I learned a long time ago that anyone who entered the Christian ministry would have to deal with criticism. The late Vance Havner once said a minister needs the heart of a saint and the hide of a rhinoceros. I have found that to be true. My problem has been that I do not always handle criticism very well. I think about it too much, focus on the offense unduly, and then beat myself up. Sometime I turn against the critic in my spirit and grow to deeply dislike them. All of these responses, though common, are clearly wrong.
As I have worked through Scripture I have noticed that every man or woman of God whose story is told in any detail was likely criticized. Moses and David, two of the greatest leaders who ever lived, were profoundly criticized. Poor suffering Job was judged and criticized by his friends. (With friends like those who needs enemies?)
But the example we must always keep before us is our Lord himself. He was criticized by his own family (that is very hard to take and only some people understand it). He was also criticized by his own disciples, who quite often misunderstood him and thus challenged his actions, sometimes even his motives. He was also criticized by extremely conservative religious leaders (e.g., the Pharisees). One has to guess that the extremely liberal Sadducees, another group among the religious, did the same to him but there is next to nothing recorded of this within the Scripture. But Jesus, the greatest teacher ever, was criticized for his teaching (cf. John 6:41-42; Matthew 9:3; Mark 2:6-7) by deeply religious people. This truth has steadied my ship time and time again.
No follower of Jesus was more often in the middle of controversy and the recipient of criticism than the apostle Paul (Cf. Acts 21:27-28; 18:12-13; 2 Corinthians 10:10). Opposition to his mission was common but the opposition to his character was the cruelest of all blows. Consider the entire letter of 2 Corinthians in this light and you get something of the pain he felt and how he dealt with it.
So how do you handle criticism? The answer is not easy since there is not one single method that handles all situations. I offer only a few suggestions:
1. If the criticism is false, and it involves a public matter, it may be right to correct the error. It is right to explain one's position and then to leave it to people to exercise good judgment, which they will not always do.
2. It is always right and good to speak the truth regardless of what has been said or don in the past or by others. Where there is a disagreement allow things to cool off and respond slowly if you respond at all. If you can "cover" an offense or criticism, and do not need to respond, then do not respond.
3. Recognize that the natural tendency to defend yourself is very human but it is also a deadly game to play once you get into a shooting/shouting war with other people. You will almost never win and you will always have unnecessary battle casualties along the way. The price is simply too high to fight against the criticism of others in many cases.
4. Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God. In due time he will lift you up and bless you. It may take years but he is always faithful. Some things said about me years ago have now been proven untrue and some things are still revealing themselves to be untrue in a different light over more time. I am learning to relax and trust God with the nagging shrapnel wounds of such warfare.
Criticism is always painful. But remember your Lord's example, and that of all those who came before you. And consider this to be a "light and momentary affliction" well worth the price if this is to be a way to remain faithful to your Lord.
And remember, in every criticism there is usually some truth. If you are humble you will throw out the bad stuff and use the good, even if there is only a small portion of it, for your own benefit. The pain will drive you to Christ and he alone will heal you and protect you. And the truth will make you better regardless of the intent of the critic.
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Your words of late simply speak volumes to me. As a minister of 23 years, I have been praised lavishly and criticized brutally (both of these sides have dangers in how we respond).
Here are a few things God has taught me along the way besides your wise words.
1. When I am criticized, particularly in front of other people, I wait for others to respond to the criticism.
It is very hallow and empty when one has to continually defend oneself. If you have supportive friends and leaders in the church, often one of them knows enough about the situation to defend and diffuse the situation if the criticism is unfair or faulty in some way.
2. If someone is really angry at you . . . wait. There is a bad impulse to be liked by everyone and we can not stand the thought of someone mad or upset at us. Wait for God’s timing and cover it with much prayer. Timing can be everything at times and to try to work out a problem where the person is too upset at the moment will often be counter-productive and may even make matters worse.
3. Lastly, God is teaching me to have joy no matter what the situation or circumstances. If I am having a problem with a family member or friend, usually the problem is before me for a reason.
Is there something in the other person I have instilled or is like me that I am stuggling with? Or is God simply seeing how I will react and respond to the situation?
If my response is improper, often God will keep putting the problem or situation in front of us until we truly become overcomers in Christ rather than the situation or problem overcoming us.
I really liked this post and the additional comments of Chris. If you see a believer being criticized unfairly and you are in a position to defend them (i.e. you have accurate knowledge and God-given conviction but no conflict of interest, nothing obvious to gain in this world by mounting a defense) then please defend them. It is right to do so in the sight of God. Your reward is in heaven. And God will send others to defend you in your time of need.