How To Handle Criticism

Criticism cometh. Success brings the multitudinous naysayers. Failure invariably invites the uninvited litany of I-told-you-so’s. Thinking, attempting, considering, posturing, trying, accomplishing, and speaking will almost always lead to some form of criticism. The only way to avoid such negative energy is inertia. But as a tactic to avoid criticism, this too ultimately proves ineffectual. The inert will be criticized for cowardice and general inaction. Criticism is a constant in the world in which we live. The question is not if we will deal with critics but how.

Recently, a friend asked a question which I have received dozens of times, namely, “How do you deal with criticism?” To which I responded, “Poorly.” This may have been honest but it probably was not entirely helpful. So what follows is a brief attempt to answer the question in a way that might help us all better deal with our detractors.

Usually when we are criticized it is impossible for us to get past the fact that we are being criticized. We are not able to distinguish our thoughts or actions from our persons, that is, our sense of value or personal worth. Thus, we feel the need to immediately adopt a defensive posture, sometimes even quite offensively. Often we think that this is a form of righteous indignation when it is nothing more than your run of the mill self-righteousness. So what does a man do?

Over the course of the past few weeks I have been making my way through the letters of John Newton (an endeavor which I heartily commend to you). In so doing, I stumbled upon a wonderful piece of correspondence entitled, On Controversy. It’s probably the best thing that I have read on the subject to date.

Newton remarks, “Whatever…makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit.” He argues that whenever contempt and superiority accompany our thoughts, it is a sign that “the doctrines of grace” are operating in our life “as mere notions and speculations” with “no salutary influence upon our conduct.”

Allow me to suggest three considerations to ponder when dealing with critics. Ask these honestly and ask them often. These questions, though not exhaustive, will go a long way toward peaceful resolution—if only with yourself.

1.) Is it True?

Whenever we encounter an accusation we should ascertain whether or not our accuser has any grounds for the criticism. While it may be true that our interlocutors are not entirely accurate, it may be that their claims are not totally unwarranted. There may, in fact, be a kernel of truth in their statements. Sometimes our accusers are right for the wrong reasons; sometimes they are wrong for the right reasons. In either case, their claims should be weighed and found either wanting or warranted.

2.) Does it Matter?

Assuming that there is an element of truth in their claim, how should we handle it? If our desire is to have “truth in the inward parts” then we should welcome the revelation that we may have overlooked something along the way. Even if their motives are impure it doesn’t mean that the criticism is invalid. If, as a Christian, I admit that I sin thousands of times a day, then I shouldn’t get bent out of shape when someone points it out. Very often God uses the malicious (and even violent) attacks of our adversaries to bring about His good pleasure in our lives. Consider the wise perspective of the aged Joseph. He reminded his erring brothers that what they had “intended for evil,” God had ultimately “intended for good.” So it is with our critics. In the Providence of God, even our enemies can be agents of our progress in grace and godliness.

But what of the criticisms that are baseless and unwarranted? How should we respond when our opponents really do not have a leg on which to stand? This is a bit more tricky, but it should be noted that our first course of action should not be to point out the emperor’s novel attire. First, we must be willing to make a few important distinctions. We must take care to decipher whether the attack is of a personal nature. If they are attacking our person then the choice is clear—we smile and move along.

Though this has been a hard lesson to learn, it has been tremendously liberating for me. Years ago, while reading the story of King David, I was struck by his ability to make this important distinction. David learned that if he fought God’s battles that God would fight his battles. David took up his sling against the giant only to contend with one who defied the “army of the Living God.” He was a man who was able to fight for his principles rather than for his persona. One of these is marked by courage, the other by pride. I’ll leave it to the discerning reader to decide which is which.

If you are being attacked, then humbly give thanks to God. If truth is at stake, then learn how to point out that the Emperor is parading around in his birthday suit on a cold morning. Then be willing to give him your coat.

3.) Is that All?

Whatever my critics may accuse me of is not nearly as bad as the truth. Thankfully, they do not know me like I know me. They don’t know me the way that God knows me. This is a great grace. If the world could read my thoughts, see my heart, know my inclinations, or divine my motives then there would be no end to the accusations. And the worst part would be that each and every one would be warranted. But the blood of Christ, speaking a better word than the blood of Abel, cries out for my acquittal before the courts of heaven. No accusation is able to stand in the flowing stream from the riven side of Calvary’s Lamb.

This has a way of putting all lesser critics in their proper place. This brings a sense of peace and priority into the life of a saved sinner. When I encounter the worst possible criticism from friend or foe it pales in comparison to what was written on my now expunged record on high. So when I hear a railing accusation from men my ultimate response should be, “Really? Is that all? Then we are in good shape.”

When the critics come, give them a fair hearing, turn the other cheek when it needs it, give them your coat for their denuded arguments, learn the lessons that Providence is teaching you, and rejoice that they only know a fraction of the story.

I leave you with one final word from Newton. May it serve as a caution to us all.

A man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature, and the riches of free grace.  Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments.  Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good.  They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify.  I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.

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