Gratitude Partner: Plan to practice gratitude regularly with a partner by sharing good news and discussing things you feel grateful for. Respond actively and constructively when your partner shares, feeling the joy and gratitude with them when they share their blessings.
- Meditate on the Feeling of Gratitude: Sit in a quiet place to meditate, call to mind things you feel grateful for, savor the feeling of gratitude, and let it impact your whole body.
- Express Gratitude Directly: Make a habit of thanking people authentically for the things they do for you and the impact they have on your life.
More blessed to give than to receive
As far as I know, none of these positive psychology experts have Christian faith. And yet God is using them not only to confirm the Bible’s teaching about giving (of thanks) making us happier than receiving (Acts 20:35), but also to work out the practical details of how to increase gratitude in our lives for everyone’s benefit.
It’s the kind of thing that makes us wonder how unbelievers sometimes seem to have more understanding of biblical principles than Christians! But the Apostle Paul helps us make sense of this. He says that when unbelievers, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, they show the work of the law written in their hearts (Rom. 2:14-15).
Many books and films have explored the fascinating appeal of time travel. Usually a mad scientist constructs some kind of machine or potion that enables him or someone else to travel backwards or forwards in time. And of course, when they come back to the present, what they found out about the past or the future has a huge impact on how they view the present and what they do in the present.
Spiritual Time Travel
Although this remains a fantasy, something for science-fiction rather than non-fiction, the Bible encourages us to spiritual time travel. The believer uses faith to transport herself into the future, a spiritual experience that has significant sanctifying impact on the present (2 Peter 3:11). And in Romans 6, the believer uses faith to transport himself back in time, again with significant present impact.
This spiritual time travel is not an optional extra, something for high-flying Christians, but this is something for every Christian to try. In fact, you will never make much lasting progress in holiness if you do not travel back in time to Calvary’s cross and the empty tomb.
Let me put this as bluntly and as starkly as possible: The Christian’s holiness depends primarily on his/her ability to time travel by faith.
Yes there are other helpful strategies for pursuing holiness including diligent use of the means of grace, spiritual disciplines, remembering the warnings about disobedience, and the promises of spiritual reward for obedience. However, the greatest help to holiness, without which none of these others can have any lasting effects is learning to travel back in time by faith to the Cross of Calvary and the Empty Tomb.
So, let’s get in the faith machine and travel back about 1970 years. When we come out, what do we see?
Dead to sin
On a cross on Calvary’s hill we see a central figure limp and lifeless. We see Christ dead. More, we see Christ dead to sin (Rom. 6:10).
“Dead to sin?” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that Jesus stopped sinning – that He was alive to sin, living in sin, and now he’s dead to sin, no longer living in it.
What does it mean then?
Well, when someone dies, their connection with everything in this world ends. For example, they are severed from their family and friends. In that sense they are now dead to their family. They have no relationship or connection with them.
Similarly, “Christ died to sin” means He has no further relationship or connection with sin’s guilt and penalty – that’s severed and ended. As Paul said earlier: “He that is dead is freed from sin.” “The death he died, He died to sin once for all” (7, 10)
Prior to His death, the holy Jesus was in a constant agonizing relationship with sin’s guilt and penalty. But by His death, this connection, this relationship was decisively, emphatically, effectively, and forever severed. Sin’s guilt and death penalty no longer have any relationship to Him or rights over Him (v. 9).
What an amazing sight! Christ not only dead, but dead to sin!
But look a bit closer, Christian believer, exercise the eyes of faith even more, and you’ll see something else, or rather someone else there.
Who is it? It’s you!
“Our old man was crucified with him…We died with Christ” (v. 6, 8). The believer’s union with Christ in His death is a fact. But if we are to get the benefit of the fact, we need to do some “reckoning” (v. 11). That involves believing that Christ’s death to sin is identical to ours.
Just as Christ died to sin, in exactly the same way as Christ died to sin, so we are to reckon ourselves dead to sin. By virtue of our union with Christ, we have been decisively, emphatically, effectively, and forever severed from sin’s guilt and death as a penalty. They no longer have any relationship to us or rights over us (v. 9).
How much connection or relationship does sin’s guilt and death penalty have on Christ? So much connection does it have to the believer. None! Zero! Nada! Zilch!
Alive to God
But quickly travel three days forward with me and stand at the empty tomb. There you see a Christ who has risen from the dead and who is now “living unto God” (v. 10). Again this is not saying that prior to his resurrection He was not living unto God. No, He was perfect in every respect. However it indicates that his life with God, His communion with God, His connection with God was hampered, hindered, and reduced due to His relation to sin’s guilt and penalty. But once he was severed from those impediments, He resumed the life he enjoyed in perfect and uninterrupted loving fellowship with His Father that He had enjoyed from all eternity until He came to this world as the sin-bearer.
It’s a beautiful sight isn’t it? Christ living. More than that, living unto and with His Father as He had not done before in His human nature. “The life that He lives, He lives to God” (v. 10). No guilt or penalty to impede or obstruct or distance.
But look closer again, and you will again see yourself there again. “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.” That’s why Paul not only says “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin” but also “reckon yourselves to be alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 11).
