How Can I Learn to Receive Criticism?
It’s no secret that God has designed this world, and he has designed us, such that we can improve as we listen to the criticism of others. Just look at the theme of rebuke in Proverbs, for example. Rebuke is essential to our lives. But receiving critique from others means overcoming the fear of criticism. It means overcoming the condemnation of criticism. It means discerning the truthfulness of criticism. Knowing how to benefit from criticism requires a high degree of skill. These are skills that every Christian needs to develop.
And that leads us to today’s question from an anonymous young woman who lives in Munich, Germany. She wants to overcome her fear of others. Here’s what she writes. “Hello, Pastor John. Thank you for this outlet to ask my question. I’ll get right to it. I think too much about what people think of me. In particular, when people criticize me, I really take it to heart. I know I should focus on Jesus. But I fail. Sometimes I cannot sleep as I think about what people said about me. It is worst at work. I really take my office job to heart and cannot deal with it when my boss criticizes anything about what I do. I might look cool and stay calm and polite, but I wilt inside. What can I do to overcome this feeling of hurt? How can I focus on Jesus instead of myself?”
Sometimes it helps in a situation like this, I find, whether it’s in myself or others, to break the problem down into parts. So let’s try to do that.
Categories of Criticism
It seems to me that there are four kinds of criticism that our German friend might get at any given time.
- There is criticism that is deserved and is given in kindness and goodwill.
- There is criticism that is deserved and is given in harsh and demeaning ways.
- There’s criticism that is not deserved and is given in kindness and goodwill. It’s a real mistake; it’s just an honest mistake.
- There is criticism that is undeserved and is given in harsh and demeaning ways and may have real ill will behind it.
Now, we could break it down further. Those aren’t the only categories. I mean, it makes a difference whether the person who speaks in a harsh and demeaning way does that because he or she really wants to hurt you. That’s really abusive. Or there may be extenuating circumstances like a bad day at home or personality issues, and the harsh person doesn’t really mean to hurt you at all. But let’s keep it simple for now. We’ll just stay with these four categories of criticism.
So my first suggestion is simply that our friend think about these categories and not just about her own hurt feelings. And I’m not suggesting that, if the criticism she gets is deserved or delivered with kindness, it doesn’t hurt. I mean, all four of these categories can hurt because we don’t like to be criticized. I don’t like to be told that the job I just did isn’t as good as it should have been. “You should have done better, Piper. That was not a good way to do it.” That’s never a pleasant thing to hear. So hurt is sometimes huge, sometimes little, but any of those four categories can make us uncomfortable or angry or hurt.
I’m saying it would make a significant difference if our friend does not go first and foremost to her hurt feelings, but rather if she goes first to the issue of truth. This is what I’m suggesting in this first idea, that it helps to not first feel the hurt and linger there, but switch around the focus of your mind to what is true. What kind of criticism is it? Was it deserved or not? Was it partially true or not? Is it true that the way the criticism was given was kind? Was it harsh?
The very asking of these questions is a partial deliverance from self, and that’s a victory — that’s a partial victory. Concerning yourself with truth outside of you and your feelings is a wonderful habit to form, a habit of freedom from bondage to hurt feelings — feelings that we all have. We do. We all have them. She’s asking how to be less controlled by them. And I’m suggesting that a focus on truth and analyzing the situation to get at the truth would be a partial deliverance right off the bat.
“Forming the habit of measuring your feelings by the truth will have a very maturing effect on your soul.”
What happens with this focus on truth or reality outside of you is that you realize that different feelings are appropriate in each of these four situations. And that helps you differentiate your own soul so you’re not controlled completely by this overwhelming sense of hurt, but rather you’re getting at the truth of your own feelings by differentiating them. All of them may involve hurt or discomfort, but the intensity and the nature of the feelings are going to be different when they are informed by the truth about whether the criticism, harsh or not, is deserved. Forming the habit of measuring your feelings by the truth will have a very maturing effect on your soul. And you will be wiser and freer, having a greater measure of self-control, which the Bible says is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit when we are acting in faith (Galatians 5:22–23).
