I struggle receiving criticism. Whether it is towards me, towards something I am invested in, or towards a loved one, I find I react badly. I tend to get defensive and place the giver of the criticism at arm’s length. Yet at the same time, I catch myself liberally spouting disapproval, sometimes without justification, and I battle not to develop a critical spirit.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, criticism is defined as: “The expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.” (1)
At times, I find myself questioning whether there is any place for this in Christian community: after all, we each have plenty of our own stuff to work on without focusing on others and really, encouragement is so much more palatable.
Yet I know that in this life, we need constructive feedback to help us grow and become more Christ-like.
However, I believe that examining the way we provide this constructive feedback is vital for our hearts and our communities. I want to propose some points to consider.
Negotiables and fundamentals
Oftentimes, the things we criticize actually don’t matter in the bigger picture. Sometimes things are done differently to the way we would have done it and this really isn’t a problem - it is just different! We must guard ourselves to make sure our preference for the way something is done does not automatically translate into a belief that our way is the only way. We will be p oorer for this as we will fail to learn from the richness of difference. Yes, there are some fundamentals in our lives that we should seek in unity and clearly there are some actions that are destructive. These should be addressed. But in the absence of this, when you find yourself considering criticism, ask, “Is this really a problem?”
Do you know the whole story?
How often have you criticised without actually knowing the full picture? It can be so easy to do this based on a glimpse of someone’s actions or what you are told from a third party. But be careful! The only way you can know the full story is through genuine interaction with those involved.
It would seem that more often than we would like to admit, criticism flows from us more freely when we are tired, lonely, disappointed, or frustrated. Perhaps we could insert Matthew 12: 34 here: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” The likelihood is that any feedback we give from this place is not going to be constructive or make life better. In addition, I have found that the faults I mostly pick up on in others (and therefore am prone to criticise) are in fact faults in myself. Perhaps I see them in others because they are familiar to me! Recognising these possibilities reminds us that we are not better than others, and we do not have all the answers. Rather we are people who need to first address our own hearts before God. So, the next question might be: “Is there something here that is in fact my problem and not someone else’s?” If it is, go and sort it out with God first and then see where you are. I suspect the issues in those around us may pale as we do this.
When criticism is required
There is a place for helping others to grow and become more like Christ. Perhaps the word ‘criticism’ could be applied here. But there is one important point to consider in this definition: I do not believe that we have a right to disapprove of someone’s personhood. God created us and Christ died for us, because we were worth saving in God’s eyes – so our very identity flows from this. In our beings, we are not better than the next person – we all need Christ. Therefore to criticise another person’s very being is to go far beyond where we have right to speak. What this means is that we must be specific about the aspect of a person that may need addressing, and not label the entire person as one big fault.
As you prepare for this conversation (and it should be a conversation and not a one-way tirade), consider how you will frame it. Words are incredibly powerful and can be so destructive if not used well. Choose your words carefully and consider their possible effect. Where possible, talk face to face, so that any misunderstandings can be quickly clarified. This also acts as a safeguard against overly harsh or negative expressions that can be more easily communicated in text, email, or even over the phone. If it is a significant area of character, it probably should be journeyed in an established relationship, and there must be an awareness that it is the Holy Spirit who changes each of us. Our role is not to force change: our role is to lovingly point back to God and his ways.
Consider how you will encourage the other in your discussion. The use of encouragement is much more likely to enable the other to consider the issue than harsh or negative language. Proverbs 15: 1-2 reads: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” To encourage another also reminds us who we are. Straight, harsh criticism may reflect arrogance and can breed contempt. So consider, how often do you encourage compared to how often you criticise?
So far, I have really only addressed the issue of giving criticism. But how do we handle receiving it? We need others to help us on our journey of becoming more like Christ. So to receive gentle, well thought out correction is actually a blessing. In this situation, our responsibility is to hear it, and then go away and weigh it with the Holy Spirit, asking: “Is this something that is an issue for me?” Where possible, don’t react straight away, especially if you are feeling sensitive. You may want to go back and process it further; ask the Holy Spirit to dig deeper where it is needed and follow his leading. Proverbs 13: 18 reads: “Poverty and disgrace are for the one who ignores instruction,but one who heeds reproof is honored.”
But what about if you are the unfortunate receiver of thoughtless criticism? I think the initial response is no different – hear the comments and then go away and weigh it. Ask the Spirit if there is truth in it. When you can peacefully respond (if you need to), do so with gentleness, kindness, and humility. In repeated thoughtless criticism, however, you may need to go back to the giver and have a conversation about this.
A note about gossip and a critical spirit
As a general rule, providing constructive critical feedback should be between you and the person you believe needs to hear it. There may be times when you want to discuss the wisdom of this with a trusted friend, but beware if the conversation between you and family or friends becomes habitual criticism of your mutual acquaintances – this would suggest things are not well with your heart and relationships.
Perhaps many of these thoughts could be summarised by Ephesians 4: 29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” I believe there is a place for ‘criticism,’ but we would do well to weigh our thoughts and speech to ensure that we are “building others up according to their needs.”
Story: Sarah Vaine
1. What are your thoughts about the place of criticism in Christian community?
2. Do you struggle receiving criticism? Why might this be?
3. How often do you encourage compared to how often you criticise?
1. Oxford University Press. 2015. Criticism. oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/ american_english/criticism.
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Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.