Bible Principles for Dealing With Criticism
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
Have you ever said that? I certainly have. I was taught that little adage as a child, and can dimly remember the kids in my neighborhood, myself included, chanting it to one another.
But my naive confidence that negative words about me wouldn’t hurt didn’t last long. Over the years I have had it impressed on me, definitely, forcefully, and conclusively, that words can hurt me – because they’ve done it so many times.
We call those words that hurt, criticism. The dictionary defines it as finding fault with someone, judging them disapprovingly. And nobody escapes it.
Expect to be criticized!
It doesn’t matter how wonderful a person you may be, or how upright and wise in handling the issues of life. The fact is that somebody is not going to like what you do or how you do it. You could be absolutely perfect and you would still get criticized. Look at what the critics said about Jesus and John the Baptist:
Luke 7:33-34 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."'
Note: All Scriptures are from the New International Version of the Bible
If Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, couldn’t escape being criticized, there’s not much chance any of the rest of us will!
In fact, I don’t even want to be the kind of person who is never criticized, because I recognize this fact of life:
If I am having enough impact in the world for people to notice me, they will talk about me!
And people being people, some of that talk will be negative.
Our normal reaction to criticism is to become defensive and antagonistic
Often when we receive criticism, we experience it as an attack deliberately and maliciously launched against us. And being attacked usually provokes two immediate and automatic reactions:
The first is to defend ourselves against the attack so that we won’t be further hurt. That often means putting up a wall of denials, explanations, and excuses designed to show that the criticism is totally off base and has no validity.
Next comes the counterattack! We lash out at our attacker with whatever harsh accusations we can think of regarding their motives, knowledge, and competence, hoping to put them on the defensive, and at the same time punish them for daring to attack us in the first place.
Yet the Bible teaches that the knee-jerk defensive reaction we all so easily fall into is counter productive.
Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Instead of blindly reacting to criticism, we should thoughtfully respond to it
Rather than allowing criticism to provoke an automatic defensive and antagonistic reaction, we’ll get much better results when we carefully consider the criticism, and then respond appropriately.
The three types of criticism
Any criticism we receive will ultimately fall into one of three categories, and each type requires a different response:
(1) ACCURATE criticism – it is essentially valid, although it may not be 100 percent correct.
(2) INACCURATE criticism – it is essentially incorrect, although there may be some truth in it.
(3) MALICIOUS criticism – it is motivated by anger, frustration, jealousy, envy, or some other agenda on the part of the critic.
Let’s look at what Scripture teaches about responding appropriately to each of these types of criticism.
1. Use ACCURATE criticism as an opportunity to change
Proverbs 15:31-32 He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. 32 He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding.
Criticism can be a God-given instrument of needed correction!
Unless you make the unlikely claim of being perfect in all you do, there will be times when negative judgments about how you handle some situations are entirely appropriate.
That’s why, for example, a well run company is likely to have yearly performance reviews for its employees. Those assessments provide an opportunity not to tear a worker down, but to make mid-course corrections that will help the worker be more effective on the job.
And that’s exactly how we ought to view the accurate criticism God allows to come into our lives – it’s an opportunity to make corrections and get better.
But when it comes to criticism, what, exactly, does “accurate” mean?
Criticism need not be 100 percent true in order to be “accurate”
No human being judging our actions can possibly know all the circumstances and potentially mitigating factors we could cite in our own defense. So, it will always be possible to punch holes in someone’s assessment of our performance. That’s why “100 percent correct” is not an appropriate standard of accuracy. Instead, a standard of “substantially correct” is the one we should apply.
For example, if my boss criticizes me for “always” overstaying my lunch hour, it would be easy for me to cite all the times I got back from lunch on time, or even ahead of time. But that would miss the point. Although I’m not late 100 percent of the time, the observation that I have a pattern of being late getting back from lunch is substantially correct. I need to listen to it, and allow it to provoke me to change.
2. Use INACCURATE criticism as an opportunity to teach
2 Timothy 2:24-25 And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
Criticism that is sincere but inaccurate is usually based on ignorance or misperceptions of the facts. That’s what happened to the apostle Peter after a vision from God sent him to share the gospel in the house of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. When Peter reported back to the church at Jerusalem, he drew some strong criticism:
Acts 11:2-3 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them."
Obviously the critics didn’t understand that Peter had done what he did by the direct command of God. In other words, they were ignorant of the facts.
But instead of getting on his “how dare you criticize me for doing God’s will” high horse, Peter responded with humility:
Acts 11:4 Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened:
In other words, Peter used the occasion to “gently instruct” his critics. An episode that could have led to great strife in the church, instead became an opportunity for Peter to teach Jewish believers that God loves Gentiles too.
Acts 11:18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."
How do you usually react when someone criticizes you?
3. Use MALICIOUS criticism as an opportunity to minister grace
Grace is defined as “unmerited favor,” and that’s exactly what Scripture enjoins us to give to those who criticize us maliciously.
Matthew 5:44-45 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Peter turned inaccurate criticism into a teachable moment simply by giving his critics the facts, and doing it without attitude! If he had allowed himself to become defensive and antagonistic because of the inaccurate and unjust criticism hurled at him, that lesson would have been entirely lost.
When people criticize us out of their anger, jealousy, frustration, or even hatred, Jesus commands that we not only forgive them, but that we pray for them and seek to bless them.
“But they don’t deserve to be blessed!” our outraged feelings scream.
True, but that’s exactly what grace is all about. And by giving that grace to people who have deliberately and maliciously attacked us with their criticism, Jesus says we become more like God Himself.
Something wonderful happens when we take on an attitude of grace toward people who have been malicious or judgmental or spiteful toward us: their criticism can’t touch us! We understand that the problem is with them, and not with us. So, instead of being offended and hurt, we are free to joyfully minister forgiveness and grace into that person’s life. The result is that instead of the unfair criticism succeeding in tearing us down, it actually serves to build us up, spiritually and emotionally, as we follow in the redemptive footsteps of Christ.
The 2 percent rule
In reality, most of the criticism we receive can be turned into a positive instrument of change in our lives. Even if it’s basically inaccurate or totally malicious, it may contain some small nugget of truth that is valid, and which we should not ignore. That was David’s attitude:
Psalms 139:23-24 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
David asked God to search his life to see if there was any offensive way in him. Any at all. And if God showed him something that was out of order in his life, however trivial it might seem, David was committed to cleaning it up.
That request of David’s led me to what I call my 2 percent rule:
If someone’s criticism of me is even 2 percent accurate, I need to recognize and correct that 2 percent.
We can be triumphant over criticism!
For many of us, just hearing that someone said negative things about us can trigger acute emotional distress. It’s as if that accusation, whatever it’s actual merit, immediately penetrates our defenses, causing substantial damage to our self esteem.
But when we respond to criticism biblically, we need no longer be victimized by it. We can experience first hand one of the great promises God gives us in Scripture:
Isaiah 54:17 no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me," declares the LORD.
To me, that's good news!
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© 2014 Ronald E Franklin