Critical Dynamics of Criticism

It is probably fair to draw the conclusion that there is a universal dislike for personal criticism and correction. Nothing reveals the pride that resides in each one of our heart so much as being on the receiving end of criticism. Giving or receiving criticism is one of the most difficult yet most necessary parts of a believer’s life in a fallen world. It is also one of the difficult aspects of Gospel-ministry. No one likes to be criticized–and most of us do not enjoy having to confront others. In whatever station of life in which we find ourselves we will be succeptible to criticism. 

If we’re honest, we would have to admit that we would rather criticize others by means of sinful gossip and slander than go to them in a forthright and loving manner. We would rather dole criticism out than have to be subject to it ourselves. Our aversion to criticism often comes from the fact that we have far more sinful pride alive in our hearts that we would ever want to admit.

Joel Beeke once explained how most of us so often respond to criticism:

“Criticism will come; and when we don’t respond to it rightly, it will promote smugness, it promotes an unforgiving spirit, it promotes backbiting on our part. We tend to judge those who judge us. We tend to return evil for evil. We end up doing to others what others do to us. We binocularize their faults, bring them seven times closer and, when it comes to our own thoughts–because we become so self-defensive–we turn the binoculars around and we make our faults seven times smaller.”

We often fail to receiving a legitimate criticism in humility because of the manner or deliver by which others have confronted us. In similar fashion, we fuel the rejection of our criticisms of others when we do not bring criticism to them in a loving, wise and gentle way. It is vital that we learn to assess criticisms. Content and manner are the two issues at stake when seeking to assess the giving and receiving of criticism.

The criticism that we give or receive may be right or wrong in the content of criticism. Additionally, it may be right or wrong in the way of its delivery. There are essentially five categories by which we may assess the criticism that we are both called to give and receive. Criticisms may be:

(1) Altogether wrong in content and in delivery.

(2) Partially right in content but wrong in delivery.

(3) Partially right in content and right in delivery.

(4) Altogether right in content but wrong in delivery.

(5) Altogether right in content and right in delivery (This is almost never the case when giving or receiving critism). How we assess the criticism that we are either giving or receiving is paramount to our ability to live in such a way that is pleasing to the Lord. 

Simply acknowledging that these categories exist does not mean that it is easy to assess any given criticism. It is remarkably difficult to make proper assessments for a variety of reasons. First, most of us want to think that others are entirely wrong whenever they bring any criticism to us. We love to turn a blind eye to our own sin. Second, most of us blow up (whether internally or externally) over what part of a criticism might be wrong, rather than welcome what part of it is right. Third, we are all ready to write off criticisms that are brought to our attention when it comes from someone with whom we have not had a close relationship. After learning how to assess criticism, we desperately need to learn how to then cope with criticism. 

In his 2008 Philadelphia Conference of Reformed Theology talk, “Persevering in the Face of Criticism,” Joel Beeke offered the following 11 solutions to this problem for Gospel-ministers who undergo severe criticism:

