Today we address a critical spirit. The question comes to us from a listener named Alan. Here’s his email. “Pastor John, thank you for your insight on many topics in this podcast. My question for you is this: What does the Bible say about a critical spirit? What is a critical spirit? I assume holding high expectations is not the same thing as having a ‘critical spirit.’ So when do high expectations become sinful judgmentalism? And how can I fight against this tendency of focusing mostly on the failures of others?”
Wired to Be Critical
That last question is exactly the right question to ask for all of us, and I include myself here. John Piper is wired to be critical. I remember taking a personality test, I think it was Myers-Briggs, ages ago. And my letters came back. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was INTJ or something like that. This is not the kind of person you want to live with. I remember they said, “Okay, here is your number, Piper, and here’s the narration of what that personality type is like.” And do you know what one of the mottoes was? The motto was, “There’s always room for improvement.”
Now, it’s good to know that about yourself, because it means that you’re a hard person to live with. Nobody likes to be under an incessantly scrupulous eye that basically says, “Well, no matter how hard and how well you do your job, it could have been done better.” I mean, that makes for a pretty oppressive marriage or Sunday school class or church. So I had to be really on top of the sinful proclivities of this way that I was just born. There are no excuses here. I’m not trying to make anything easy.
That’s why I say this last question is so right: What can we do, or how can we think, or are there steps we can take so that we do not become hypercritical people? And if we’re wired that way, can we be changed or exercise self-control to channel it into properly analytical efforts and not people-ruining ones?
Combatting a Critical Spirit
So what are the strategies that I have found in the Bible and in my own life that might be helpful here not to be a hypercritical or judgmental person? You’d have to ask my wife how successful I’ve been at this, but I’m sure bent on being better.
1. Recognize your own faults.
Let’s zero in on the word judgmental, just because Alan referred to it, and Jesus addresses it directly.
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3–4)
In other words, “I’m a super hypercritical person; I see specks everywhere.” But how can you talk about taking the speck out of another’s eye when you’ve got a log hanging out of your own eye? Jesus says,
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)
So, Jesus’s answer to the question of how not to be hypercritical about the speck in your brother’s eye is to be deeply aware of the log in your own. Now, I don’t think that means that the very thing you spot in the other person, which you think is a speck, is worse in you than in him. I don’t think it means that. That doesn’t work. But what it means is that there’s plenty about me, before God and man, that should disincline me to be quick to judge others for specks, because if I got the just judgment that I deserved, it would be devastating.
That’s, I think, the gist of what it means, and it really, really works. I mean, that has a deep effect on slowing down your criticism of others, or at least de-intensifying it, because you know that if God were to treat you with the same rigor that you’re now treating another person, you’d be undone.
2. Remember what you’ve been saved from.
This is really an extension of the first point. Never lose sight of what you have been saved from, or how much it cost, and how much remaining corruption there is still in you. And I base this on Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
“We treat people better than they deserve because God treats us better than we deserve.”
Forgiving as you have been forgiven carries an implication. And the implication is this: being ready to treat people way better than they deserve, because we have been treated so much better than we deserve. So even though we don’t call it forgiveness when we are less critical at the front end of a relationship, the root is the same. We treat people better than they deserve because God treats us better than we deserve. And it cost Christ his life for God to treat us that way.
3. Give thanks.
Fill your heart and mouth with thanksgiving for everything. Ephesians 5:20: “[Give] thanks always and for everything.” Be an amazingly overflowing thankful person. In other words, be radically, radically grateful. Practice waking up in the morning with thankfulness, walking through the day with thankfulness, going to bed at night with thankfulness, because a thankful spirit pushes out a critical spirit.
4. Grow in love.
Meditate on what love is and how essential love is to the Christian. What does it mean to love people? And I think most of us should memorize all of 1 Corinthians 13. That chapter is only 13 verses long. It’s the most important chapter on love in the Bible. And you can memorize it in a week if you put your mind to it, and then say it to yourself over and over again for a year or so, and see what happens.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
Goodnight! Memorize that, say it and say it, pray it and pray it, until it’s you, and God will heal you of much of your hypercritical spirit.
5. Ask how criticism helps.
This is really pragmatic. People doubt the value of this, and I’ll explain why they shouldn’t. Ask yourself this: What good is it going to do for anyone for me to constantly feel so critical of others? What good is it going to do anybody — me or them? Now, you may think a question like that is emotionally useless: “So what? I mean that doesn’t change me. Asking that question doesn’t change me. It doesn’t help me.”
Well, if that were true, if that question were useless, why did Jesus say, when he was trying to help us overcome anxiety — which is just as hard to get rid of as a critical spirit — “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). So, here’s my paraphrase: It doesn’t do any good to be anxious. It’s pointless. Nothing happens, right? Well, why are you anxious? You’re accomplishing nothing.
And I know a lot of people here, then, say, “Well, how does that help?” So say that about being hypercritical: it just doesn’t do any good. Now that’s not the only strategy, but add that to your arsenal of weapons because Jesus said that’s a good question to ask when it comes to a lot of sins: What good are they doing? Are you helping anybody with that particular bent?
6. Look at the world.
Cultivate a view of life, hour by hour, that is more expansive — bigger heart, global, universal, all-encompassing, God-entranced. Look at the whole of life. Look at the whole of the universe. Look at the whole of nature. Look how big it is, and look at all of its dazzling wonders, and be amazed at the world you’re walking through.
So my favorite lit teacher in college, Clyde Kilby, put it like this. (This is one of his resolutions for mental health.)
I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.
So this afternoon, I’m walking back after chapel, across my revelatory bridge, listening on my phone to the history of the Baptists, and it hit me: Turn that thing off. You can listen to that while you’re brushing your teeth. You are walking under God’s blue sky. Look up. Look at those clouds, John. Just look at them. Let him minister to you. You’re inside all day long. You get ten minutes under God’s glory, and you’re going to listen to a book?
“A thankful spirit pushes out a critical spirit.”
Much of our hypercritical bent is owing to the fact that our world has shrunk down to the tiny little situation where this molehill of a speck in a person’s eye — this molehill of a problem — looks a hundred times bigger than it really is because we have made our world so small that this feels big. We have focused our lens so narrowly that we can’t see the glories all around us. So that’s number six.
7. Praise always.
Fill your mind and your heart and your mouth with praise. That’s very much like thanks, but not quite the same. Decades ago, I read this quote from C.S. Lewis. Tony knows it. Lots of you who are listening probably have heard this. Let me say it again, just because it’s so healing. Oh, my goodness. When I first read this, it just washed over me like a cleansing flood for how not to be a cranky person. Here’s what Lewis said about praise:
The most obvious fact about praise . . . strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. . . .
The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . .
I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents [and may I add: hypercritical types, INTJ types] praised least. (Reflections on the Psalms, 109–10)
So there it is. The remedy to not be a cranky, hypercritical misfit is to be full of praise. So, fix your eyes on God and the wonders of his creation and redemption, and be filled with praise.