This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (May 08). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
My companion attacks his friends;
he violates his covenant.
His speech is smooth as butter,
yet war is in his heart;
his words are more soothing than oil,
yet they are drawn swords.
Cast your cares on the LORD
and He will sustain you;
He will never let the righteous fall.
As I look back on my ministry, I am filled with gratitude for the privilege of pastoring so many dear people and seeing God touch their lives. Among hundreds of sweet memories, only a few taste sour. The bitterest of all concern ministry partnerships that were broken. Nothing hurt me more as a Christian leader than when a friend turned against me.
David knew the reality of relational brokenness and betrayal and lamented this pain in Psalm 55. He began by crying out for God to hear his prayer admitting, “My heart is in anguish within me … horror has overwhelmed me” (vv. 1-5). This was a man in deep distress.
The Reason for David’s Anguish
What put David in such despair? An enemy attack? The insults of a foe? No, something he found much worse. His attacker was one who had been “his companion” and “close friend” (v. 13). But for some reason this friend turned against David, putting him down and opposing his leadership. Even though the friend’s words appeared to be “more soothing than oil,” they were, in fact “drawn swords” that pierced David’s heart (v. 21).
When something like this happens in our ministries, what should we do? And what should we not do?
When faced with criticism and betrayal, our first instinct may be to escape. David expressed this very wish: “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” (v. 6). As tempting as it may be to flee, we mustn’t let the inevitable pains associated with leadership keep us from fulfilling God’s call upon our lives. Seasons of temporary retreat might be helpful, of course. But we should remain committed to do that to which God has assigned us, no matter how difficult it might be. Yet, like David, we can freely tell the Lord that we’d love to get away. We don’t have to pretend to be strong when we feel weak.
Don’t Fight Back
Another common first instinct is to fight fire with fire. David wants the one who has hurt him to be hurt back. Yet he reminds himself that this is not his job. God is the one who exercises justice upon wrongdoers, including David’s false friend. It’s up to the Lord, not David, to bring him down (v. 23).
Cast Your Cares on the Lord
Instead of escaping or retaliating, when we’re attacked by a friend, we should give our cares to God. As it says in The Message, “Pile your troubles on God’s shoulders—He’ll carry your load” (v. 22). Like David in the opening verses of Psalm 55, we’re to tell God just how bad we feel, holding nothing back. The very act of such honest prayer opens us to receive God’s comfort. The verb used in the phrase “He will sustain you” has the sense of containment. David pictures God embracing and protecting with His strong arms the one who has been betrayed.
Do What’s Right
With a bit of a self-allusion in verse 22, David adds a promise: “[The Lord] will never let the righteous fall.” How tempting it is to respond to a personal attack by hitting back, or gossiping, or stewing in unforgiveness. How hard to do what is right: turning the other cheek, doing good to the one who now feels like an enemy. Perhaps most difficult of all is doing what Jesus explicitly tells us to do when someone hurts us: Go to that person in private and seek to reconcile (Matthew 18:15). Such gutsy initiation doesn’t always lead to healing, I’m sad to say. But when we choose to do what’s right, God is honored by our obedience.
The ability to do what’s right when we have been betrayed comes, not from our own strength, but from the Lord as we open our hearts to him, casting our burdens upon him, and finding comfort in His presence. Thus personal attacks can help us to know God more intimately and to live more consistently by his strength.
The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, leader, speaker, blogger, and consultant for Christian organizations. Find out more here.