Richard Sibbes once said that “men love not to be judged and censured.” Personally, I have yet to meet the person who enjoys criticism. Whether it's criticism about your work, life, faith or criticism from an unknown critic online or a loving family member. All criticism is hard to swallow.
My mom and I have a great relationship. I look back at my formative years and she provided a foundation for the love of God that hasn’t left me. I recall the words of Paul to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you” (2 Tim. 1:5).
However, I wish I was wiser when hearing her criticism. Her words of encouragement and admonition were coming from a heart of love. Because of my own struggles with hearing criticism, I would often refuse to heed her concerns, only accepting the truth of her words after I'd made a mess of the situation. Hearing criticism is and has been one of the hardest lessons learned in my life, especially if I’ve received criticism from those whose motives were not in my best interest.
But the gospel should transform the way we give and receive criticism. In today's, age social networks and blogs have only made it easier to criticize without accountability or real community. It’s much easier to make that snarky comment about someone when you don’t have to look them in the face to do so.
So, how do we take a gospel-centered approach toward criticism?
The Gospel and Criticism
The gospel transforms the way we receive criticism in four ways. First, it tells us we are created in the image of God. We have value because we are his handiwork, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). What we do has value because we imitate his creativity in creation. None of us is left without a touch of this creativity.
Second, the gospel tells us we are sinful. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be.” Often criticism stings because there may be a teaspoon of truth within the cup of criticism (or maybe a cup of truth within the teaspoon). We know we are sinful. But we almost always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt as we speak, act, and write. It’s hard to hear the perspective of someone who may not give us this benefit of the doubt.
Third, the gospel tells us are adopted by God. We have been declared righteous and joined his family and are now being transformed into the image of the Son of God. We are now much more than the sum total of our sins. Criticism can't touch that.
Finally, the gospel tells us that we will be vindicated on the last day. George Whitefield once said, “I am content to wait till the judgement day for the clearing up of my reputation.” We should learn to be content now with the righteousness of Christ waiting for our final vindication. For some of us, that might mean allowing our reputation to be tarnished for now.
Scripture actually has much to say about criticism. The following practical suggestions for receiving and giving criticism will hopefully help you build upon these truths.
1. Hear the criticism.
The writer of Proverbs admonishes us, “Whoever heeds instructions is on the path of life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray” (Prov. 10:17), “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is foolish” (12:1), and “Whoever heeds reproof is prudent” (15:5). These Scriptures only touch the surface. Read through Proverbs for yourself and study what the Solomon teaches about receiving reproof. When criticism is offered, you should hear it, consider it, pray about it, and seek counsel about it. You should also be willing to sift through the criticism for the grain of truth. I have rarely found a criticism where there may not a single grain.
2. Rejoice in the criticism.
Jesus starts one of the greatest sermons ever preached, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).
In this sermon, Jesus addresses criticism that ends up being slanderous lies. Yet he says we are blessed and we should rejoice. How can this be? We are baptized into the body of Christ. We are participants in his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus was persecuted, lied about, and slandered. And the writer of Hebrews says, “[Jesus] who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1). This passage connects our joy, suffering, and final vindication by God. Jesus sits at the right hand of God vindicated against the criticism that he made himself to be God (Matt. 26:62-68). We too will stand before God vindicated one day.
3. Compare the criticism with Scripture.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The truest criticism we will receive comes from Scripture. It speaks honestly about the condition of fallen humanity. Bring the criticism you receive to Scripture and ask the Spirit to uncover truth that might relate to it. Don’t miss the full story of the gospel.
4. Don’t respond with umbrage.
The worst thing you can do is respond quickly with your own criticism or accusation. But also don’t let a “root of bitterness” (Heb. 12:15) take hold in your heart. Resentment will impact you most and the others you love. This last point is especially true when the person clearly doesn’t have your best interest in mind and the bulk of their criticism is slander. It’s easy to set the record straight about that person, but in my experience that is either almost completely useless because it’s peppered with anger or slander in its own right.
1. Be wary of making accusations against brothers in Christ.
All those who profess Christ are one with Christ. We have been baptized into one body and Spirit (Eph. 4). Christ isn’t divided. We should be very careful when criticizing that we aren’t accusing another Man’s servant (Rom. 14). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take part in polemics, dialogues, debates, and defending the faith. Helpful criticism takes wisdom rooted in Scripture and a robust understanding of how the gospel changes everything.
2. Be prayerful about your criticism.
Before you ever utter the criticism pray about it. Ask God for wisdom in using the right words and also that it would be received from a heart of love. Express your dependance on God in sharing this concern with the person. Examine your heart in giving the criticism. If you cannot offer the criticism in good faith (Rom. 14:23) then don’t.
3. Seek peace and mutual upbuilding.
Paul says, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). I see two connections to the gospel story when see the word “peace.” First, peace connects with the Old Testament concept of shalom. It’s a state of rest for all of life. In the Old Testament, the shadow was the promised land and in the New Testament the fulfillment is the rest we have in Christ. Also, peace is often connected with the blood of Christ and our justification. All of the conflict, rebellion, and sin found in the story of humanity and Israel is resolved when God makes a covenant of peace with Christ (Eph. 2:13-16, 6:14-15; Rom. 5:1-2, and Col, 1:19-20) declaring all those in him as justified and now “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17, also see Luke 2:8-14). The purpose should be to build the hearer up; it shouldn’t tear him down. There’s correlation with Jesus’s instructions for church discipline, the goal of which is restoration.
4. Watch your own life and doctrine.
Paul admonishes the Galatians, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgressions, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 5:1-2). These instructions are meant to encourage patience, gentleness, and humility. A professor in college who taught counseling would frequently say, “Admonish others as you might expect them to admonish you later.” The idea was “today it’s me admonishing you; tomorrow it may be you admonishing me.” Paul also makes an important point about “bear[ing] one another’s burdens.” Step in their shoes and understand their struggles. Don’t be merciless to those who doubt (Jude 1:22). God doesn’t bruise the reed and neither should we. Fan the flame of God’s grace in their life.
5. Stop continually criticizing.
Paul commands Titus, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Tit. 3:10). The original context was the local church but there’s good application for our personal relationships and online interactions. Depending on the severity of the issue, you may just need to stop criticizing and “have nothing more to do with him.” I cannot tell you how tiring it is hearing the same criticism over and over again by the same people about the same person. It takes wisdom to understand at what point you are casting your pearls before the swine (Matt. 7:6).
It’s important to search Scripture when understanding how to receive and give criticism. The Internet has made it easy to register our criticisms and provides a platform for those with grudges. These interactions are front and center for the world to see. We must learn to interact in a way which glorifies God. “Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters to pertaining to this life!” (1 Cor. 6:3).
Mathew B. Sims is the Editor-in-Chief at Exercise.com and has authored, edited, and contributed to several books including A Household Gospel, We Believe: Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms for Worship, A Guide for Advent, Make, Mature, Multiply, and A Guide for Holy Week. Mathew, LeAnn (his wife), and his daughters Claire, Maddy, and Adele live in Taylors, SC at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains with their Airdale Terrier. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA). Visit MathewBryanSims.com!