Now, say the criticism is deserved. If you could have and should have done better, then you preach to yourself like this: “I know I should do everything to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). I know that he has promised me grace to do that (2 Corinthians 9:8) [in other words, you put things through a Bible grid], and that means at least using God’s gifts to me to do the best job I can. And so I will let these criticisms spur me on to do my job better. And I will thank God (and maybe even my critic) for this criticism, as painful or hurtful as it is. And I will do all I can to grow by this legitimate criticism.”
Now, if the criticism is not deserved, and you think the critic misunderstood or was misinformed, then in a professional setting it’s right and good with humility to go to the person and give them whatever evidence you have that there was a mistake. “There was a miscommunication; something went haywire here, because what you just said isn’t true about what I did or what I said.” It’s possible that peace and appreciation and admiration could be restored because it was just an honest mistake.
Or if there’s real ill-will involved, and you’ve been intentionally maligned, then you may for a season overlook the fault as you seek to win the goodwill of the person by returning good for evil, like the Bible says. But in a professional setting, where much larger issues are at stake than your own feelings, you may need to confront the critic with the hope of reconciliation — and if not through personal confrontation, then through proper grievance procedures seek the good of the whole corporate culture by exposing the dishonesty or the dysfunction.
Showing Christ’s Sufficiency
The deeper question in all of this — and I think this may be what she’s really getting at — is how to keep our hurt feelings (which all of us have from time to time) from dominating us, controlling us, causing us to either become melancholy or depressed. Or how to keep them from making us bitter or angry so that we are miserable to be around. Neither of those responses to criticism shows the sufficiency of Jesus.
So Jesus and Paul, just to take a couple of examples, team up to give us two ways to combat the negative effects of hurt feelings. Jesus does this by directing our gaze forward to a great reward. And Paul does it, in the text I’m thinking about, by directing our gaze backward to the work of Christ.
Look to the Reward
So here’s what I mean. Jesus’s counsel when we’re criticized, even unjustly, goes like this: “Blessed are you when others revile you [now that’s serious criticism] and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you [there’s more serious criticism] falsely on my account.” So he’s dealing with a real situation of criticism. And he says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12). So what do we do? We preach this to ourselves. We preach it from as many texts as we can think of. We keep a journal. If we’re prone to this kind of hurt, we keep a journal of texts like this as we read the Bible.
How inexpressibly great is your future, Jesus says. Dwell on it. Think on it. If we could really see how long and glorious and happy heaven will be, and how short the criticisms of this life really are, it would lighten our load. Jesus says it will take enough sting out of the reviling and the criticism that you can actually rejoice. Maybe it’s a sorrowful rejoicing, but it’s a real rejoicing. It enables you to keep on doing your job and keep on returning good for evil.
Look to the Cross
Then Paul directs our attention backward to the work of Christ. He says, “[Bear] with one another . . .” Now, that means somebody has done something to you that’s hard to deal with. I’m meant to endure you because you’ve just said something that really hurts me or angers me or makes me want to get back at you. “. . . and, if anyone has a complaint against another [like being criticized], [forgive] each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). So there’s the pointing backward: “as the Lord has forgiven you.”
“Concern yourself with truth, let it measure and shape your feelings.”
So we should not be overwhelmed by the criticism. We should be overwhelmed, not only with the greatness of our reward, but with the love of Christ, who died for us in spite of all of our ill-advised words toward others, toward him.
So, dear friend in Germany, you’re not alone. Jesus knew, Paul knew, we all know, this is a battle we will fight until the end of our days on earth. Concern yourself with truth, let it measure and shape your feelings. And then, when you’re criticized, look to the greatness of Christ’s forgiveness and the greatness of your future with him.