How Christians Should Handle Destructive Criticism
As Christians, we are taught that we should accept criticism and learn from it (Proverbs 10:8, 19:20). Constructive criticism can be very beneficial by helping us rethink our priorities, challenge our decisions, and make needed changes in our lives. Destructive criticism, however, attacks our self-esteem, erodes our confidence, and hurts us.
I did receive a lot of destructive criticism in my childhood from my parents and peers, telling me I was stupid, awkward and ugly. As a writer, I receive destructive criticism now and then on the things I write.
I also get comments when I am involved in several Christian music ministries as a vocalist on a team, soloist, or worship dancer. In the past, I have also volunteered as a sign language interpreter for the deaf and sometimes present sign language versions of songs as an art form. My experiences in this area were mostly positive, but I do get negative feedback on rare ocassions.
Nothing prepared me however, for an email I received one day. A friend of mine had told me about a possible short-term project that fit my skill set and encouraged me to inquire about becoming part of it. I emailed the leader, someone I knew slightly as part of the same Christian circles, and offered my services. I was prepared for him to say no thanks, but I was not prepared for his response.
Instead of just thanking me for my offer and politely refusing, the leader decided to not only say no, but to criticize nearly all areas of my ministry. He claimed that I lacked certain skills and should not be participating in certain activities. He also claimed that my offerings were performances only and were not worshipful or God-inspired. I was just indulging my desire to perform.
I was devastated and extremely hurt by the comments. I had to search the Bible for guidance, pray, and sought advice from other wise people so I could heal from the harm that had been done. Looking back, I can see that there were definite steps that needed to be taken for me to recover from my emotional pain. I made some mistakes along the way, but learned from them.
Ways to Deal With a Destructive Critic
Overlook the offense
The Bible says that is a person’s glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 12:16, 19:11). In most cases, we can extend mercy to the offender and let it go. We forgive and forget people who are foolishly run their mouths or are puffed up experts on matters they know nothing about. This saves us a lot of anger, hurt, and emotional pain. This course, however, is not always possible.
Hurt can pierce our emotions as deep as swords (Proverbs 12:18), especially when the perpetrator is a friend or an authority figure that we respect. Deep wounds need time to heal. Sometimes we need to take steps to stop a critic from doing more harm to us and possibly hurting someone else.
Stop the perpetrator’s criticism as soon as possible
No one has the right to be rude, put us down, belittle us, or judge us harshly. When offenders spew their venom at us, we have the right to demand that they stop criticizing us. We should not, however, say anything if doing so will put us in danger of physical and verbal abuse. We should escape the situation if we can.
I made the mistake in not being firm enough in my brief email response to the leader that I did not want to receive his negative, hurtful comments. The leader did not get the message and continued to email me. I wish I just told him to stop from the start – I would have had a lot less emotional baggage to deal with.
Avoid being defensive
When I got the first critical email, I was tempted to write pages and pages to dispute his claims. I have learned that this kind of response is useless. People who feel confident enough to express negative opinions are unlikely to change their minds. Instead, they will defend their positions when challenged, saying more harmful stuff we do not need to hear. They often have an agenda: they want us to adopt their beliefs and positions. Foolish people despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7) and will not listen to us.
While I made my response to the first email brief, I could not resist the temptation to clarify a few things - another mistake. That sparked another email much nastier than the first. We need to let go of our need to have people “understand” us and to straighten them out. We just have to live with the fact that some people will never “get” what we are about.
Dealing With the Offense After the Event
Taking time to regroup
Some offences may deeply shock and anger us. We will need time to process what happened to us and spend time in prayer and meditation.
Seeking counselling, if needed
I sought advice on how to handle the situation from a pastor and a few other discreet Christians. They encouraged me to sit down with the leader and try to make him understand how his words made me feel among other things. I am thankful for the wise counselling I received.
Decide whether to confront or not to confront
Confronting is useless if the offender is not willing to listen to what we have to say. In some situations, Some people may be dangerous when confronted and should be avoided.
In my case, however, I felt that a confrontation would work for the leader and me. Fortunately, the leader was willing to hear me out. I tried to be emotionally neutral as I shared how much his comments had hurt me. I was also able to ask for clarification of certain things. I tried to be gentle - gentle comments diffuse anger, but harsh words will stir it up strife (Proverbs 15:1).
As a result, the leader had a better understanding of how his words came across. He gave me the answers I needed and a genuine apology.
Starting the forgiveness process
We need to work on letting go of resentment and hurt. This will prevent us from descending into bitterness and anger. Once our minds are cleared, we can consider whether or not we should restore or cut off a relationship with the perpetrator. We should allow the offender to make amends if he or she wishes to do so.
I had to let go of expectations that my offender would understand my pain and apologize. Expectations can delay or get in the way of the forgiveness process.
Taking the opportunity for self-examination
Is there some truth in what people have said? Some comments by an offender may be dismissed as inaccurate or based on wrong information. Other remarks may need to be examined. I had to ask myself questions such as: "Do I really lack talent in certain areas as he said?" I looked at years of encouragement and positive feedback from past and current leaders to reconfirm that yes, I do have these talents.
Self examination is a part of Christian living that helps us to grow (2 Corinthians 13:5). In the end, we need to look at our personal body of evidence to discern what is true and what is not. One person’s opinion does not define who we are or what we should be doing.
Sometimes destructive criticism hurts because we have pride that needs to be rooted out. There may also be some sore spots of emotional pain that were triggered and need to be processed and healed.
It took some time and prayer for me to recover from the destructive criticism from the leader, but I was able to let it go. I accepted some of his constructive comments and ignored the rest. I resisted the temptation to run and quit. I continue to serve in various ways where I feel God is leading me.
It have been many years since this incident and I rarely see the person who hurt me. If I did, I would treat him as a friend without resentment in my heart. I cannot say whether the totally understood my views, but I am OK with that.
© 2017 Carola Finch