Notice carefully, it’s not “Be dead to sin and alive to God!” The believer is already dead to sin and alive to God. It’s “Be convinced and persuaded of this.” Make this fact part of your faith.
And insofar as you are able to reckon this, insofar as you are convinced of this, so far you will have hope of obeying the imperatives in verses 12-13. Successful time travel to the past will result in successful sanctification in the present.
Free the Slaves
Sadly many Christians are like the older slaves after the declaration of emancipation. Even decades after the law was passed and they were legally severed from any responsibility and relationship to their masters, they found themselves still feeling obligated to them, bound to them in their minds and hearts, and fearing them, all of this damaging their present enjoyment of life. Perhaps if they could have traveled back in time and witnessed the signing of the declaration they could have lived more freely and happily.
Similarly some Christians continue to live with a paralyzing sense of guilt and a terror of God as judge and death as a penalty. But there is a solution. By faith we can travel back in time and see that we died to sin and now are alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. What a wonderful difference that should make to our present lives!
The Puritans not only accepted the existence of medical causes for depression and other mental disorders, but they also proposed various medical remedies. Admittedly, some of their “treatments” were extremely primitive, but they clearly understood that there was some physical or medical elelement to some depressions.
After listing various spiritual and social remedies, Richard Baxter says “If other means will not do, neglect not medicine.” Just as in our own day, there was sometimes significant resistance to medication. Baxter’s solution? Force it down their throats!!
Though they will be averse to it, as believing that the disease is only in the mind, they must be persuaded or forced to it. I have known the lady deep in melancholy, who a long time would neither speak, nor take physic, nor endure her husband to go out of the room, and with the restraint and grief he died, and she was cured by physic put down her throat with a pipe by force.
While we would probably end up in prison if we tried such methods, Baxter’s basic insights on the role of medication and doctors are sound and have abiding value:
1. Choose a physician who is specially skilled in this disease, and has cured many others. He advises against consulting young men and busy men who don’t have time to sit down and carefully listen to the depressed person’s story. Interestingly, Baxter didn’t have any hang-ups about calling this a disease and grouping it with other physical illnesses: “The thinking faculty is diseased and become like an inflamed eye, or a foot that is sprained or out of joint, disabled for its proper work.”
2. Medicinal remedies and theological are not usually to be given together by the same hand. He does allow for exceptions to this, but as a general rule he says that if you have access to “an ancient, skillful, experienced, honest, careful, circumspect physician, neglect not to use him.”
3. The root of depression is in the blood and is often accompanied by other physical problems. Baxter believed that the blood carried the human spirit, and that if the blood was diseased, so was the human spirit, and other organs that the blood served. Although we might laugh at Baxter’s archaic understanding of the human body, his instincts were right, in seeing physical causes and consequences of this “mental” disease [and maybe he's not so far off the truth after all: A blood test for mental illness]
4. Sometimes depression is caused by sudden shock. Baxter had seen otherwise sound-minds “suddenly cast into melancholy by a fright, or by the death of a friend, or by some great loss or cross, or some sad tidings, even in an hour.” Baxter said that this proved that the cause was not always found in the body, but his understanding of the mind/soul/body connections helped him to see that even the shocking impact of such news or events on the mind impacted the body too.
But the very act of the mind doth suddenly disorder the passions, and perturb the spirits; and the disturbed spirits, in time, vitiate the blood which containeth them; and the vitiated blood doth, in time, vitiate the viscera and parts which it passeth through; and so the disease beginning in the senses and soul, doth draw first the spirits, and then the humours [bodily fluids], and then the parts, into the fellowship, and soul and body are sick together.
5. The physician and pastor need great skill to know where the depression started. He must find out if it began “in the mind or in the body; and if in the body, whether in the blood, or in the viscera, for the cure must be fitted accordingly.”
6. Even if the depression have a psychological cause, medication can still have a role in curing it.
Though the disease begin in the mind and spirits, and the body be yet sound, yet physic [medication], even purging, often cureth it, though the patient say that drugs cannot cure souls, for the soul and body are wonderfully co-partners in their diseases and cure; and if we know not how it doth it, yet when experience telleth us that it doth it, we have reason to use such means.
7. Even if the depression was caused by demonic influence, medication may help to drive the devil out.
It is possible physic might cast him [the devil] out, for if you cure the melancholy, his bed is taken away, and the advantage gone by which he worketh. Cure the choler, and the choleric operations of the devil cease. It is by means and humours in us that he works.
One modern editor of Baxter’s writing says of this section:
“Of course Baxter was as unaware of modern biochemisty and physiology as he is of modern pharmacology. Nevertheless his insights are still valuable today.
It may be appropriate to summarize this section of Baxter’s work as follows: those with depression of a spiritual nature, require spiritual counsel. Those whose depression is a result of somatic illness need medical care to correct that cause. People who suffer from endogenous depression may require both spiritual and medical treatment, depending on their case. Baxter’s advice about physicians is pertinent at this point."
Other posts in this series:
7 Questions about suicide and Christians
Mental illness and suicide: the Church awakes
Pastoral thoughts on depression
The problem with “mental illness”
Double Dangers: Maximizing and Minimizing Mental Illness
A Medical Test for Mental Illness
The Puritans and Mental Illness