How Do I Process Personal Criticism?
On Monday we opened the week talking about gossip — and why it’s so tempting to speak badly about other people behind their backs in order to harm their reputation. I’m still thinking about all the heart issues we talked about in that very important and helpful episode. Today we talk about the grace of receiving personal criticism from others and learning from those criticisms for personal growth. There are some incredibly vivid proverbs on this, like Proverbs 17:10: “A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.”
So how do we receive rebuke as a wise man seeking greater wisdom? And specifically, Pastor John, how do you do it? It’s the question from an anonymous listener in Australia. “Hello, Pastor John! I was wondering how you deal with personal criticisms from others? How do you process them, learn from them, and determine which ones are accurate and which ones are not?”
That question, of course, is all the more relevant in a day of social media. You not only have a few dozen people in your family and church or neighborhood or network at work who might criticize you, and you can deal with face to face, but you have a few million people who might get wind of your opinion on Twitter or Facebook or a blog or wherever you happen to be talking.
They might get wind of your opinion and call you the vilest names in the world. In one sense, this world of social media is unrealistic because we simply can’t deal seriously with thousands of opinions about ourselves. And yet on the other hand, this world of social media is a glimpse into reality because it does give a clearer sense of how divided the world really is and how deeply we would be hated if more people knew what we believe about Jesus.
I call it “a glimpse into reality” because Jesus himself said in Matthew 24:9 that we would be hated by all nations. If you just operate among five or ten people, you don’t have any sense of that. But if you go online, you do. You do get a sense of being hated by all nations.
Here’s my strategy of dealing with criticism, for whatever it’s worth.
“I try to test everything by the word of God — not just ideas, but also attitudes and behaviors.”
First, realize that according to Scripture, it is wise to be eager to grow through rebuke, rather than eager to defend yourself.
Listen to advice and accept instruction,
that you may gain wisdom in the future. (Proverbs 19:20)
A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding
than a hundred blows into a fool. (Proverbs 17:10)
Reprove a wise man, and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:8)
Reprove a man of understanding, and he will gain knowledge. (Proverbs 19:25)
Let a righteous man strike me — it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me — it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it. (Psalms 141:5)
So it’s wise to want and receive correction, rebuke, and criticism.
Second, I try to make it my aim to be humble and open rather than being controlled by anger at words of criticism. I say I try.
James says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason” (James 3:17). I love that little phrase because the Greek word for “open to reason” is “persuadable.” In other words, you’ve just said something, then somebody disagrees, they say something back to you, and then you are persuadable. You’re going to listen. You are willing to be changed if you’re wrong.
James also says, “My beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20). So humility listens; anger pushes back really quickly. Let’s strive to be humble and not quick and self-defensive in anger.
Cling to Promises
Third, when I feel knocked off balance by criticism or deeply destabilized, which can really happen — it can go really deep sometimes and shake you deeply — I pray for God to hold on to me and guide me, and I try to trust his promises. The psalmist states, “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalms 139:9–10). I really need to feel that God is holding me if I’m being pummeled by somebody, or hundreds, and feel like I’m being knocked off balance in my life.
“Aim to be humble and open rather than being controlled by anger at words of criticism.”
Psalms 25:15 reads, “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.” If I feel like I’m getting all netted and obstructed and confused, I turn to God’s promise. He will pluck your feet out of the net.
Or Psalm 25:8: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.” He’ll instruct me. He’ll help me know what criticism is to be embraced and which ones I have to let go. “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Psalm 25:9)
Or Psalm 25:14: “The friendship of the Lord” — the literal translation of “friendship” is “the inner counsels,” so the “friendship” or “the counsel” of the Lord — “is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” So I want to draw near to God in reverential fear and believe he’s going to give me stability. He’s going to pluck my feet out. He’s going to hold on to me. He’s going to instruct me and get me through this emotional mess of criticism.
Fourth, I try to test everything by the word of God, not just by my preferences or tradition. That includes testing not just ideas, but also attitudes and behaviors. “Test everything, hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Or Psalm 119:24: “Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.”
So what if you’re criticized for being unloving? First John 5:2 is a real stabilizing help. It says, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”
In other words, the measure is not just my feeling wobbly right now because I just got criticized for being loving or unloving. The question is, Was I in obedience to his commandments — his word? Was I following his word when I said what I said or did what I did? So measure the criticisms by the word of God.
Give It Time
Fifth (this is so practically important — for me, anyway), give yourself time to consider the criticism before you speak. The flesh, my flesh, is quick to strike out in defense. I’m thinking first of marriage. The person who corrects me most often in the universe is my wife.
“If I feel like I’m getting all netted and obstructed and confused, I turn to God’s promise.”
My guess is most spouses would say this. For example, you’re driving together, and she didn’t think you should make that turn or whatever. Well, here’s Ecclesiastes 7:8–9: “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.”
Oh, how many times I have struck out quickly in self-defense towards Noël, my wife, and had to eat my words within ten minutes because she was right. A quick tongue is notoriously unreliable. Give yourself time. Don’t have knee-jerk, self-defensive reactions. Try to kill that impulse. The flesh does not like to be criticized, and lashes out quickly. But the Spirit is gentle. Give the Spirit time. He will reveal your sin or her sin, and it will be dealt with in a godly way.
Ask for Counsel
Sixth, surround yourselves with enough people who can give balanced assessment of what you’re being criticized for. Proverbs 11:14 reads, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
I would say safety, not just from outside, but safety from your own despair over how many people have criticized you. If people who know you (eight of them, for example) say, “No, no, no. You have not done what they say you have done,” that’s a huge stabilizing force. This is especially true when assessing really serious criticism. We need to ask wise counselors whether they see in us the things we’re being criticized for.
One last thing: we do what Jesus did when he was abused. This is whether it’s true or not, right or wrong. Jesus “entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). For us, as sinners, that means we do not pass final judgment on ourselves. Others do not pass final judgment on us. God has the final word in Christ. It’s our only hope that he would treat us graciously because of Christ.
None of us is without sin, and therefore, probably there’s a grain of truth in every criticism. But the gospel will keep us from sinking in despair.