Friday, May 18, 2012

Taking Criticism

~~This post will be filed under "motherly advice."~~

People don't like to be criticized.  I don't, and I'm pretty sure that you don't either.

However, we must be real here.  Nobody is perfect.  Nobody is perfect.

Ergo (like my Latin?) everybody could always stand to improve--a little or a lot--in some area of life.

Ergo (again, yes) everybody could stand to benefit from certain criticisms.

I am not giving blanket permission to all the people in the world to go out and criticize everybody else.  We will discuss being on the giving end of criticism next time.  Today we are talking about receiving criticism.

Chances are, we need to receive some criticism.   And by we, I mean all of us.

I have an uncritical husband.  I am thankful for him.  I think it would be hard for me to live with a husband who was constantly telling me that I need to spiff up my appearance, work harder at keeping the house clean, spend less money and get up earlier in the morning.  If I had a husband who criticized these qualities in me, I might even wilt, especially if he were unkind and impatient.  However (just being real here), these would be mostly fair and accurate criticisms of me, and if I had a husband who--by some miracle--was able to confront these problems in my life in a loving and gentle manner, I and my home would probably be much better maintained... there would actually be a benefit.

You see, as I stated at the outset, we are all imperfect people.  Add to that the fact that, if left alone without intentional input, nearly everything in life will tend to decay.  That includes our bodies, our homes, our habits and our behavior.  We are imperfect people tending to increasing imperfection.

This is why people don't like the Christian religion.  It implicitly involves criticism of the way things are: hell-bound.  It offers a miraculous, merciful, effective solution to the problem, but most of the people who reject Christianity reject it before they ever consider the solution; they can't handle being told that there is a problem.

My son David is sort of an anomaly.   He plays saxophone, and he is very good.  Criticism does not phase him (when it comes to playing his saxophone).  In fact, if he goes to a music lesson and the teacher only says, "That was very good.  That was very nice.  You played that very well," David comes out disgusted that he payed money and was not instructed on how to improve.  His attitude is very logical, but not one that most people can handle.

Most of us hate criticism, and yet we all understand and agree that nobody is perfect.  The only conclusion I can draw is: people want to be imperfect and have everybody tell them it is OK to be imperfect.

And, on one hand, it is OK to be imperfect, because we all are, and we all will be until the day Jesus returns and makes us perfect (1 John 3:2).  But at the same time, it is not OK to wallow contentedly in our imperfections.  The Lord says, "Be holy as I am holy." (Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 19:2, Leviticus 20:7, 1 Peter 1:16)  This does not mean that we suddenly, magically become perfectly holy.  It means we are to have hearts that pull us to become more and more holy, more and more like Jesus each day.  Some days we will fail, and that ought to bother us, spurring us on to cooperate better with the Holy Spirit on the next occasion.

It isn't about where we are.  It's about where we are headed.  And this is why it is of utmost importance to learn how to take criticism.  If you won't take criticism, you will simply drift away into a slough of mediocrity which will culminate in something much worse than mediocre.  A person who will not take criticism is like a house that will not take paint.  Think about it.

The Bible is a critical lens which the Lord has given us to help us improve ourselves according to His will.  James 1: 22-25 says:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.  (ESV)

This means that we aren't supposed to just read the Bible; we are supposed to apply what it says to the way we do things.  If the way we live doesn't measure up to what God asks of us, we need to adjust the way we live.  If you look into a mirror and see broccoli stuck between your teeth, you don't just walk away with the broccoli still between your teeth.  You remove the offending flora.  If you read the Bible and see that an attitude or habit of yours is sinful, you don't just walk away and continue to sin, you ask God to forgive you and cleanse you from the sin.

When God convicts us through His Word, that is the most certain form of criticism we can possibly receive.  If God said it, it's true.  There should be no arguing with the Word of God.  You might not like it (chances are pretty good that you won't -- we hate to accept criticism), but there is no question that it comes from a credible Source who is motivated for our best interest.  We must accept it and pray for Him to help us change.