  1. Consider Criticism Inevitable. If you are a true believer or a pastor in a true church, you can be assured that you will be the object of criticism. Beeke explained, “Dead churches don’t criticize, living churches do. Expect it. After all, Jesus said to His disciples, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” Be open to criticism. Criticism will come.”
  2. Consider the Source. When criticism comes, we have to ask the following questions: “Whose criticizing you? Is it coming from an officer-bearer, a mature believer, a babe in grace, an unbeliever or a fringe member of the church–a highly critical individual?” Generally speaking, the more we sincerely welcome constructive criticism, the more our ministry and our relationships with others will benefit from it. We need to be open; we need to welcome people as they express their concerns and complaints; but, we need to be careful not respond excessively to every complaint. We must consider the quantity of the complaint and the quality of the complaint. We someone raises criticisms, we have to ask ourselves, “How significant is this particular persons criticism on this particular item?” 
  3. Consider Timing and Prayer. When someone criticizes you, ask them to let you meditate about it and pray about it and get back to them. When someone criticizes you face-to-face, ask them if you can have 24 hours to think and pray about it. When we take 24 hours to pray and seek counsel about a criticism, our response will be so much more mature. Don’t respond too quickly; give yourself some time. In the long term, you become more well known and more judged for your reactions to things rather than for your actions. Truth has a way of eventually vindicating itself. Sometimes you have to wait longer than a day or two.
  4. Consider Yourself. Critics are often God’s gifts to guard us from self-satisfied and self-destructive tendencies. Critics almost always exaggerate their case–that’s human nature. It is true that critics are often not entirely right. But critics are usually, at least, partially right in their criticisms of us.
  5. Consider the Need to Move On. If 50% of the criticism is correct, I need to receive it and move on. Move on. Don’t let criticism fester. Move on. Your goal in every criticism is to deal with it constructively. Never become anger. Never become self-defensive. Deal with it constructively. “Turn the other check,” Jesus said. We have to learn to handle criticism politely. Sometimes, if your conscience is clear on a particular issue, you might want to respond by saying, “I appreciate your coming to me. I appreciate your concern. I do want to let you know that there is a straightforward explanation. I do love you very much, and I appreciate your love for me, but I do believe that on this issue you are missing the point. Let me explain…” But, if your critic comes to you not objectively at all–but he’s angry and emotional–you are much better receiving it for the moment and not seeking to explain yourself. We can easily over explain. As soon as we do, critics will think, “He’s really over justifying himself, again.”Refuse to sink to the level of harsh critics. It’s not for you to repay. If you fight God’s battles, God will fight your battles. Romans 10:12, “‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord.”  Don’t get sidetracked into fruitless controversy.
  6. Consider Scripture. Consider wonderful texts that come your way to encourage you. When you find a special text that encourages you, tape it to your computer for months and read it again and again and again. Romans 8:28 tells us that criticism can work together for my good. Isaiah 54:17 is also helpful: “‘No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper, but My servant’s righteousness is of Me,’ says the Lord.” Look for promises that will show you that God will uphold His servants in the midst of strife and controversy.
  7. Consider Christ. Look to Jesus in the face of mounting criticism. Peter said, “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth;’ who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously'” (1 Peter 2:21-23). If Christ who was perfect and altogether innocent was spat upon and mocked and rejected and crucified, what can we–who are imperfect–expect. Remember, we are followers of Jesus. We are sufferers together with Him. You can’t be a Christian and yet not suffer. Remind yourself, “No matter how badly anyone has ever treated me, they have not treated me nearly as badly as I have treated Christ; and, if Christ has forgiven me–when He was totally innocent and didn’t deserve any of my bad treatment–why shouldn’t I forgive my brothers and sisters (even when they say false things about me) because I am usually partially guilty, to begin with, but also because Christ has forgiven me of so much more.” Whenever someone criticizes you, get down on your knees and thank God that they don’t know half how bad you really are.
  8. Consider Biblical Saints. Isn’t it fascinating how Nehemiah handles criticism? He has Sanballat and Tobias criticizing him. Some of their criticisms were valid. Nehemiah’s workers were not skilled; many were not very committed; some sections of the wall were not very strong; some sections could not be rebuilt. Some of their criticism had some truth in it. Nehemiah responded by committing his cause to God in prayer. That’s the first thing that he did. He didn’t turn to them and defend himself. He didn’t explain. He simply said, “Hear, O, our God…” He turned to God and not to man. And then he committed his cause and source of the vision to God. Then, he set up a guard. He revised his plan according to the new circumstances without abandoning his vision. Pray, remember and revise.
  9. Consider Love. Love the one who criticizes you, for Christ’s sake. Try to get to know the person better. You can’t love the one you don’t know. When something has been dealt with, don’t ever bring it up again. Spurgeon said, “Unless you have forgiven others, you read your own death warrant every time you repeat the Lord’s Prayer…Forgive and forget; you bury a dead dog, you don’t leave its dead tail sticking up from the ground.” Pray for your critic, and pray with your critic. When you pray for your critic, pray very carefully. Go the extra mile in compassion and understanding. There are times when you need to feel pity for your critic. Sometimes the criticism is so bad that you need to feel pity for your critic. Peter says, “Lay aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking” (1 Peter 2:1).
  10. Consider Longterm Vision. No President in American history was so well respected and so despised as is true of Abraham Lincoln. Thousands opposed his views on war and slavery, as well as his attempts to keep the country united. A friend once told him, “You’re surrounded by barking dogs.” Lincoln responded, “Barking dogs just bark and bark at the moon as long as it is clearly visible in the sky.” His friend responded, “What do you mean? What’s the rest of the story?” Lincoln said, “There is no rest of the story. The moon just keeps on shining.” Lincoln just went on when he had barking critics. He knew he was right, he had long-tern vision, he was clear in his conscience, so he just went on. When we know we are in the right, in accord with God’s mind, God’s will and God’s vision we need to press on in longterm commitment to our work. Don’t lose heart and don’t give up.
  11. Consider Eternity. This is the ultimate long-term vision. If you persevere in faithful, Gospel ministry by His grace, on the other side of the Jordan, our faithful Savior will be waiting for us say, ‘Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” He will wipe away every tear from your eye, every wrong will be made right, and every injustice will be judged, and all criticism will be passed. All evil will be walled out and all good will be walled in. There will be perfect unity, a perfect church. We will commune with unfallen Angels in perfect worship with the saints of all ages in absolute perfection. There will be no denominations, no divisions. Luther and Calvin will see eye to eye. There will be no misgivings, no misunderstandings, no theological arguments, no ignorance. Our believing critics will embrace us and we will embrace them. We will all be one in Jesus Christ. As Christ is in the Father and the Father in Him there will be perfect, visible, intimate, complete oneness. We will understand that all the criticism that we received her below was used by the hand of our Potter to prepare us for Immanuel’s land. We will say, “I needed every one of those critics, Lord.” We will see that all the criticisms we were called to bear on earth were but light affliction compared with the weight of glory that awaited us. And, we will more than repaid for every affliction we endured on earth for the sake of our faithful and perfect best friend, Jesus Christ.

It takes a great deal of wisdom to approach criticism with biblical maturity. It involves being able to recognize when pride is rising up in our hearts. It discerns between the mixture of truth and error in any given criticism. It keeps in mind the multitude of circumstantial factors involved with any criticism–from the inevitability of criticism to the believers’ vindication before God. While we may have an aversion to criticism, we should rather welcome it as a maturation tool in the hand of our God. May the Lord graciously give us the wisdom we need to receive criticism with maturity. 

Related Resources

Alfred Poirier The Cross and Criticism

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