We close out a full week with a really good question from podcast listener Matt. “Hello, Pastor John! How have you dealt with receiving feedback and criticism from people you don’t really respect, even if what they’re saying has some truthfulness in it? Or another way of asking is: How have you dealt with receiving feedback and criticism from people who are just simply not good at giving feedback in a loving and encouraging way?”
Good question. No criticism is pleasant to receive and all of us have a great spiritual work to do in our hearts in humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand, as Peter says (1 Peter 5:6), and as Philippians 2 says, counting others more significant than ourselves and taking thought for the interests of others, not just our own, and emptying ourselves the way Christ emptied himself to become a servant (Philippians 2:3–7).
So we need to overcome our pride that makes it so difficult to be corrected. Oh, how we hate to be corrected. Emotionally, it feels so bad, and yet it is so good for us sometimes. If we don’t overcome that pride, we will lose our usefulness in God’s service. We will never grow beyond the mistakes we make, and we might even make shipwreck of our faith.
Be the Change You Want to See
If I understand Matt’s question correctly — and I could be wrong here — it is that he is not just asking how we can be humble enough to receive criticism and profit from it. He is asking about that particular relationship where the criticism is delivered in a way that is not encouraging or hopeful or loving, as far as he can tell. And my guess is — it is just a guess — that he is asking this about a relationship with someone who is close to him, because the criticism that comes to us from a distance — say, through social media — isn’t usually as painful as the criticism that comes from a family member or a friend or a colleague at work or church.
And I think I understand the situation because I know there are people who seem incapable of joyful, spontaneous affirmation, but are spring-loaded to give spontaneous correction. I mean, it is just their personality. They would have to work at saying anything positive, and the most natural thing in the world is to say something negative.
So the first thing I would say is that in a good, long-term, closer relationship, it would be fitting at some point to approach the other person and tell him or her how you perceive that and how you experience that correction or criticism. And, of course, that is a very delicate thing, and it runs the risk of making the relationship harder instead of better. Although it could make the relationship way better if God intervenes.
And, of course, when you do that, when you approach someone, you follow Jesus’s counsel to take the log out of your eye, so that you can see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3–5). In other words, that person you are going to should feel that you are coming to him in a spirit of humility, with a clear sense of your own inadequacies and failures and the ways you may have hurt him or the way you even do now annoy him.
And you keep in mind Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Then you tell him that you think your relationship would be better if he mingled more affirmation with his corrections and if he spoke more gently, perhaps. Whatever it is, you explain to him about his words that are off-putting to you or hurtful to you. And then, with hope, you leave it. And you go on your way doing your business, modeling for him as much affirmation as you can without being flattering or manipulative.
And if no change comes about (and my guess is that is where he is; that is where many of us are, in fact — probably everybody in some relationship), then we have our work cut out for us.
Four Reminders for Facing Harsh Criticism
The New Testament is replete with instructions about how Christians should respond to those who mistreat them — whether it is huge mistreatment, like persecution or death, or whether it is tiny little mistreatment, like excessive criticism or insensitive and repeated correction. So here are four simple pointers that I have found helpful, even though I don’t think I have arrived in my own ability to handle these things the way I would like. But here is how I am working at it.
1. We all say things we regret.
Remember that there are words for the wind. Job says in Job 6:26, “Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?” In other words, always be alert that there are probably elements of brokenness and pain in a person’s life that may cause them to have broken patterns of communication with others, so that the brokenness, which feels damaging and offensive to us, is more about their own woundedness than about your deficiencies.
Keep that possibility in mind. That was certainly the case with Job as he spoke words that they then jumped on. And he basically said: “Look, don’t you realize that a despairing man sometimes says things that he wishes he hadn’t said?:”
2. Love suffers long.
Remember that Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13 as longsuffering. Love suffers long, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (see verses 4–8). So there is longsuffering. There is bearing all things. There is enduring all things.
So just when you think you have borne this criticism as long as you can, the Holy Spirit will enable you to bear the fruit of patience and endure it another day. And then another day. And then another day, because we are called to be longsuffering.
3. God is the final judge.
When Peter gave Jesus as an example of how he did not revile when reviled — or we could say that he did not criticize when criticized — Peter said, “He did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23) — that is, to God.
In other words, God is the final Judge about whether you are being mistreated. And he will settle the matter perfectly. You may feel sometimes a righteousness indignation, but Peter is telling us: You don’t need to act on that. You can keep returning good for evil and leave the matter to God.
4. Balanced counsel keeps us stable.
Finally, in order to keep your bearings in a relationship that seems unduly critical, you need a fellowship of godly people around you who give you both godly affirmation for the evidences of God’s grace in your life and loving criticism. Proverbs 11:14 says, “In an abundance of counselors there is safety.” And one of the implications of that, I think, is that the plurality of godly people in your life tend to give you a more realistic echo of your virtues and your faults than if you only had one person responding to you. And that will help you, I think. It sure helps me to maintain my emotional stability in the face of a few people in my life who are unduly critical.
And I would just end this by giving thanks for the people that God has surrounded me with over the years who have been able to give balanced, biblical assessment of my strengths and weaknesses, my virtues and my sins, the things that I do that are helpful to others and the habits I have that are not helpful to others. So I would just encourage everybody to find such a fellowship of friends.