Besides reading the Bible, we can receive criticism from other people, and also from the whispers of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  

By far the most difficult criticism to discern is the whispering of the Holy Spirit.  There are always other voices whispering back, the ones that rationalize and justify the things we do, and also the ones that condemn and shame, leaving us without hope.  If you think you are hearing the Holy Spirit whisper to your heart, check what you think He is saying against the truth of Scripture.  If it matches up, you were probably hearing Him correctly.  If it does not match up, you were definitely not hearing Him correctly.  If you have trouble finding things in the Bible, speak with a pastor or a friend who is well acquainted with scripture, and ask for help in discerning what you think God is telling you.  Remember that the Word of God is the final measure of truth, always.

Hearing from the Spirit is the most difficult type of criticism to discern.  But hearing from other people is the most difficult type of criticism to receive.

Criticism from our fellow man can be so difficult to take, many people advise simply ignoring it and continuing on in denial.  Once I heard of a teacher who told her class, "The best thing I can tell you to do if you are criticized is: go home and take a warm bath in a room lit with candles."  I believe that there are times when this might be the appropriate response to criticism.  However, the Lord works in many ways, and often He uses people in relationships with one another to sanctify one another (Proverbs 27:17).  It is a very dangerous thing, indeed, to write off all criticism that comes from our fellow human beings.  God could be speaking through that person to you, and you should consider carefully what you heard before you turn to aromatherapy for comfort.  In any case, God is sovereign over all things, so whether or not the criticism itself is valid, God allowed those words to come to you for a purpose, to teach you something through the experience.  You must not neglect this truth.

Here are some steps which I would advise you to take when you encounter criticism from a person:

1.  Consider the source.  A person who doesn't love you may be perfectly content to refrain from saying anything when you are headed in a defective direction.  Sometimes our friends are more likely to risk saying the tough thing (Proverbs 27:6).  Is the person criticizing you a person of wisdom, or a typically shallow person?  Does this person confront people often, or rarely?  Is this person spiritually mature or (if it is a professional issue) gifted in his area of work?  Did this person come to you directly, or did you hear about the criticism in a round-about grapevine-gossip sort of way?  

If you are confronted by a competent, wise, gifted person who rarely confronts anyone, you would do well to take heed and carefully measure what he told you against whatever objective truth you can find.  If the person is wacky (there are wacky people), unstable, a chronic grumbler or whiner, you can take the criticism with a grain of salt.  But even when the source seems unreliable, it is wise for you as recipient to sift what was said before the Lord, asking Him to show you if there is a morsel of truth buried in the stew.  God can teach us lessons of value in even the strangest circumstances.

2.  Commit the issue to prayer.  Surrender the conversation to the Lord.  Ask Him to help you be measured and fair in your response.  Ask Him to make you willing to see a fault in yourself as it truly exists and to help you change in whatever way He desires.  Also, ask the Lord to protect you from unfair criticism, from being wounded in ways that would impair your ability to live out His purpose for your life.  Beg Him for wisdom.

3.  Seek humility.  James 3:13 says, "Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom" (NIV).   We can clearly see that we need wisdom to discern what is applicable in the criticism we receive from our fellow man.  We sometimes forget that wisdom results in humility.  Humility means that we don't automatically assume that we ourselves are right and anybody who criticizes us is wrong.  That is a very prideful assumption.  A humble person stops, listens, considers.  A humble person does not have a knee-jerk reaction to defend himself.  A humble person remembers that God is sovereign, and that God could use many avenues to speak into a life, even an unpleasant or unexpected one.  A humble person says, "Is this a word from you, Lord?" and humbly waits for God's answer.

4.  Search scripture.   Ultimately, if what the person said to you matches up with scripture, you need to take heed.  You have no excuse for ignoring a message that someone brings you if it is scripturally supported.  If God could use a donkey to speak to Balaam (Numbers 22:21-34),  He can use any person to speak to you, even a child, a fool or a scoundrel.  If the message aligns with God's Word, you'd better sit up and listen.  If you don't, I think God will hold you accountable.

Nobody is perfect.  We all have room to improve.  We all need to grow.  To that end, we will encounter criticism throughout our lives.  Constructive criticism is criticism which, if we act on it, will improve us, build our character, construct our lives.

Rather than burying our heads in the sand, let us listen, consider, pray and search the scriptures.  God may work mightily in us through the criticism of another. 


~Heather said...

Praising God for uncritical husbands!

This advice is spot on - and something that I often need to be reminded of as not everyone is as patient and gentle as my Mr.

Ruth said...

Thanks Heather! I agree... praise God for uncritical husbands!